Stevenson, Adlai Ewing

Stevenson, Adlai Ewing (1900-1965), governor of Illinois, twice Democratic candidate for president, and ambassador to the United Nations, was born to politics. His maternal great-grandfather, Jesse Fell, a founder of the Republican party, was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln and the first to propose him for the presidency. His paternal grandfather, Adlai E. Stevenson, was vice president during Grover Cleveland's second term. His father, Lewis Stevenson, also a Democrat, was once secretary of state for Illinois.

As a boy of twelve, Adlai accompanied his father when he called on Governor Woodrow Wilson at his summer home in Sea Girt to discuss the presidential campaign of 1912. Wilson, Stevenson later recalled, was extremely courteous to him, asking whether he was interested in politics and referring casually to the fact that he had been president of Princeton before becoming governor of New Jersey. ``That's what decided me on going to Princeton, right then, and there,'' Stevenson said. ``I came away with the feeling: I'm his deathless friend. His supporter. His admirer. That's my man.''

At Princeton he studied principally history and literature and although, as he himself said, he ``was never threatened by Phi Beta Kappa,'' it became obvious in later life that he absorbed a great deal from his reading, lectures, and preceptorials. He joined Whig Hall, took a course in public speaking which he thought ``could prove very worthwhile,'' became managing editor of the Princetonian, and was elected one of the fifteen members of the Senior Council, the original agency of student government. He lived in 42 Patton Hall and took his meals at Quadrangle Club in upperclass years. In the senior class vote at his graduation in 1922, as he informed another senior class thirty-two years later (with characteristic humor at his own expense), he received only eight votes for ``biggest politician'' but twenty-eight for ``thinks he is. . . .'' He also received two votes for ``most likely to succeed.'' (``I still don't know who the other fellow was,'' he said.)

As a young lawyer in Chicago, following legal studies at Harvard and Northwestern, he developed his skill as a public speaker and his knowledge of world problems while serving as president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs. In the early 1930s he spent a year in Washington with the New Deal and during World War II was special assistant first to the secretary of the navy and later to the secretary of state. He was an active participant in the formulation of the charter of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, chief of the United States delegation at the meeting of the U.N. Preparatory Commission in London, and a member of the United States delegation at the first three sessions of the General Assembly.


Stevenson won the governorship of Illinois from the Republican incumbent in 1948 by 572,067 votes -- the largest majority ever received in Illinois up to that time. His achievements during his four-year term as governor were impressive. He recruited first-class men -- some of them Republicans -- for top positions on his staff, eliminated many useless jobs, and instilled a sense of public responsibility in the surviving state employees. He took the state police out of politics, knocked out commercial gambling, started a highway improvement program, and overhauled the state's welfare system. He almost doubled the state's appropriations for local schools and made its mental health program, which had been one of the worst, very close to the best.

His veto messages were remarkable both for substance and for style. He courageously vetoed a bill, overwhelmingly passed by both houses, which would have set up elaborate procedures for detecting subversives and require loyalty oaths of teachers and state officials: ``Basically, the effect of this legislation . . . will be less the detection of subversives and more the intimidation of honest citizens.'' In a lighter vein, he explained his refusal to approve a bill that sought to protect birds by restricting the movement of cats: ``If we attempt to resolve [this problem] by legislation, who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age-old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the state of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency.''


Stevenson was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and again in 1956, losing both elections to General Eisenhower. Asked on a television program some time later if he had any advice to give to young politicians, he said, ``Yes, never run against a war hero.''

As a presidential candidate Stevenson elevated American political discussion, beginning with his speech of acceptance in 1952: ``Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions . . . but a long patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man -- war, poverty and tyranny -- and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each.''

In 1952 when it was not considered politically prudent to tangle with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, Stevenson publicly denounced McCarthyism in the senator's own state. ``Because we believe in the free mind,'' he said, ``we are also fighting those who, in the name of anti-Communism, would assail the community of freedom itself.''

In 1956 he urged a treaty to ban nuclear testing even though public opinion polls supported the view of some of his associates that he would lose votes thereby. ``There are worse things than losing an election,'' he said, ``the worst thing is to lose one's convictions and not tell the people the truth.''

Although he failed to win two presidential elections, Stevenson exercised extraordinary influence on American politics in his time. He attracted a large group of young college people into the active ranks of the Democratic party. As one of them (Richard Goodwin, Harvard '52) said, ``He told an entire generation there was room for intelligence and idealism in public life, that politics was not just a way to live but a way to live greatly.''

Stevenson lost his party's nomination in 1960 to John F. Kennedy but, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., pointed out, the transformation of the Democratic party in the 1950s was largely Stevenson's work and ``by 1960 the candidates . . . were talking in the Stevenson idiom.''


Stevenson also brought to the burly-burly of politics a lively imagination and a ready wit. During the 1952 campaign, a news photographer caught a picture of him with a large hole in the sole of his shoe. ``Better a hole in the shoe than a hole in the head,'' said Stevenson, and the hole in the shoe became a campaign symbol.

Partly because of his appeal to the intellect, partly because of his balding head, his opponents called him and his supporters ``eggheads.'' In his Godkin Lectures at Harvard (published as Call to Greatness) he admitted that ``Via ovicipitum dura est, or . . . the way of the egghead is hard.''

On election day in 1952 he gave a talk to schoolchildren in front of a polling place near his home on ``this business of voting'' and to break the ice at the beginning said: ``I would like to ask all of you children to indicate, by holding up your hands, how many of you would like to be Governor of Illinois the way I am?'' After a show of hands he said, ``Well, that's almost unanimous. Now, I would like to ask all of the governors if they would like to be one of you kids,'' and then raised his hand, exclaiming ``yeh, yeh, yeh.''

Sometime later, he asked a Radcliffe commencement audience, ``Do you know the difference between a beautiful woman and a charming one?'' and then responded, ``A beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you.''


On his inauguration in 1961, President Kennedy appointed Stevenson ambassador to the United Nations, and Stevenson served in that post until his death. During his four and a half years as ambassador he was probably the best known and most popular representative at the United Nations. Of the 116 governments then represented there were only six whose capitals he had not visited and whose leaders he had not talked with. Soon after he took office he visited the representatives of all 116 governments.

He was especially appreciated by representatives of the developing nations. ``He had that quality,'' said Barbara Ward, the British economist, ``for which the Africans . . . have found a special term . . . `Nommo,' . . . the Bantu word for the gift of making life rather larger and more vivid for everyone else.''

He was admired for his eloquence and for the moderation and reason he brought to discussions. ``Even when policies and interests diverged violently,'' Miss Ward wrote, he remained ``a symbol of America's readiness to live within the limits of civilized and responsible power.''

Speaking to the United Nations Economic and Social Council in Geneva [on July 9, 1965], Stevenson declared:

``We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave -- to the ancient enemies of man -- half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all.''

Five days later, while visiting in England on his return from Geneva, Stevenson fell dead of a heart attack on a London sidewalk. ``To the public dialogue of his time he brought intelligence, civility and grace,'' the New York Times said in tribute, ``We who have been his contemporaries have been companions of greatness.''

Stevenson was awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University in 1954 and was the 1963 recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award for his exemplification of Wilson's phrase, ``Princeton in the Nation's Service.'' He is memorialized at Princeton by Stevenson Hall, an open membership social and dining facility, and also by a bronze bust (sculptured by Elizabeth Gordon) in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a stained glass window (designed by Ellen Simon) in the University Chapel, both of which were given by his Class of 1922. On a marble pedestal supporting the bust are carved these words of Stevenson:

``And now we shall have to address ourselves to the unending tasks of greatness. For the quest for peace and security is not a day's or a decade's work. For us it may be everlasting.''

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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