He sits watchfully at the entrance to the Senate Chamber. His world-weary eyes cautiously examine those who pass busily before him. His white hair and neatly trimmed beard give a sense of solemn gravity to this statesman of an age long past. When he died on August 4, 1908, 79-year-old William Boyd Allison, Republican of Iowa, had served in the Senate for 35 years—longer than any other member in history to that time. He spent his entire Senate career on the Appropriations Committee and chaired that panel for a quarter century—a record for leading a Senate committee that is not ever likely to be broken. He also sat on the Finance Committee for 30 years and chaired the Senate Republican Conference for the final 12 years of his life.
William Allison's extraordinary Senate career began with a stinging political defeat. After losing a race for the post of county attorney in his native Ohio, Allison decided to leave the state in search of a climate more favorable to his political ambitions. He settled in Iowa, joined a small law firm in Dubuque, and built a successful record of defending the interests of the major railroads vital to that region's economic development. That success assured him the financial backing necessary to pursue his public career. In 1873, after eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Allison moved to the Senate.
In the Senate, the dignified and unassuming Allison earned a reputation as a master conciliator and political moderate, successfully balancing the antagonistic interests of his state's farmers and railroads. He used his powerful committee assignments to forge and move to enactment legislation responsive to the leading issues of his day: tariff reform, currency stabilization, and railroad regulation.
A major national figure, the Iowa senator narrowly missed winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1888 and again in 1896. Happy to remain in the Senate, he turned aside offers to serve in the cabinets of that era's Republican presidents. Allison's death in 1908 brought an end to a decade in which he, with Republican senators Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, Orville Platt of Connecticut, and John Spooner of Wisconsin, directed the Senate and shaped the laws of the nation.
Soon after Allison's death, the Senate purchased the oil portrait that now hangs in a place of honor to the right of the Senate Chamber entrance, a few paces from the Republican side of the center aisle.
Sage, Leland L. William Boyd Allison: A Study in Practical Politics. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1956.