Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
Adlai E. Stevenson was an extraordinary human being and must be counted among the great public figures of recent history. His impact on American politics was strong and beneficial, despite the fact that he was twice defeated as the Democratic Party’s candidate in the 1952 and the 1956 elections for the Presidency. His lasting greatness may be attributed to his having been such an impressive force for reason, grace, and dignity in public affairs.
John Bartlow Martin’s exhaustive biography covers Stevenson’s life from his birth through 1952, the year of his first attempt to gain the Presidency. A second book will deal with the remaining years of his subject’s life. Martin’s credentials for writing this biography are excellent. He was an outstanding journalist and author when he joined Stevenson’s campaign staff as a writer and adviser, thus establishing a long personal relationship with his subject. Later, the author became Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, 1962-1964, and he is currently a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
This richly detailed portrait of Stevenson begins with the tracing of his Mid-western roots. Stevenson was born into a well-to-do political family and grew up primarily in Bloomington, Illinois. He was named after his grandfather, who had been elected Vice President of the United States with Grover Cleveland in 1892. His father, Lewis Green Stevenson, worked for Hearst newspapers on the West Coast; he moved frequently and traveled widely. However, in 1906, Lewis G. Stevenson assumed the management of several farms for his wife and his mother’s wealthy sister, and the family returned to Bloomington to live. Stevenson’s father achieved his highest political office in 1914, when he was appointed Secretary of State of Illinois. He was defeated in his effort to get elected in his own right in 1916.
Martin’s account suggests that Stevenson’s early childhood was relatively uneventful. However, crucial to his development were to be the years from 1911 to 1914. Martin specifically focuses on a traumatic and tragic occurrence in December, 1912. At a party in his parents’ house Stevenson accidentally shot and killed a girl while handling a gun. Although this event did not seem to have a detectable visible effect on the young boy, Martin speculates that it may well have been behind Stevenson’s lifelong habit of grumbling about his circumstances. Martin feels strongly that Stevenson was subconsciously paying penance for his deed.
Stevenson’s education progressed smoothly. He went for two years to Choate and entered Princeton in 1918. Academically, he performed creditably, but was hardly an outstanding scholar. His social life was active and successful. Interestingly, his mother and sister, too, lived for a good part of this time in Princeton. Stevenson truly liked Princeton and always fondly remembered it, even much later, when he was unsuccessful in getting his eldest son Adlai III admitted. This contrasted sharply with the way he reacted to Harvard Law School, which he attended next. The study of law was in response to his parents’ wishes and was a drudgery for him at first. He did not finish at Harvard, but rather switched to Northwestern University Law School in 1925, where he obtained his degree. He gained admission to the Illinois bar in 1926. Stevenson’s acceptable educational and social position brought him to the respected Chicago law firm of Cutting, Moore & Sidley. His rather modest salary as clerk was considerably overshadowed by his income from other sources. All along, he had met the right people and moved in the right circles. In Chicago, he naturally established links with the Gold Coast and Lake Forest society. During his second year of law practice, in 1928, he married Ellen Borden, against his parents’ wishes. It was a glamorous marriage; the initial years seemed to be happy and normal, and the couple had three sons.
Martin discovers that Stevenson in fact entertained political ambitions from the early 1930’s on. He attempted to involve the family-owned Pantagraph, a Bloomington newspaper, more than before and he joined the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The latter became a kind of training ground; it provided him with opportunities to establish a public reputation in Chicago. He was elected President of the Council in 1933, the same year he left for Washington to join the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and, subsequently, the Federal Alcohol Control Administration. However, in 1934 he was back at the LaSalle Street law firm and his Lake Forest Country Club, rather incongruous places for a New Deal Democrat. At this stage, he also acquired his country estate in Libertyville, which he came to love and consider his home. Successful in his law practice, he was, nevertheless, groping for a different career. Foreign affairs was a field holding particular fascination for him. He made a mark for himself in the use of the Council on Foreign Relations as an educational instrument. He was especially drawn into the fight against...
(The entire section is 2084 words.)
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