Henry Wilson’s opposition to slavery drove him to enter politics. “Freedom and slavery are now arrayed against each other,” he declared in 1844. “We must destroy slavery, or it will destroy liberty.” In 1855 the Massachusetts legislature elected Wilson to the Senate where he joined the new Republican Party. Wilson influenced Civil War legislation as chairman of the Military Affairs Committee and continued to call for the abolition of slavery. In April 1862 Congress passed and the president signed the DC Emancipation Act, originally written by Wilson, freeing slaves in the nation’s capital. Wilson introduced the first post war civil rights bill in 1865 and influenced Congress’s passage of constitutional amendments to guarantee citizenship rights to African Americans. Elected vice president in 1873, he became ill shortly after taking office and died on November 22, 1875. The Senate commissioned a marble bust of Wilson in 1885 in recognition of his service to the institution, marking the beginning of the Vice Presidential Bust Collection.
Known as the "silver senator," William Stewart represented the people of Nevada for more than 20 years in the Senate. The Gold Rush brought Stewart west where he amassed a fortune as a mining litigator. He settled in Nevada and entered politics. Stewart was an instrumental figure in the state's 1863 constitutional convention and he became Nevada's first senator in 1865. As a senator, he drafted the final version of the 15th Amendment, and, famously, employed Mark Twain as a personal secretary. In 1875, Stewart retired to private practice in Nevada, only to return to the Senate in 1887. He ran as a Silver Party candidate in 1892 and 1898 because he opposed the Republican Party's position on demonetizing silver, though he ultimately rejoined the Republican caucus in 1899. As chairman of the Committee on Pacific Railroads and the Committee on Indian Affairs, Senator Stewart advocated western interests such as regional economic development, safer mining practices, and land irrigation rights.
As Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner sat writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber on May 22, 1856, he was brutally assaulted by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Angered by Sumner's "Crime against Kansas" speech, in which Sumner criticized South Carolina senator Andrew Butler, Brooks struck Sumner repeatedly with a heavy cane. During the long recuperation that followed, Sumner's empty desk in the Senate Chamber stood as a powerful symbol of the tensions between North and South in the years before the Civil War. This dramatic event was just one episode in a long Senate career that lasted from 1851 to 1874. When Sumner returned to full-time Senate duties in 1859, he continued to fight for abolition. With the end of war and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, he concentrated on providing full political and civil rights to African Americans and went on to author one of the nation's first civil rights bills. Sumner died in 1874.
Senator Robert Wagner of New York (1877-1953) authored sweeping legislation that dramatically changed the American social and economic landscape. As chairman of the New York Assembly State Factory Investigation Committee from 1911 to 1915, he had investigated the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and other industrial hazards. These experiences sharpened his commitment to reform. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1926, Wagner became chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee during the New Deal era. Two of his most notable accomplishments were enacted into law in 1935--the Social Security Act provided old-age pensions to Americans, and the Wagner Labor Act guaranteed labor's right to organize and bargain collectively. "Whether you like his laws or deplore them," one journalist noted, "he has placed on the books legislation more important and far-reaching than any American in history since the days of the founding fathers." Senator Wagner was also a leading proponent of federal anti-lynching legislation. In 2000 the United States Senate bestowed a unique honor on Senator Robert Wagner, voting to add his portrait to a very select collection in the Senate Reception Room.
James Oliver Eastland of Mississippi, widely known as "Big Jim," served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years. In 1941 he was appointed to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Democrat Pat Harrison. He was not a candidate in the special election to fill that vacancy, but the following year, he successfully challenged the incumbent for the seat. In 1956 Eastland became chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a post he held for more than 22 years—one of the longest service records of any Senate committee chair. As president pro tempore from 1972 to 1978, Eastland served as acting vice president for short periods in 1973 and 1974, when the vice presidency was vacant. A segregationist and opponent of civil rights legislation, Eastland signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956, a statement that called for resistance to desegregation in public schools in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decisions. Eastland often used his powerful position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee to prevent civil rights bills from being considered before the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana observed that once Eastland took a position, he "proved almost impossible” to move. “Indeed it requires nearly the entire Senate to budge him." In 1964 Mansfield carefully maneuvered the Civil Rights Act around Eastland’s committee to bring it to passage. Eastland retired from the Senate in 1978.
When Texas congressman Lyndon Johnson won election to the Senate in 1948, he took the hotly contested race by a margin of just 87 votes, earning the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.” Once in the Senate, he quickly allied himself with Senator Richard B. Russell, the Georgia Democrat who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and the powerful Southern Caucus. With Russell's support, Johnson became Democratic whip in 1951 and two years later was elected Democratic leader. When his party regained control of the Senate in 1955, Johnson became majority leader, a post he held until he resigned to become vice president. As leader, Johnson relied heavily on his powers of persuasion, a strategy known as the “Johnson Treatment,” which he used to guide to passage such legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He sought the presidency in 1960 but became the vice-presidential candidate when John F. Kennedy won the nomination. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, sent Johnson to the White House.