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Senate Leaders

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

Henry Cabot Lodge
Senate Leader, Presidential Foe

Shortly after Woodrow Wilson's first inauguration in 1913, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an author and a former editor of scholarly journals, reportedly approached the new president, introduced himself, and mentioned that the two politicians had met once before at a college commencement. Wilson replied, "Oh, I remembered you long before that. A man never forgets the editor who publishes his first article."  Thus, as early as the 1870s, Lodge had unwittingly launched his greatest adversary into the public realm.  

Despite its seemingly cordial beginning, the relationship between the Democratic president and the Republican Senate leader would become one of the most turbulent in U.S. history. Indeed, the Wilson-Lodge clash killed what could have been Wilson's greatest achievement, America's participation in the League of Nations, and demonstrated Lodge's enormous influence, parliamentary skill, and ability to frustrate the executive branch. Considered by many to be the Senate's first majority leader (although he never held that title), Lodge defined party loyalty while he defended the prerogatives of the institution he served for thirty-one years.

Born in 1850 to a prominent and wealthy Boston family, Lodge received his undergraduate, law, and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University.  As a student, he assisted Henry Adams on the North American Review and later edited the International Review, the journal that published Wilson's first article on government. Encouraged by Adams to enter politics, Lodge hoped to create a "party of the center." When his independent movement stalled, however, he became active in the Republican party, serving in the Massachusetts General Court and as the manager of a successful gubernatorial campaign. In 1884, Lodge reluctantly supported James G. Blaine as the Republican presidential nominee and drew harsh criticism from his independent colleagues. The experience reinforced his ties to the Republican party. Thereafter, he declared himself a partisan politician.

Lodge served three terms in the House of Representatives before 1893, when the Massachusetts legislature elected him to the Senate. Three years later, he was appointed to the Foreign Relations Committee, where he remained throughout his Senate career. The appointment suited Lodge. Save for his opposition to the direct election of senators, he spent little energy on domestic issues. Instead, among other concerns, he fought for a stronger navy and the annexation of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Although a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Lodge distanced himself from the progressive wing of his party and became an apprentice to the conservative Senate Four Nelson Aldrich, William Allison, Orville Platt, and John Spooner – who dominated the Senate in the early twentieth century.

In 1914, Senator Shelby Cullom died in office, elevating Lodge to the position of ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee. By this time, Lodge had begun to question Wilson's handling of foreign affairs, including the administration's reaction to the Mexican Revolution. He generally concealed the growing animosity he felt toward the president until 1916, when, apparently without substantiation, he accused Wilson of denigrating U.S. policy in correspondence sent to Germany. The following year, as America prepared to enter World War I, the rift between the president and the senator grew: Lodge denounced Wilson's call for a "peace without victory." The senator found Germany completely responsible for the war in Europe and demanded the unconditional surrender of the Central Powers.  

In August of 1918, another death in the Senate, that of Jacob Gallinger, created a vacancy in the chair of the Republican Conference. Lodge ran unopposed for the position and on August 24 was elected by his Republican colleagues. At that time, conference leaders were chiefly concerned with party administration, rather than legislation, but two developments greatly expanded the scope of the Republican leadership post. Following the November congressional elections, the Republicans took control of the Senate, and Lodge became the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. For the first time, titular power combined with real power in the person of Henry Cabot Lodge, justifying his later classification as de facto Senate majority leader, a position not envisioned by the Founding Fathers, not included in the U.S. Constitution, but one which emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century.

While the Republicans gained the majority on March 4, 1919,  Lodge asserted his new influence the day before by introducing a sense of the Senate resolution criticizing the League of Nations provision as it was outlined in the impending Versailles Treaty. When the resolution failed to be considered, Lodge had thirty-nine Republicans sign a statement pledging their opposition to the league in the "form now proposed." The petition demonstrated that the Republican senators, holding a slim 49-to-47 majority, would not easily accept a Wilson initiative. It also revealed Lodge's willingness to challenge the president.  

Despite the resolution, Lodge was not wholly averse to the League of Nations. In 1916, he seemed to share Wilson's vision of an organization capable of putting "force behind international peace."  Once he became Republican conference chairman, he stated that a league might be in order after the negotiation of a satisfactory peace, but he opposed any peace alliance which could usurp Congress' power to declare war. In fact, the extent of Lodge's support of the league, during all stages of the negotiations, continues to be debated by historians. Less contested is the view that, after March 1919, Lodge made sure that Wilson would not profit politically from the league provision, regardless of whether or not it was accepted by the Senate.

Lodge understood that he could not have Republican senators oppose a peace treaty outright without alienating the party from the American public. Instead, he came up with a plan to compel the Democrats to choose between approving the ratification of the Versailles Treaty with Republican-sponsored reservations or rejecting it. By doing so, he intended to place the blame for a failed treaty on the Democrats, while he appeased two segments of the Republican party: the reservationists, who would only accept a league covenant in a modified form, and the irreconcilables, who opposed the league under all circumstances.  

Lodge's plan utilized both his leverage as the leader of the Republicans and as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. As leader, he stacked the Foreign Relations Committee with reservationists and irreconcilables, who would delay consideration of the treaty until popular opinion could be turned against Wilson's version of the league. Then, he canvassed the conference, shoring up opinion against the league provision. Finally, from his position as chairman, he helped draft the treaty's  famous  fourteen reservations designed to alter the interpretation of the treaty once it was ratified.

While many of the Lodge reservations were minor in nature, one reservation, if implemented, would have undermined the intent of the league covenant by requiring congressional approval for any U.S. military action instigated by the league. As predicted, pro-league Democrats would not accept the treaty thus modified, and strong reservationists and the irreconcilables would not vote in favor of the treaty without the  reservations. Consequently, in two separate votes in November 1919 and March 1920, the Senate failed to give the Versailles Treaty the required two-thirds approval. As a result, Wilson's dream of a unified League of Nations became a reality without the involvement of the United States.

In November 1920, the Republicans claimed an overwhelming election-night victory. They gained seats in the Senate and the House, and with the ascendency of former Senator Warren G. Harding they reclaimed the White House. Lodge, who had promoted Harding's nomination, seemed at the peak of his influence.    

Actually, the 1920 election, generally considered a popular referendum for isolationism, marked the end of Lodge's command of the Senate. As domestic issues replaced international concerns following World War I, senatorial power shifted from the Foreign Relations Committee to the Finance Committee. Lodge held on to his leadership positions, and even assumed the chair of the policy-setting Republican Steering Committee in 1921, but his ability to galvanize the party diminished considerably. Moreover, new factions, such as the bipartisan agricultural bloc, threatened to destroy the party loyalty that Lodge had fought so hard to foster.  

Lodge won reelection in 1922, but his narrow victory indicated a dissatisfaction among his constituents with the stance he took on the League of Nations. In 1924, Lodge was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, but he was not assigned to a platform committee, and unlike at earlier conventions, he did not give a speech. When the Massachusetts senator died in office on November 9, 1924, however, twenty-four states sent delegations to his funeral in Boston. His colleagues remembered him for his vast contributions to the Republican party.  

Still, even in memorials praising his achievements, bitterness over the league fight remained. Indeed, a Massachusetts obituary writer spoke for many when he wrote of Lodge,  "He was not loved, as a general rule; but he was respected for courage and large ability. He was a force–greatly dangerous or greatly helpful, as the view went–as well as a figure. He was individual. He was Henry Cabot Lodge."