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Stevenson, Adlai E. (1900-1965)

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Adlai Stevenson
Adlai Stevenson, Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Heritage and Education

Adlai Ewing Stevenson, governor of Illinois (1949-1953), Democratic candidate for President in 1952 and 1956, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations (1961-1965), was born in Los Angeles, California on February 5, 1900, the son of Lewis G. Stevenson and Helen Davis Stevenson. He grew up in Bloomington, Illinois, where his ancestors had been influential in local and national politics since the nineteenth century. Jesse Fell, his maternal great-grandfather, a prominent Republican and an early Lincoln supporter, founded The Daily Pantograph, a Bloomington newspaper. His paternal grandfather, Adlai E. Stevenson, served as Grover Cleveland’s Vice President during his second term, was nominated for the office with William Jennings Bryan in 1900, and ran unsuccessfully for Illinois governor in 1908.

Stevenson attended preparatory school at Choate and went on to Princeton University, where he served as managing editor of The Daily Princetonian and was a member of the Quadrangle Club. He graduated in 1922 and matriculated at Harvard University Law School. However, in July 1924, he returned to Bloomington to work as assistant managing editor of The Daily Pantagraph while the Illinois courts probated his grandfather’s will, determining share ownership of the newspaper. While working at the newspaper, Stevenson reentered law school at Northwestern University, and in 1926, graduated and passed the Illinois State Bar examination. He obtained a position at Cutting, Moore & Sidley, an old and conservative Chicago law firm, and became a popular member of Chicago’s social scene. In 1928, he married Ellen Borden, a wealthy Chicago socialite. They had three sons: Adlai E. Stevenson, III (1930-); Borden Stevenson (1932-); and John Fell Stevenson (1936-). The couple divorced in 1949.

Early Public Service

Stevenson and grandfather
Named after his paternal grandfather, Stevenson followed in his political footsteps, with shared successes and failures. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

In the early 1930s, Stevenson began his involvement in government service. In July 1933, he became special attorney and assistant to Jerome Frank, general counsel of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) in Washington, D. C. In 1934, after the repeal of Prohibition, Stevenson joined the staff of the Federal Alcohol Control Administration (FACA) as chief attorney. A subsidiary of the AAA, FACA regulated the activities of the alcohol industry. He returned to Chicago and the practice of law in 1935. During this time, Stevenson also became involved in civic activities, particularly as chairman of the Chicago branch of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (known often as the White Committee, in honor of its founder, William Allen White). The Stevensons purchased a seventy-acre tract of land on the Des Plaines River near Libertyville, Illinois where they built a house. Although he spent comparatively little time at Libertyville, Stevenson considered the farm home.

War Years and Electoral Success

In 1940 Colonel Frank Knox, newly appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Secretary of the Navy, offered Stevenson a position as his special assistant. In this capacity, Stevenson wrote speeches, represented Secretary Knox and the Navy on committees, toured the various theaters of war, and handled many administrative duties. From December 1943 to January 1944, he participated in a special mission to Sicily and Italy for the Foreign Economic Administration to report on the country’s economy. After Knox’s death in 1944, Stevenson returned to Chicago and attempted to purchase Knox’s controlling interest in the Chicago Daily News, but another party outbid his syndicate.

In 1945, he accepted an appointment as special assistant to the Secretary of State to work with Assistant Secretary of State Archibald MacLeish on a proposed world organization. Later that year, he went to London as Deputy United States Delegate to the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations Organization, a position he held until February 1946. In 1947, Louis A. Kohn, a Chicago attorney, suggested to Stevenson that he consider running for political office. Stevenson, who had toyed with the idea of entering politics for several years, entered the Illinois gubernatorial race and defeated incumbent Dwight H. Green in a landslide. Principal among his achievements as Illinois governor were reorganizing the state police, cracking down on illegal gambling, and improving the state highways.

The 1952 Campaign: “Better to lose the election than mislead the people”

Truman and Stevenson
A pleased Harry S Truman displays the official delegate’s badge of his favored successor at the 1952 Democratic National Convention. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Early in 1952, while Stevenson was still governor of Illinois, President Harry S. Truman proposed that he seek the Democratic nomination for president. In a fashion that was to become his trademark, Stevenson at first hesitated, arguing that he was committed to running for a second gubernatorial term. Despite his protestations, the delegates drafted him, and he accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with a speech that according to contemporaries, “electrified the nation.” He chose John J. Sparkman, an Alabama senator, as his running mate. Stevenson’s distinctive speaking style quickly earned him the reputation of an intellectual and endeared him to many Americans, while simultaneously alienating him from others. His Republican opponent, enormously popular World War II hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower, defeated Stevenson. Following his defeat, prior to returning to law practice, Stevenson travelled throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe, writing about his travels for Look magazine. Although he was not sent as an official emissary of the U.S. government, Stevenson’s international reputation gave him entree to many foreign officials.

The 1956 Campaign: “The New America”

Back in the United States, Stevenson resumed his desultory practice of law. His national reputation, earned through his presidential campaign, made Stevenson a celebrity attorney who could pick and choose his clients. He accepted numerous speaking engagements and raised funds for the Democratic National Party, then suffering from an $800,000 deficit. Many Democratic leaders considered Stevenson the only natural choice for the presidential nomination in 1956, and his chances for victory seemed greater after Eisenhower’s heart attack late in 1955. Although his candidacy was challenged by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, Stevenson campaigned more aggressively to secure the nomination, and Kefauver conceded after losing a few key primaries. To Stevenson’s dismay, former president Harry S. Truman endorsed Harriman, but the blow was softened by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s continued support. Stevenson again won the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He permitted the convention delegates to choose Estes Kefauver as his running mate, despite stiff competition from John F. Kennedy.

Stevenson and delegates
Stevenson and the delegates celebrate his nomination in 1956. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Following his nomination, Stevenson waged a vigorous presidential campaign, delivering 300 speeches and traveling 55,000 miles. He called on the electorate to join him in a march to a “new America,” based on a liberal agenda that anticipated the programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His call for an end to aboveground nuclear weapons tests created a storm, but was ultimately enshrined in the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. While President Eisenhower suffered heart problems, the economy enjoyed robust health. Stevenson’s hopes for victory were dashed when, in October, President Eisenhower’s doctors gave him a clean bill of health and the Suez crisis erupted. The public was not convinced that a change in leadership was needed, and Stevenson lost his second bid for the presidency.

Despite his two defeats, Stevenson remained enormously popular with the American people. Early in 1957, Stevenson resumed law practice with associates W. Willard Wirtz, William McC. Blair, Jr. and Newton N. Minow. He also accepted an appointment on the new Democratic Advisory Council, with other prominent Democrats, including Harry S. Truman, David L. Lawrence, and John F. Kennedy. He also served on the board of trustees of the Encyclopedia Britannica and acted as their legal counsel.

United Nations Ambassador

Ambassador Stevenson
Ambassador Stevenson working at home c. 1963. Though he often wrote to friends of his weariness, he strove to voice his conscience to make a more just and equitable world. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Prior to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Stevenson announced that he was not seeking the Democratic nomination for president, but would accept another draft. Because he still hoped to be a candidate, Stevenson refused to give the nominating address for relative newcomer John F. Kennedy, a cause for future strained relations between the two politicians. Once Kennedy won the nomination, Stevenson—always an enormously popular public speaker—campaigned actively for him. Due to his two presidential nominations and previous United Nations experience, Stevenson perceived himself an elder statesman and a natural choice for Secretary of State, an opinion shared by many.

In December 1960, Kennedy offered Stevenson the position of United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson refused to accept or decline the ambassadorship until Kennedy named his Secretary of State, deepening the rift between them. After Kennedy appointed Dean Rusk as Secretary of State, Stevenson accepted the U.N. ambassadorship. Although he was initially insulted by the offer, once he accepted the appointment, Stevenson devoted himself wholeheartedly to his responsibilities. He served as president of the Security Council and advocated arms control and improved relations with the new nations of Africa. He established residency in an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria, and threw himself into the busy social scene of the city.

LBJ, U Thant, and Stevenson
President Lyndon B. Johnson, United Nations Secretary General U Thant and Ambassador Stevenson confer after Kennedy’s funeral. U Thant and Stevenson disagreed with Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

In April 1961, Stevenson suffered the greatest humiliation of his career. After an attack against Fidel Castro’s Communist forces at the Bay of Pigs, Stevenson unwittingly disputed allegations that the attack was financed and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, claiming instead that the anti-Communist forces were supported by wealthy Cuban emigres. When Stevenson learned that he had been misled by the White House, and even supplied with CIA-forged photographs, he considered resigning the ambassadorship, but was convinced not to do so. During the summer of 1961, Stevenson toured Latin America, trying to persuade leaders that Castro was a threat to all of Latin America as well as to the United States. Just a year later, in October 1962, Stevenson demonstrated his seasoned statesmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the United States discovered offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba, Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit that the offensive weapons had been placed in Cuba and declaring that he was prepared to wait “until Hell freezes over” for Zorin’s answer.

Stevenson in Michigan
Taken at a Michigan campaign stop in 1952, this image won a Pulitzer Prize for photographer William M. Gallagher of the Flint Journal. It also endeared Stevenson to many voters as a hard working candidate. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

In 1964, increasingly disillusioned by his inability to participate in the formulation of policy at the United Nations, Stevenson considered running for the U. S. Senate from New York, and was also regarded as a possible running mate for President Lyndon B. Johnson. In late 1964 and 1965, Stevenson and U.N. Secretary General U Thant began to discuss opening negotiations to end the war in Vietnam, although Stevenson publicly backed Johnson’s Vietnam policies. Amid much speculation that he was considering resigning his post, Stevenson addressed the Economic and Social Council in Geneva in July 1965. During a stop in London, Stevenson died suddenly on July 14, 1965. Following memorial services in Washington, D.C; Springfield; and Bloomington, Illinois, Stevenson was interred in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, Bloomington, Illinois.

The following tributes are excerpted from a privately printed small volume published by his sister, Elizabeth S. Ives, in Chicago, 1965.

Stevenson documents
Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson 1900-1965

The idea for this small volume came to me on finding in my brother’s bedroom, in an old jewel box of my mother’s, four miniature volumes such as this. I know Adlai cherished them.

Elizabeth S. Ives
Bloomington, Illinois

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones.

-Proverbs 17:22

I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

-Proverbs 27:13

(Courtesy of Princeton University Library)


The White House July 14, 1965
The President’s Remarks

The flame which illuminated the dreams and expectations of an entire world is now extinguished. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois is dead.

I am sending a delegation of distinguished Americans headed by Vice President Humphrey to London to bring back his body to America, on the airplane of the President of the United States.

His great hero, Abraham Lincoln, said at the beginning of his political career, “I have no other ambition so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”

And although his disappointments were many, in this, like Lincoln, he was vindicated.

Like Lincoln he was rooted in America’s heartland, yet his voice reached across every boundary of nation and race and class.

Like Lincoln he was a great emancipator. It was his gift to help emancipate men from narrowness of mind and the shackles which selfishness and ignorance place upon the human adventure.

Like Lincoln he will be remembered more for what he stood for than for the offices he held, more for the ideals he embodied than the positions in which he served. For history honors men more for what they were than who they were. And by this standard, Adlai Stevenson holds a permanent place on that tiny roster of those who will be remembered as long as mankind is strong enough to honor greatness.

It seems such a short time ago that out of Illinois came that thoughtful eloquence summoning an entire nation back from its dangerous drift toward contentment and complacency. For an entire generation of Americans he imparted a nobility to public life and the grandeur to American purpose which has already reshaped the life of the nation and which will endure for many generations.

One by one he sounded the great themes of our time—peace and justice and the well-being of humanity. And many men will labor for many years toward the vision and the high purpose which was the generous outpouring of this great man’s heart and skills.

He was an American. And he served America well. But what he saw, and what he spoke, and what he worked for, is the shared desire of all humanity. He believed in us perhaps more than we deserved. And so we came to believe in ourselves much more than we had. And if we persevere, then on the foundation of that faith, we can build the wondrous works of peace and of justice among all of the nations.

He will not see that day. But it will be his day still.

So let us therefore, adversary and friend alike, pause for a moment and weep for one who was a friend and who was a guide to all mankind.

Courtesy of Princeton University Library.


During the four and a half years that Adlai Stevenson served as the Permanent Representative of the United States of America, he stood as the embodiment of dedication to the principles of the United Nations. His many speeches, which expressed so well his whole mental and intellectual approach, in the championship of fundamental rights, in defence of the dignity and worth of the human person, in support of the equal rights of nations large and small, were cheered and applauded by all sides of the house. He not only spoke with a rare gift of phrase, but with such an obvious sincerity that his words carried conviction.

There is no doubt that Adlai Stevenson has earned a place in history—not only a place in the history of his own country, but a place in the history of this world Organization. He brought to international diplomacy, in his dignity, his gentility and his style, a special dimension. Even more, he has earned the admiration and affection of millions of people to whom he was but a name and a legend.

This was so, I think, because so often his voice rang true as the voice of the people, his eloquence expressed the hopes and aspirations of the common man the world over. He was, in our times, in a quite unique way, the people’s friend. Equally, he has earned a permanent place in the hearts of all those who knew him, and today I mourn his passing, not just as a great historical figure, a famous man, but as a true and trusted friend.

Courtesy of Princeton University Library.


America and Freedom itself have lost a profoundly great spokesman. Adlai Stevenson was among the noblest figures to have graced our political life—a public servant of the highest order. We in Illinois benefitted immensely from his service as Governor, and we were proud to have called him our son as he served the nation and the free world.

I vow to thee my country,
all earthly things above—
Entire and whole and perfect,
the service of my love;
The love that asks no question:
the love that stands the test:
That lays upon the altar,
the dearest and the best:
The love that never falters,
the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted,
the final sacrifice.

To England
by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, 1918

The Stevenson Memorial
The Stevenson Memorial, twenty feet tall, in Bloomington, Illinois, was dedicated on United Nations Day, Oct. 24, 1969. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Stevenson portrait
Photo portrait of Stevenson by Kirsch. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Bloomington Unitarian
The Unitarian Church in Bloomington, Illinois, in which a memorial service for Stevenson was held in July of 1965.

— Content abridged from the Adlai E. Stevenson Papers, Public Policy Papers Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Unitarian Politicians and Other Oxymorons: Lessons from the Life and Times of Adlai Stevenson (a special collection of documents, including addresses and rare documents by Stevenson)