IDAHO HISTORY: Idaho’s Senator Borah was a great orator

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANAugust 4, 2013 

Senator William E. Borah was generally acknowledged by his contemporaries in Congress, and by most others who heard him speak, to be the finest orator of his generation. Some historians rank his oratory with that of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. It was a talent recognized in Boise soon after he opened a law office here in 1890.

In announcing a lecture he was to give on “Individualism vs. Socialism” at the First Presbyterian church in January, 1895, The Statesman noted: “Mr. Borah is an orator of deserved reputation. Those who hear him will enjoy a rare treat and he should have a crowded house.”

After Borah and Mamie McConnell, daughter of Gov. William McConnell, were married on April 21, 1895, they took the train to Caldwell where Borah had a court case. When they were serenaded by the Caldwell Cornet Band, “Mr. Borah not only remembered the boys generously, but responded to those present in a felicitous little speech acknowledging the courtesy so kindly extended to himself and wife, and assuring the people of Caldwell that the episode would be gratefully treasured among the pleasant recollections of his life.”

By 1896 Borah’s reputation as a trial lawyer had grown to the point that Cassia County hired him to lead in the prosecution of Diamondfield Jack Davis, accused of murdering two sheepherders. Jack had been paid by cattle interests to frighten sheep men from coming into public rangelands in the western half of the county. Borah secured a conviction and Davis was condemned to death by hanging. The defense was led by prominent lawyer James A. Hawley, later Boise mayor and governor of Idaho. Hawley was able to delay Davis’s execution until others confessed the crime and were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Eventually Davis was freed and left Idaho, but Borah would always believe that he was guilty.

In October, 1898, the Statesman reported a murder trial in which Borah had secured his client’s acquittal. “The closing address to the jury upon the part of the defense was made by Mr. Borah. He threw all the force, eloquence and pathos at his command into the speech, speaking for two hours. It was a masterly appeal and during its deliverance eight of the jurors broke down and cried as though their hearts were breaking.”

Hawley and Borah were friends who in 1907 would be special prosecutors in the nationally famous trial of “Big Bill” Haywood and other union officials for conspiracy in the assassination of ex-Gov. Frank Steunenberg by Harry Orchard in 1905. Borah was elected to the United States Senate that year, where he would represent Idaho for the next 33 years. In that same year he was indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to defraud the U.S. while securing timberlands for his client, the Barber Lumber Company. A banner headline on the front page of the Idaho Statesman on Oct. 3, 1907, read “We Find The Defendant, W.E. Borah, Not Guilty As Charged In The Indictment.” James A. Hawley had led his defense, and appeared with him on the balcony of the Idanha Hotel while “Monster, Spontaneous Demonstrations” took place; the demonstrations had been carefully planned.

What made William E. Borah a great orator? He himself gave a partial answer to the question in a 1935 letter to a friend: “I do no more than make a skeleton outline of the argument I wish to pursue… Many of my speeches which have been most satisfactory to me I have prepared in a few hours. I think it is quite accurate to say that the manuscript is practically unknown in my speaking. Furthermore, I should say that even the skeleton outline is generally forgotten after I begin my speech. I try to get the subject and the objective thoroughly in my mind, and all the preparations are with a view of doing this rather than with the idea of having something before me to follow.”

Borah had a remarkable memory, and was able to quote long passages from Dante, Milton, Dickens, Thackeray and Hawthorne. A veteran reporter recalled that when the cry “Borah’s up” rang through the halls of Congress, crowds rushed to the galleries, and senators hurried back to their seats to hear him.

Arthur Hart writes this column for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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