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Jul 2, 2020

The Youngest History-Makers in the U.S. Senate

tags: US Senate

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


The US Constitution sets the minimum age to serve in the US Senate at 30 years.  Very few senators have taken office at the minimum age, but a few of them have made history as significant figures.

Two of these senators were selected by state legislatures in the early 19th century, without attention to their precise age, and actually came to the Senate before turning 30, while five others, elected by the voters of their states after passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, served at the minimum age of 30.

The youngest senator ever to serve was John Henry Eaton of Tennessee, who entered the Senate at age 28 years, 4 months, and 29 days, serving from 1818-1829.  He was a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, serving with him in the War of 1812, including the Battle of New Orleans, and was a strong critic of John C. Calhoun and his opposition to the protective tariff. When Eaton was named Secretary of War (1829-1831) under Jackson, it led to controversy over the fact that Eaton had married Peggy Timberlake very rapidly after her husband had died. This became a sex scandal, known as the “Petticoat Affair,” which riled Jackson, led to bad blood with Calhoun and his wife, who accused the Eatons of engaging in unseemly behavior, and helped to lead to the Nullification Crisis over the protective tariff in 1832-1833.  It was the first known sex scandal in American presidential history.  Eaton later served as Florida Territorial Governor from 1834-1836, and as US Minister to Spain from 1836-1840.

Henry Clay, arguably the most famous US Senator of all time, served in the Senate from Kentucky for a total of 15 years, over four periods of time: 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.  When first in the Senate, he was about four and a half months short of the legal age of 30. He became the youngest Speaker of the House of Representatives when he was six weeks short of age 34, serving in that body from 1811-1821 and from 1823-1825, most of that time as the leader.  He also served as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams from 1825-1829, and was a presidential nominee who lost three races, in 1824 to John Quincy Adams, 1832 to Andrew Jackson, and 1844 to James K. Polk, and was considered a serious contender a few other times.  Clay was a leader of a Congressional group known as the War Hawks, which helped to lead America to war in the War of 1812 against Great Britain.  He helped promote the “American System”, a strong federal government, a strong National Bank, a high protective tariff, and federally sponsored internal improvements.

Clay also became known as the “Great Compromiser,” involved in the promotion of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 over the issue of slavery expansion; the Nullification Crisis Compromise which prevented civil war over the protective tariff dispute between President Andrew Jackson and former Vice President John C. Calhoun in 1833; and as one of the negotiators of the Compromise of 1850 (with Daniel Webster and Stephen Douglas), averting civil war once again.  Clay was also one of the founders and promoters of the Whig Party as the opposition to Jacksonian Democracy.  In 1957, the Senate chose Clay as one of the five most significant members in its history, and a poll of scholars in 1982 ranked him in a tie with Wisconsin Progressive Republican Senator Robert LaFollette, Sr. as the most influential senator of all time.

In the modern era of the US Senate, five 30 year old senators were significant in the history of that body, with the first being Robert M. LaFollette, Jr, son of the famous “Fighting Bob”, LaFollette of Wisconsin, who is one of the five most acknowledged senators of all time, and who also ran for President as a Progressive in the Presidential Election of 1924.  Upon his death in June 1925, his son succeeded him by election at age 30 and approximately eight months, and served for the next 21 and a half years (from 1925-1947), until he was defeated in the Republican primary by the infamous Joseph McCarthy.  

“Young Bob” became an acknowledged leader of the progressive wing in the Republican Party, as his father had been, and with his younger brother, Philip LaFollette (who in 1931 became the youngest governor theretofore elected in Wisconsin), formed the Progressive Party of Wisconsin in the 1930s.  LaFollette Jr. supported much of the New Deal, as demonstrated in this author’s book, “Twilight of Progressivism: The Western Republican Senators and the New Deal” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).  But he turned against Franklin D. Roosevelt on foreign policy, and was a leader of the isolationist bloc in Congress.

Rush D. Holt, Sr. of West Virginia was elected to the Senate at age 29 and five months in 1934, and had to wait until June 1935 to take his seat at the minimum required age of 30. He served one term of five and a half years, proclaiming himself a spokesman for the common man and a critic of privately owned utility corporations.  Although beginning as a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, he rapidly became a conservative critic, more of a traditional populist liberal, ranked by one scholarly estimate as the third-most conservative Democratic senator between the New Deal and the end of the 20th century. 

 He became much more newsworthy for his strong isolationist stands on American foreign policy in the late 1930s. He was a spokesman for the America First Committee in 1940, after having supported the Neutrality Acts of the mid 1930s, and opposing membership in the League of Nations, the Reciprocal Trade Agreements, Naval Expansion legislation, and the Selective Service Act.  His controversial outspoken rhetoric led to his defeat in the Democratic primary in 1940, when he ended up a poor third in the vote.  He sought election to the Senate again, but his national career was over.  His son, Rush D. Holt, Jr., served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from New Jersey from 1999-2015.

Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, son of the famous and also infamous “Kingfish”, Governor and Senator Huey Long, served in the Senate from age 30 years and almost 2 months, for a total of 38 years from 1949-1987.  He became the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee for 15 years, and due to his seniority and commitment to the elderly, disabled, the working poor, and the middle class, he came to be regarded with respect by his fellow Senators.  

He had a major role in much of the Great Society legislation under President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, including Medicare, and had a major impact on all tax legislation for decades.  However, his Achilles heel was his regular opposition to civil rights, including his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, although he modified his opposition in later years.  He was also a major critic of the Earl Warren-led Supreme Court in the wake of the pathbreaking school integration case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.  But his influence, despite these perceived negatives, was massive.

Senator Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy of Massachusetts came to the Senate in November 1962, at 30 years and about eight months, serving a total of 47 years and eight and a half months until his death in August 2009, making him the fourth longest serving US Senator in American history.  Part of the Kennedy political dynasty, he was the brother of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and he sought the presidency unsuccessfully against Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Long expected to be the heir of his brothers in presidential attainment, he finally gave up the opportunity to pursue the presidency in his last three decades, and instead became respected and admired as the “Lion of the Senate,”  respected by both fellow Democrats and Republicans across the aisle, often working on legislation with such Republican leaders as John McCain of Arizona and Orrin Hatch of Utah.  His major commitment was to health care reform, immigration reform, civil rights, gun regulation, and social justice at home and abroad.  

At times highly controversial, he was also acknowledged as the voice and conscience of American progressivism, and as a strong and effective speaker and debater.  He and his Senate staff authored about 2,500 bills, of which more than 300 were enacted into law, and cosponsored another 550 bills that became law.  Any listing of outstanding US Senators would have him in the top ten of modern times.  His bipartisanship efforts did not stop the opposition from often portraying him as a polarizing figure, but a lot of it was simply political posturing, with a deep level of respect from many who bitterly opposed him in debate on the Senate floor.  His battles against Supreme Court nominees of Republican presidents made him highly controversial, as well as his stands on foreign policy issues, including Vietnam, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, and Israel.  His strong efforts on the environment and gay and transgender rights issues also made him notable and seen as highly principled.  Few senators have had the impact of Kennedy, and his death left a void in the Senate that proved hard to fill.

Finally, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware was elected to the Senate before his 30th birthday in November 1972, not reaching the minimum age until late in that month. Biden took the Senate oath at age 30 and about seven weeks, but at a time of great personal tragedy; his first wife and daughter were killed in a traffic accident a month after his election, and his two sons were severely injured.  He thought of giving up his senate seat, but senior members of the senate convinced him to take the oath and helped him emotionally to overcome the horrible adversity, and still manage to spend a lot of time with his two sons as they recovered from the tragedy.  He would later marry his second wife, Jill, and have a daughter with her, and would go on to have one of the longest periods of service in the US Senate, 36 years from 1973 to 2009. Biden left as the 18th longest serving senator, and he was seen as a strong and effective speaker and debater.

Had Biden remained in the Senate, he might today be approaching the longest service of any senator in history.  But he was called upon by Barack Obama to be the 47th Vice President of the United States from 2009-2017, regarded as one of the two most active, engaged and influential Vice Presidents, along with Walter Mondale, who served Jimmy Carter.  The Obama-Biden team was seen by some supporters as a “bromance” of two unlikely friends, and it was assumed that Biden might run to succeed Obama in 2016, but the tragic death of his older son Beau in 2015 derailed such plans. There was no certainty in any case that Biden would have been able to overcome Hillary Clinton for the nomination.  

But now, in 2020, Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee for President, with a record of accomplishments that is hard to match, including leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for four years and Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years. With such a long record of experience in the Senate, Biden can be criticized for some policy positions and votes and for verbal gaffes, but he stands out as genuine, kind, generous, decent, and as a person of true empathy and concern for others, rare in any politician.  He has had great contacts with foreign government officials, and knows how to work across the aisle, as he often did in the Senate and as Vice President, helping to smooth conflicts with his diplomatic style.  Biden is perceived as a moderate centrist progressive more than others in his party, such as his former 2020 primary opponents, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The fact that he is seen as “less progressive” than them seems to have promoted his present standing as far ahead in public opinion polls for the Presidency as of the end of June 2020.  

Whether Joe Biden can go on to become the 46th President of the United States will be decided in the next four months. If it happens, he will become the President who first held national office at a younger age than any other, while also being, ironically, the oldest first term President at age 78 and two months on Inauguration Day 2021.

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