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Classic Senate Speeches

Photo of Senator William Borah

William E. Borah
The League of Nations
November 19, 1919

On the final day of Senate debate over the League of Nations, William E. Borah spoke powerfully and persuasively in opposition to the League.

"William E. Borah," one scholar has noted, "was one of the last public speakers in the United States to be compared favorably to the giants of the nineteenth century such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John Calhoun." The progressive Idaho Republican had honed his oratorical skills as a successful criminal lawyer and special prosecutor prior to his election to the Senate in 1907; during the thirty-three years that he served in the Senate, he was, in the words of his biographer, Marion C. McKenna, "long the most outstanding speaker in Congress, his oratory being both intellectual and emotional."

Known as "the Great Opposer" for his independent stance on a myriad of issues, Borah was a resolute opponent of special interests, a staunch defender of the Constitution, and a confirmed isolationist. As World War I drew to a dose, he emerged as the leader and spokesman of the "irreconcilables"--the group of predominantly Republican senators whose unbending opposition to American participation in the League of Nations helped insure the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and 1920.

Borah's November 19, 1919, speech was the culmination of an effort that began in 1917, when he introduced a resolution affirming the principles of the Monroe Doctrine in response to President Woodrow Wilson's January 17, 1917, address before a joint session of Congress calling for the creation of a League of Nations to preserve a "peace without victory." He declined the invitation that Wilson extended to Senate Foreign Relations Committee members to discuss the treaty on February 26, 1919. After Wilson returned to Paris to continue the treaty negotiations, Borah took his case to the American people. On speaking tours of the Northeast, Colorado, and the Midwest, he captivated the audiences that crowded auditoriums and lecture halls well past their capacity. "America has arisen to a position where she is respected and admired by the entire world," he informed a Brooklyn audience. "She did it by minding her own business .. . the European and American systems do not agree."

After the Senate finally received the treaty in July of 1919, Senate Majority Leader and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts began his effort--which ultimately proved successful--to defeat the League by delaying the final vote while adding reservations to the treaty that would render it unacceptable to Wilson's supporters. Borah and the "irreconcilables" remained resolutely opposed to the idea of a League in any form--with or without reservations. Borah pressed for an immediate vote, but finally agreed to cooperate with Lodge's effort, subject to an understanding that he and his supporters reserved the right to vote against the final product. In the meantime, Borah continued to muster opposition to the League. When Wilson embarked on a speaking tour to rally support for the League, Borah and Republican Senator Hiram W. Johnson of California followed to express the opposing view, with Borah covering the midwestern states.

Lodge succeeded in adding fourteen reservations to the treaty, which the Senate considered on November 6, 1919. On November 19, the final day of the first session of the Sixty-sixth Congress, amid a protracted and wearying debate over the "Lodge reservations," Borah--whose "superb sense of timing" was legendary--rose to deliver a speech that one contemporary pronounced "one of the Senate's oratorical master-pieces." He spoke for two hours--a rare violation of his maxim that "a man can tell all he knows in forty minutes"--without notes, but his measured arguments offered ample evidence of the extensive preparation that always informed his rhetoric.

Borah began his remarks by repeating Abraham Lincoln's advice: "Entertain no compromise; have none of it," then informed the Senate that "my objections to the league have not been met by the reservations." Reminding his audience of "the great policy of 'no entangling alliances' upon which the strength of this Republic has been founded for one hundred and fifty years," he asked "where is the reservation which protects us against entangling alliances?" Although Borah rarely employed sarcasm as a rhetorical device, and never made personal attacks on his opponents, he confronted his would-be detractors with a direct and emotion-laden challenge: "Call us little Americans if you will," he urged, "but leave us the consolation and the pride which the term American, however modified, still imparts. . . . If we have erred we have erred out of too much love for those things which from childhood you and we together were taught to revere .. . because we have placed too high an estimate upon the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, too exalted an opinion upon the patriotism of the sainted Lincoln."

Borah's address moved Henry Cabot Lodge to tears. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall and members of the press gallery passed notes to "the Great Opposer," complimenting him on his triumph, and even such an accomplished orator as Indiana Senator Albert J. Beveridge conceded that he could not recall "a speech that more perfectly satisfies my conception of the standard of taste and genuine eloquence. Nobody can answer it--nobody will try to answer it."

Several other senators spoke against or in support of the League of Nations during the grueling five-and-a-half-hour debate of November 19, 1919, but no one could match Borah's brilliant performance. The Senate voted on the treaty as the session drew to a dose. The Democrats, who, at Wilson's insistence, refused to accept the reservations, combined with the irreconcilables to defeat the treaty with the "Lodge reservations" by a vote of 39 to 55. In a subsequent vote, the treaty without reservations was defeated by a vote of 38 to 53. Four months later, on March 19, 1920, the treaty once again failed to receive the two-thirds Senate vote needed for approval.

Borah continued in the Senate until his death on January 19, 1940. He remained one of the body's most powerful speakers, delivering his last major speech on October 2, 1939, in support of the Neutrality Act embargo.


Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.

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