Life of Paul H. Douglas
Paul H. Douglas (1892-1976) represented Illinois in the United States Senate from 1949-1967. A Democrat, Douglas was an economist and enjoyed a distinguished academic career. He served in the Marine Corps during World War II and then moved to politics.
During his 18 years in the Senate, Douglas was a forceful champion of civil rights, social welfare programs, public housing, extension of Social Security (including Medicare), federal aid to education, the environment, and legislation beneficial to labor unions.
But it was his sense of fairness and integrity that earned Douglas great respect among people of all political stripes. During his first term in the Senate, Douglas was called on to deliver the Godkin Lectures at Harvard and chose to speak about ethics in politics. The lectures clearly laid out a prescription for ethical behavior among elected officials and government bureaucrats and were later adapted into a book, “Ethics in Government,” published in 1952. This and Senator Douglas own record of fair play earned him the moniker “conscience of the Senate.”
As an alderman in the 1930s, Douglas wrote a document that he gave to constituents who came to his office seeking political favors. It carried the title “Help Me to Be an Honest Alderman.” As a new senator, he stopped accepting disability payments from the Marines because he did not wish to receive “double payment from the government.” The payments were put into a limited trust fund that eventually reverted back to the federal government.
Paul Howard Douglas was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1892. His mother died when he was four, and he was raised by his stepmother near the community of Onawa and in Newport, in central Maine. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, and earned his Bachelor’s degree in economics in 1913. He worked his way through graduate school at Columbia University and earned a Master’s degree in 1915 and his PhD in economics in 1921.
In 1915, Douglas married Dorothy Wolff, also an economist, whom he had met at Columbia. They had four children—Helen, John, Dorothea, and Paul W.—over the next 11 years. The couple divorced in 1930, with Dorothy assuming responsibility for the children. In 1931, Douglas married Emily Taft and they raised one daughter, Jean. Emily was the daughter of noted sculptor Lorado Taft, whose works include the Alma Mater on the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus and the Fountain of Time on Chicago’s Midway Plaisance.
Douglas’ academic career took him from a year of study at Harvard to Urbana-Champaign, where he spent the 1916-17 academic year as an economics instructor at the University of Illinois. He later taught at Reed College in Oregon and the University of Washington before moving to the University of Chicago in 1920. He was promoted to full professor in 1925.
Douglas quickly gained a reputation as an excellent teacher, a productive scholar, a humanitarian, and a civic activist. He was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to a seat on the Consumers' Advisory Board of the short-lived National Recovery Administration.
Friends urged him to run as an independent candidate against Democratic Mayor Edward J. Kelly in 1935. Douglas declined the invitation but he later wrote in his memoir that he did so even though “my secret ambition was to be mayor of Chicago.”
In 1939, Douglas did run for the Chicago City Council as an Independent Democrat. He won, primarily due to Mayor Kelly's endorsement of him, and served as an alderman until 1942 when he sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. He lost that nomination to Congressman Raymond S. McKeough.
The day after the election, Douglas told his wife that he wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps. At the age of 50, he resigned his City Council seat and entered World War II. On May 9, 1945, he suffered a serious arm wound during the battle for Okinawa. He would later endure four surgeries to repair damaged nerves, but never regained use of his left hand. He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his service.
While Douglas was away, Emily Douglas was active in political and social causes at home. In 1944, she defeated the incumbent to win Illinois’ at-large seat in Congress. She served one term.
Douglas resumed his professorship at the University of Chicago after the war, and in 1947 he was elected to the presidency of the prestigious American Economics Association. However, political issues were never far from his thoughts. In those postwar years, he stoutly defended the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and the formation of a strong military alliance with Western European nations. In early 1948, he was slated by the Democratic Party to challenge Senator Charles W. Brooks and, in the Election Day upset that also saw Harry Truman win the White House, won election that November.
Senator Douglas was especially proud of his work on tax reform and Medicare, his efforts against federal subsidies, and for truth-in-lending laws. He is remembered, too, for his work in the area of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, his relentless efforts on civil rights bills in 1956 and 1957, which included procedural battles with then-Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, provided much of the framework for what would become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In his last years in the Senate, Senator Douglas fought for preservation of the Indiana Dunes at the southern shore of Lake Michigan, speaking about it so tirelessly that he became known as “the third senator from Indiana.” His efforts paid off when the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was created in 1966.
Douglas sought his fourth term in 1966, but was unseated by Charles H. Percy, who had been one of his economics students at the University of Chicago. Percy held the Senate seat for three terms himself, before he was defeated by Paul Simon in 1984.
In retirement, Douglas spent time teaching and writing and for a time was chairman of the National Commission on Urban Problems. He suffered a stroke in 1969 that caused him to use a wheelchair in his final years, but that did not keep him from writing and publishing his memoir “In the Fullness of Time” in 1972.
Senator Douglas died at his home in Washington on September 24, 1976. He was 84.
Sources: Douglas, Paul H., In the Fullness of Time: The Memoirs of Paul H. Douglas, 1972
Biles, Roger, Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois, 2002
U.S. Senate Historical Office