Jeffords' switch to independent recalls other historic moves in Congress

Abandoning party for principles

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2001

WASHINGTON -- A quiet Vermonter with no taste for theatrics adds his name this week to a short list of Americans whose singular actions challenged the prevailing political currents. For some, it had an unhappy result.

Sen. James Jeffords has history looking over his shoulder as he steps across the aisle, casting off a lifetime as a Republican to vote with Democrats as an independent to throw control of a previously 50-50 Senate to them.

From the republic's earliest days through the national dispute over the Vietnam War and beyond, some politicians at odds with government policy or the demands of their parties have been unwilling to alter course or bend with the wind, even under extreme pressure.

When Jeffords defended his action in terms of ''my own conscience and the principles I have stood for my whole life,'' he placed himself where other political figures have stood.

Few found it a comfortable position.

Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas ''looked down into my open grave'' when he stood at his Senate desk, rebuffed fellow Republicans and voted ''not guilty'' at the impeachment trial of Democratic President Andrew Johnson. Angry voters ended Ross' political career.

Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was accused of ''scarlet infamy'' in 1851 when he backed a North-South compromise that forestalled the dissolution of the Union.

John Quincy Adams was addressed as ''Lucifer'' and called a ''renegade'' when as a senator in 1807 he defied the Federalist Party's fierce opposition to President Jefferson, becoming the only Federalist to vote for Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

Sen. John F. Kennedy included Adams, Webster and Ross in his 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning history, ''Profiles in Courage,'' listing them on a short list of politicians he believed exemplified ''grace under pressure.''

Just last month, former President Ford received the ''Profiles in Courage'' award for his 1974 pardon of his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon.

Ford's act spared Nixon possible criminal charges growing out of the Watergate affair. It may also have cost Ford election as president in his own right in 1976.

Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie says 18 senators have switched parties since 1890. Five are still in the Senate, including Jeffords and Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who switched from Democrat to Republican in 1964.

But in terms of immediate impact, Ritchie calls Jeffords' switch ''definitely unique'' in that for the first time it changes party control of the Senate outside of an election.

Searching for the closest parallel, Ritchie points to the party switch by liberal Republican Wayne Morse of Oregon who declared himself an independent after he broke with Dwight D. Eisenhower during the 1952 election campaign. That helped switch party control of the Senate, but only in slow motion.

When faced in 1953 with the possibility that his vote could decide Senate control, Morse said he felt ethically bound not to tilt the balance of power. But in the 84th Congress (1955-1957) Morse moved his seat to the Democratic side of the aisle. That gave Democrats a slim majority. In 1956, Morse ran for re-election as a Democrat and won. Ritchie says the Morse switch ''started what became 36 years of Democratic rule in the Senate.''

''There have been a lot of people who at one time or another had to bite the bullet and stand by their convictions,'' Ritchie says,

As for Jeffords, his decision to leave the GOP brought a round of condemnation that would have been familiar to others who challenged their political peers.

''Benedict Jeffords'' and ''Turncoat Senator,'' hostile headlines proclaimed. ''A coup of one,'' said Senate Republican leader Trent Lott.

In announcing his switch, Jeffords invoked the memories of independent Vermont politicians going back to Rep. Matthew Lyon in the 18th century, who was re-elected while serving a four-month jail sentence for exercising free speech and violating the Alien and Sedition Acts.

He included Sen. George Aiken, who famously said that the way to extricate America from Vietnam was to declare victory and get out.

''They spoke their minds, often to the dismay of their party leaders, and did their best to guide the party in the direction of those fundamental principles they believed in,'' Jeffords said.

Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington's history for more than 30 years.

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