Mr. President, almost 30 years ago I worked in the House of Commons in London. In Parliament, a new member’s maiden speech is given great weight. Traditionally, this speech is used to highlight what a member’s priorities are and sets the tone for his tenure. My experience in London guided my thoughts 10 years ago when I was elected to the House of Representatives. My maiden speech focused on the unique political history of the 10th Congressional District of Illinois and its tradition of electing thoughtful, independent leaders.
As I stand here today, newly elected by the people of Illinois to represent their interests in the Senate, I recall my first speech in the House and how humbled I was to follow such a distinguished group of men and women in office. I am equally humbled as I assume the office of United States Senator from Illinois.
Since our admission to the Union in 1818, Illinois sent a diverse list of Senators to this chamber. Many of my predecessors served in uniform valiantly, others had brilliant legal careers, while still others excelled in international diplomacy. As I take office, I want to reflect on those who represented Illinois in the Senate before me, their accomplishments, and the imprint they left on our great nation.
One name hangs above all others. He never served in the Senate but ran for the office in 1858. Abraham Lincoln was defeated in that election but won the nation’s support for a higher office during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. His story also reminds the Republican and Democratic opponents of the current members of the Senate that their best days in public life may still be ahead.
With regard to our Senators, one of the first was Ninian Edwards, a pioneer at a time when Illinois was actually the frontier. First elected in 1818, he served until 1824 when he stepped down to become the United States’ Minister to Mexico. He had the distinction of being the governor of both the territory and state of Illinois. A true servant of the people, he died in 1833 while he helped treat victims of a cholera epidemic carried by soldiers serving in the Black Hawk War.
Senator James Shields reminded us that we are a state and nation of immigrants. Born in Ireland, he became a naturalized citizen in 1840. He served in the Mexican-American war under General Zachary Taylor, commanding a brigade in the battles of Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec.
Already one of America’s leading Irish-Americans, Brigadier General Shields would later command a division during the Civil War, taking his men against Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign of 1862. He was twice elected to the Senate in 1849 – first in March, and again in October. But his first election was voided on the grounds that he had not yet been a U.S. citizen for the required nine years. Eight months later, he won election again and finally was seated. Senator Shields is the only member of this body to have served in the Senate from three states – in addition to Illinois, he was elected in Minnesota and Missouri.
Senator Shields also nearly changed the course of our nation. In 1842, a young Abraham Lincoln wrote an anonymous letter to the Sangamon Journal criticizing then State Auditor Shields for his decision to require the payment of taxes in silver or gold. When Lincoln’s future wife, Mary Todd, and her friend got into the act by writing additional missives, Shields asked the editor to reveal the identity of the letter writers. When Lincoln claimed responsibility for all the letters, Shields demanded satisfaction and challenged Lincoln to a duel.
Lincoln chose broadswords as the weapon of choice, and the two made plans to travel to Missouri as dueling in Illinois was illegal at the time. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the duel was called off, averting a potentially history-changing event.
Serving from 1847 to 1861, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas was known as the “Little Giant” due to his short stature but powerful hold on the Senate. While accomplished, he was overshadowed by Lincoln despite Lincoln’s loss to Douglas in the 1858 Senate election. Douglas served as the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that repealed the Missouri Compromise, allowing settlers in Kansas and Nebraska to determine whether or not they would allow slavery. Douglas’s reputation waned in later years as he led the Democratic Party to defeat in the election of 1860 by defending slavery in the southern states. His miscalculation dealt a blow to the ruling Democrats, allowing the new anti-slavery Republican Party to win the White House.
Another Illinois Senator, David Davis, holds a unique distinction, having served as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court prior to his Senate service. In his nearly 15 years on the Court, Davis is best known for writing the decision in Ex Parte Milligan, holding that a death sentence handed down by a Civil War military commission against a civilian was unconstitutional, as civilian courts were functioning at the time.
The Illinois Legislature elected Davis to the Senate in the midst of the disputed 1876 presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. Because of his service on the Supreme Court and his long reputation for fierce independence, Senator Davis was elected President pro tempore of the Senate following the assassination of President Garfield. Under the law at the time, this placed him next in the line of succession to President Chester A. Arthur, even though he was a freshman Senator.
One of our greatest Senators was the “man from Pekin,” Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, who served for nearly 20 years in the middle of the 20th Century. His leadership was apparent early in his life – during the First World War, he entered service in the field artillery as a private and left a second lieutenant. While in the Senate, he worked his way to lead his party as Minority Leader and developed a reputation as a pragmatic, thoughtful legislator. He is perhaps best known for his role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was Dirksen who said on the floor of the Senate, “The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied. It is here!” It was Dirksen who helped gather the votes for cloture on the ground-breaking legislation, ending the longest filibuster in Senate history at 534 hours, 1 minute, and 51 seconds.
If there is one of our Illinois Senators whose spirit hangs closest to me as I begin my service here, it is Dirksen’s. Senator Dirksen’s reputation as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate is one I hope to follow in my service in the Senate. He died after a bout with cancer in 1969, but his legacy lives on. One of the three Senate office buildings bears his name, as well as Chicago’s federal courthouse.
Senator Charles Percy entered the Senate in 1967, serving alongside Senator Dirksen for two years. He was a “Rockefeller Republican,” representing the moderate wing of the Republican Party in the Senate and went on to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In addition to his work on foreign relations, he worked on legislation to provide home ownership to low-income families. Senator Percy and I also share a similar background. Both he and I are graduates of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, and we also both served in the United States Navy.
Senator Percy’s greatest legacy for Illinois was his work to eliminate the corrupt practice of nominating federal judges from the Chicago political machine. I would like to follow in Percy’s footsteps, by ensuring all judicial nominations go through a rigorous advisory process.
Alan Dixon served Illinois in the Senate from 1981 to 1993, but before he came to Washington, he served in both the Illinois House and Senate, and later won statewide elections for treasurer and secretary of state. He earned a reputation as a thoughtful, moderate Senator who served the people of Illinois with a quiet dedication. After leaving the Senate, he went on to chair the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 1994 and 1995.
Born in Eugene, Oregon, Senator Paul Simon served from 1985-1997 as a staunch fiscal “pay-as-you-go” Democrat. Simon worked with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah on a Balanced Budget Amendment that, although unsuccessful at the time, deserves renewed attention now in light of our crippling federal debt. Although he did not win the democratic presidential nomination in 1988, his greatest legacy will be the creation of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University where he served as Director until his death in 2003 following heart surgery.
Senator Carol Moseley Braun is a true daughter of Chicago. She was born in the city, attended Chicago public schools, and received degrees from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Chicago. She remains today the only African-American woman to serve in the Senate. After she left the Senate she served as Ambassador to New Zealand, and she remains committed to public service, as she is currently running for Mayor of Chicago.
Senator Peter Fitzgerald came to Washington two years before I began service in the House. I was honored to serve in the Illinois delegation with him for four years. When I took the oath of office here in the Senate, it was with Senator Fitzgerald and Senator Durbin at my side, recognizing that leadership for our state requires a firm commitment to bipartisanship. Senator Fitzgerald was born in Elgin and raised in Inverness. He represented the northwest suburbs in the Illinois State Senate before his election to the U.S. Senate. Senator Fitzgerald’s legacy in Illinois will forever be remembered for bringing one of our nation’s most dedicated crime fighters to our state.
Senator Fitzgerald is the reason why the Northern District of Illinois is home to one of the best prosecutors in America, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. Patrick Fitzgerald, who is of no relation to the Senator, has done more to fight public corruption in our state than any other person. Senator Peter Fitzgerald fought a tough battle to recruit and appoint Patrick Fitzgerald. Before his arrival, Illinois was the wild west of politics, and one of the most corrupt in the nation. Under his tenure, U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald convicted two governors of corruption and countless other state and local officials. We will forever live with the embarrassment of convicted criminals like Governor Blagojevich, but with the leadership of Senator Peter Fitzgerald, we found the right prosecutor to slowly restore integrity and honesty to our state.
Now, I have spoken about the past greats who have represented Illinois in the Senate, but our recent senators have been champions in their own rights. I am honored to call Senator Dick Durbin my colleague, and while we hail from different parties, we have pledged to work closely on issues that will benefit the people of our state. He, like me, came to this body from the House and quickly became known as a champion of infrastructure improvements, including the critical O’Hare Modernization Program and mass transit. His knowledge of the process of government is unmatched, and he is quick to tell tales of his time as the parliamentarian for the Illinois General Assembly. His father died of lung cancer when he was 14 and has since fought tirelessly to protect kids from tobacco. We fly in smoke-free airlines because of Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois.
Recognizing his leadership, his caucus has voted to make him Majority Whip the past four years – one of the few senators from Illinois to hold such a position of distinction.
This brings me to perhaps one of the best-known Senators, and the man whose term I complete – Barack Obama. The first time I had heard of now-President Obama was in Springfield, Illinois, in 2000. I was filing petitions to run for my first term in the House, and in front of me in line was a young staffer for a State Senator from Chicago who was running for Congress. It is ironic that I won my election and President Obama lost his, but 10 years later Illinois had its favorite son in the White House.
Despite the media spotlight upon him, then Senator Obama sought out a low profile in the Senate and worked with Senator Durbin and the rest of our congressional delegation to quietly advance projects. While his tenure in this body was brief, he and I successfully worked together to secure federal school funding for military families in North Chicago, Illinois, fulfilling an important promise to take care of those who take care of us. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected the first African-American President of the United States, creating a vacancy that was filled by Roland Burris. It was the greatest honor of my life to win election to both Senator Obama’s unexpired term and a full six-year term last month.
As I enter the Senate and open a new chapter in the rich history of this body, I stand before you a fiscal conservative, social moderate, national security hawk.
I bring a commitment to fiscal responsibility, spending restraint, lower taxes, tolerance, a strong national defense and, above all, thoughtful, independent leadership.
Today, we face great challenges at home and abroad.
Here at home, runaway spending and unsustainable borrowing threaten the future of our economy. Unemployment remains high, economic growth slow and small business employers crippled by the tax and regulation of an ever-growing government.
As we look abroad, our challenges are no less complex.
We remain a nation at war with a terrorist enemy that seeks our destruction.
As America winds down our mission in Iraq, our mission in Afghanistan grows more challenging by the day.
Iran continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons as terrorists in Gaza and Lebanon threaten the security of our strongest ally in the Middle East.
At home and abroad, our country faces threats from Iran, North Korea, and a number of terrorist cells based in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.
In times of great uncertainty, we need to come together – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – to build consensus, find solutions and meaningfully improve the lives of those we represent.
In that spirit, I look forward to working with our senior senator – Senator Durbin – to complete the O’Hare Modernization Project, ban sewage dumping in the Great Lakes and expand high-speed rail across Illinois. From Rockford to Cairo, we will work to expand employment and opportunity wherever possible – always seeking practical, bipartisan solutions to the everyday challenges families across Illinois face. I am confident we can build a bipartisan, pro-Illinois agenda that delivers for our state.
Ninian Edwards, James Shields, Stephen Douglas, David Davis, Everett Dirksen, Charles Percy, Alan Dixon, Paul Simon, Carol Moseley Braun, Peter Fitzgerald, Barack Obama, Roland Burris.
I enter this chamber with all humility – and with the knowledge of those who came before us. They fought for a better future for the next generation – as we shall fight for those who follow.