Just after noontime on March 12, 1959, a festive crowd jammed the U.S. Capitol’s Senate Reception Room to honor five of the Senate’s “most outstanding” former members. Likenesses of those five filled medallion portrait spaces left vacant by 19th-century Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. Choosing the five “most outstanding” senators for such a high honor had been quite a task!
For two years, a five-member Senate committee struggled to name the “famous five.” As the selection committee chairman later explained, this was not intended to be a “frivolous historical quiz contest.” “The value in these deliberations over our body’s historic greatness extends far beyond the mere selection of portraits. For in these [Cold War] days when political and legislative service is too often ridiculed or disdained, it is particularly desirable that we focus the nation’s attention upon the Senate and its distinguished traditions, stimulating interest in our political problems and motivations and increasing the understanding of the Senate’s role in our Government.”
That chairman was a 38-year-old freshman member who had recently written a book about courageous senators. Published in January 1956 under the title Profiles in Courage, it earned Senator John F. Kennedy the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in biography. The committee also included Democrats Richard Russell and Mike Mansfield, and Republicans Styles Bridges and John Bricker.
The Kennedy committee faced a dilemma. How to define Senate greatness? Should it apply a test of “legislative accomplishment”? In addition to positive achievement, perhaps there should be recognition of, as they put it, “courageous negation.” What about those senators who consistently failed to secure major legislation, but in failing opened the road to success for a later generation? Should the criteria include national leadership? That would knock out great regional leaders like South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Personal integrity? That might exclude the chronically indebted Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. The unanimous respect of one’s colleagues? That would doom the antislavery leader Charles Sumner.
The Kennedy committee established criteria that nicely evaded all of these questions. Instead, its requirements for “greatness” included “acts of statesmanship transcending party and State lines.” It defined “statesmanship” to include “leadership in national thought and constitutional interpretation as well as legislation.” The committee further agreed that it would not recommend a candidate without the unanimous consent of all committee members.
To help the committee make its difficult decision, an advisory panel of 160 scholars narrowed the field of well over 1,000 former senators down to 65 candidates. Sixty-five names for five spaces! Senator Kennedy quipped that sports writers choosing entrants to the Baseball Hall of Fame had it easy by comparison. As their top choice, the scholars named Nebraska’s Progressive Republican George Norris. Unfortunately for Norris, the two Nebraska senators then serving— Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska—did not share the scholars’ enthusiasm for their progressive predecessor. They hinted that the Senate might find itself tied up in an extended debate if the committee included Norris among its recommendations. Committee member Styles Bridges, who served with Norris in the late 1930s and early 1940s, removed him from further consideration. Other recommendations faced similar tests.
On May 1, 1957, the Kennedy committee reported its choices to the Senate. The first three probably surprised no one—Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Kentucky’s Henry Clay, the so-called “Great Triumvirate” of sectional statesmen whose legislative compromises held the nation together during the tumultuous decades leading to the Civil War. At the 1959 unveiling ceremony, however, Kennedy reminded his audience that these long-dead senators were controversial figures in their day. Their own colleagues might not have been as quick as later generations to induct them into a senatorial hall of fame. Kennedy reported that one contemporary said of Henry Clay, “He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes.” Who made those remarks? None other than Clay’s fellow honoree, John C. Calhoun. Enjoying the audience’s appreciative laughter, Kennedy continued, “On the other hand, who was it who said that Calhoun was a rigid fanatic, ambitious, selfishly partisan and a sectional ‘turncoat,’ with ‘too much genius and too little common sense,’ who would either die a traitor or a madman? Henry Clay, of course.” Kennedy then concluded his joking references to the Great Triumvirate with the help of a quote by John Quincy Adams, who viewed with alarm “the gigantic intellect, the envious temper, the ravenous ambition, and the rotten heart of Daniel Webster.”
Perhaps the Great Triumvirate was a logical choice for three of the empty spaces, but the Kennedy committee had more difficulty choosing the remaining two, as the George Norris story suggests. Denied Progressive Republican Norris, they chose instead Progressive Republican Robert La Follette. Like Norris, La Follette opposed American involvement in World War I (and the Senate came close to expelling both men as a result). To balance the Wisconsin progressive with a widely respected conservative, the committee selected former Republican majority leader Robert Taft of Ohio, who died just two years before the committee began its selection process.
When Senator Kennedy announced his committee’s selections, he expressed frustration over the exclusion from the list of his three personal favorites. If the decision had been entirely up to him, he told his audience, the Senate Reception Room would include Webster, Taft, and Norris, along with Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. As an outlet for the frustration of passing over these and other strong candidates, the committee included in its final report the names of 15 other senators. “Perhaps some future committee of the Senate, meeting at some future date, will find occasion to honor additional names.”
Two Additional Senators
That “future date” arrived four decades later on November 19, 1999, when the Senate adopted S. Res. 241, directing the Senate Commission on Art “to recommend to the Senate 2 outstanding individuals whose paintings shall be placed in 2 of the remaining unfilled spaces in the Senate Reception Room.” The resolution specified that the selected senators be “outstanding legislators with a deep appreciation for the Senate, who will serve as role models for future Americans.” It limited the competition to the approximately 1,500 senators whose service ended prior to 1979 and to those who were no longer living. It also excluded senators who at some point in their public careers served as vice president and were therefore “visibly and appropriately commemorated through the Vice Presidential Bust Collection.” Finally, the resolution gave first priority to “those Senators who are not already commemorated in the Capitol or Senate office buildings,” although it did not entirely exclude those so honored.
The Senate approved the recommendation by the Senate Commission on Art on October 19, 2000, naming two distinguished former senators whose portraits join the “Famous Five” in the Senate Reception Room— Arthur H. Vandenberg and Robert F. Wagner. On September 14, 2004, portraits of Wagner and Vandenberg were unveiled in the Senate Reception Room.
Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan delivered a celebrated “speech heard round the world” in the Senate Chamber on January 10, 1945, announcing his conversion from isolationism to internationalism. In 1947, at the start of the Cold War, Vandenberg became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that position, he cooperated with the Truman administration in forging bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. Asserting that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg’s Senate career stands as a monument to the benefits of bipartisanship in American foreign policy.
Senator Robert Wagner of New York, elected to the Senate in 1926, drafted sweeping legislation that dramatically changed the American social and economic landscape. In 1937, during the New Deal era, he became chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee. He sponsored a long list of legislation to provide retirement security, affordable housing, and the right to work with dignity and safety. Two of his most notable bills were enacted into law in 1935: the Social Security Act to provide old-age pensions to Americans; and the Wagner Labor Act, to guarantee labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. One journalist commented, “Whether you like his laws or deplore them, he has placed on the books legislation more important and far-reaching than any American in history since the days of the founding fathers.”
Connecticut Compromise Mural
In 2006 two additional senators received a place of honor in the Senate Reception Room when Senate leaders unveiled a mural commemorating the compromise at the 1787 Constitutional Convention that established the basis of representation for the two houses of Congress. Known as the Great or Connecticut Compromise, it was named in honor of its architects, Connecticut delegates Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth.