James Shields holds a Senate service record that no other senator is ever likely to surpass.
He began his Senate career in 1849 representing Illinois. Shields had successfully turned a wound suffered several years earlier in the Mexican War to political advantage, defeating incumbent Senator Sidney Breese, a fellow Democrat. One political wag joked about Shields’ lucky “Mexican bullet.” “What a wonderful shot that was! The bullet went clean through Shields without hurting him, or even leaving a scar, and killed Breese a thousand miles away.”
Supporters of the defeated Breese petitioned the Senate to refuse to seat Shields on grounds that he had not been a U.S. citizen for the required nine years. An Irish immigrant, he had filed naturalization papers eight and a half years earlier. This raised the question of whether the citizenship requirement had to be satisfied at the time of election or by the beginning of Senate service.
A coalition of Whigs and disaffected Democrats voted to invalidate Shields’ election. The Whigs expected this would deprive the Democrats of a seat for more than a year. Under Illinois law, only the state legislature could fill a vacancy created by a voided election, and the legislature was not scheduled to convene for another 18 months. The Democratic governor foiled this plan, however, by calling a special session of the legislature. That body again elected Shields, who by then had satisfied the citizenship requirement.
Six years later, failing to win reelection, Shields moved to the Minnesota Territory, where he helped establish colonies for poor Irish immigrants. In 1858, he became one of Minnesota’s first two U.S. senators. When Shields and his colleague drew lots to determine when their respective Senate terms would expire, Shields got the term with less than a year remaining. Losing a reelection bid, he headed to California. During the Civil War, he served as a general in the Union army and later settled in Missouri.
On January 22, 1879, in failing health, 73-year-old James Shields won election to represent Missouri—his record-setting third state in the U.S. Senate. By then, he had become a beloved figure among Americans of Irish heritage and his election to an uncompleted term with only six weeks remaining served as an expression of that affection. He died soon after completing his final Senate service: the uniquely distinguished senator from Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri.