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Senator Ousted

July 13, 1912

Photo of Senator William Lorimer of Illinois

In 1873 Senator Samuel Pomeroy invited a state legislator for a midnight meeting in his hotel suite. There he handed him $7,000 to secure his vote in the upcoming state legislative balloting for reelection to the U.S. Senate. The legislator called a press conference, confessed to setting up Pomeroy for a bribery charge, displayed the cash, and ended a Senate career. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner included a thinly disguised version of this widely publicized story in their 1873 novel The Gilded Age.

Over the next 40 years, charges of bribery were heard with increasing frequency as state legislatures struggled with their constitutional responsibility to elect U.S. senators. In 1890, Senate President pro tempore John Ingalls captured the rough-and-tumble spirit of those contests. "The purification of politics," he growled, "is an iridescent dream. Politics is the battle for supremacy. The Decalogue and the Golden Rule have no place in a political campaign. The object is success."

William Lorimer sympathized with Ingall’s famous remark as he won his Senate seat in 1909 following a lengthy and acrimonious deadlock in the Illinois legislature. Nearly a year into his term, Lorimer asked the Senate to investigate charges by the Chicago Tribune that he had obtained his seat through bribery and corruption. A Senate committee noted the Senate's practice of invalidating elections only if the accused senator had actively promoted the bribery and concluded that under such a standard Lorimer had done nothing wrong. After a rancorous six-week debate and despite considerable evidence against Lorimer, the Senate in March 1911 dropped the case. The resulting storm of public outrage, combined with an infusion of recently elected progressive-minded members, led the Senate on June 12, 1911, to approve a long-pending constitutional amendment providing for direct popular election of senators.

A week before the Senate vote on the constitutional amendment, additional public charges against Lorimer led the upper body to reopen his case. After hearing from 180 witnesses over the following year, a committee majority again found no clear trail of corruption. The full Senate, however, decided differently. On July 13, 1912, with the direct election amendment on its way to state ratification, the Senate declared Lorimer's 1909 election invalid. This action closed a major chapter in Senate history and accorded Lorimer the dubious distinction of being the last senator to be deprived of office for corrupting a state legislature.

Reference Items:

Butler, Anne M., and Wendy Wolff.  United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases, 1793-1990.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995.

Tarr, Joel A. A Study in Boss Politics: William Lorimer of Chicago. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.