Massachusetts

U.S. Senator from Massachusetts: A Rich Tradition

The next U.S. senator from Massachusetts will join elite company.

Very elite.

Massachusetts has sent only 58 people to the U.S. Senate since Caleb Strong and Tristram Dalton took the oath of office on March 4, 1789. The two wealthy, Harvard-educated lawyers set a Bay State precedent for Senate admission that wouldn’t be broken for 129 years.

Until a gay Irish-Catholic beat a Yankee banker’s bid for re-election in 1918, you just had to be a wealthy white married Protestant man from New England.  And it helped – a lot – if you possessed a Harvard law degree and well-placed relatives.

A symbol, perhaps, of the tight connections among the select group of Massachusetts can be found in Beverly, where Rantoul Street – named after Sen. Robert Rantoul, Jr. – runs right next to Cabot Street, named after the family that sent four men to the U.S. Senate.

By the 20th century, money and connections, or maybe just the right luck, could get you into the Senate even if you weren’t a high WASP. In 1967, Edward Brooke became the first African-American to be elected to the Senate by popular vote. Eight years later, Paul Tsongas, the son of a Lowell dry cleaner, was elected as the first Greek-American.

henry cabot lodge

Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge

But by and large it’s still a clubby little bunch from Massachusetts that eats in the Senate dining room. John Forbes Kerry, who recently resigned to become U.S. secretary of state, was first elected in 1984. Kerry is a lawyer, an Ivy League graduate and the direct descendant of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Or consider this: The U.S. Senate has existed for 224 years. For 112 years, eight men from just three families served as senators from Massachusetts:

  • John Wingate Weeks and Sinclair Weeks, for a combined 6 years, 10 months and 15 days;
  • Elijah Mills, George Cabot, Henry Cabot Lodge and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., for a combined 50 years, 9 months and 17 days.
  • John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, for a combined 54 years, 10 months and 28 days.

Daniel Webster, considered one of the seven greatest senators, served 13 years and nine months.  He resigned twice to become U.S. secretary of state. Webster probably considered himself an outsider. He did come from a colonial New England family, and he was a WASP lawyer with an Ivy League education. But Webster was born in Salisbury (now Franklin), N.H., in 1782. He graduated from Dartmouth College; not Harvard, and his family was not wealthy. But Webster rose to prominence defending the interests of the propertied class, supporting New England’s powerful shipping interests and later its mill owners.

Unlike Webster, David Ignatius Walsh represented poor Irish, French and Italian laborers in personal injury suits against Yankee mill owners.  Because of that, and because he was a gay Irish-Catholic, he was arguably the first true outsider to become a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

Walsh was the son of struggling Irish immigrants, born in 1872, the ninth of 10 children in Leominster, Mass. He graduated from decidedly un-Brahmin Holy Cross and Boston University Law School. He never married, and historians agree he was gay.  His homosexuality was used against him, partly because he was a fervent isolationist during World War II.

David Walsh

Sen. David Walsh

In 1918, Walsh challenged the re-election of Sen. John Wingate Weeks, founder of Hornblower and Weeks. His victory changed Massachusetts politics, wrote David O’Toole in Outing the Senator: Sex, Spies and Videotape. Henry Cabot Lodge ushered Walsh to his oath, wrote, O’Toole, “a member of the old guard introduced the tall, robust newcomer up the aisle, inaugurating an era when the old families had to begin sharing the levers of power – at least to some extent.”

The special election on Tuesday, June 25, could usher in another very different senator from Massachusetts.

The Republican nominee is a venture capitalist from California whose parents were Colombian immigrants.

Gabriel Gomez, however, does possess some of the requisite credentials for Senate membership. He earned a degree from Harvard, as did 27 previous senators. And like Sen. John Wingate weeks, he parlayed an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy into a career on Wall Street, where he made a fortune.

Ed Markey, the likely victor, doesn’t have the pedigree of a Kerry or the wealth of a Kennedy, but he shares some important characteristics of the Massachusetts senator. He was born in the state, like 41 others. He’s a lawyer, like 35 of them. He’s Irish-Catholic, and Irish Catholics have served in the Senate for 74 years.

Markey has also been a U.S. congressman since Nov. 2, 1973. Twenty-nine other Massachusetts senators have served in the House of Representatives as well. One senator, Frederick Gillett, served almost as long as Markey has -- from March 4, 1893, to March 4, 1925. Gillett then went on to serve a term as a U.S. Senator. If Markey wins on Tuesday, he will break Gillett’s record as the longest tenured congressman to win election to the Senate.

And Markey will have been elected to Gillett’s old Senate seat.

The more things change…

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