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Senators Require a Whip

May 28, 1913

J. Hamilton Lewis by Louis Betts

Soon after Democrats took control of the Senate in 1913, they began to suffer from poor attendance at their party caucus meetings. Party leaders had decided to make key decisions on the Democratic administration's legislative priority "tariff reduction" in caucus rather than in the Finance Committee. This would allow Democrats to achieve a party position on politically sensitive tariff rates before confronting the Republican minority. Poor caucus attendance by those favoring tariff reduction, however, gave greater weight to Louisiana's two Democrats who vigorously supported high protective tariffs on imported sugar. Additional defections would have risked letting these senators significantly undermine the party's commitment to lower tariffs.

On May 28, 1913, the Democratic caucus convened with only 33 of its 50 members present. It unanimously adopted a resolution requesting regular attendance of all members. To enforce that agreement, the caucus then created the post of party whip. In doing so, they followed the example of both parties in the House of Representatives. Two years later, Senate Republicans also added the position of party whip to promote floor as well as caucus attendance.

As their first whip, Democrats chose a member with less than two months' service—Illinois senator James Hamilton Lewis. Those who encountered "Ham" Lewis never forgot his elegant, courteous, and somewhat eccentric manner. Noted for his flowing red hair and carefully parted pink whiskers, he dressed in perfectly tailored clothes, wore beribboned eyeglasses, carried a walking stick, and sprinkled his conversation with literary references.

Lewis lost his reelection bid in 1918, but he returned 14 years later after defeating the daughter of the man who had unseated him. When the Democratic whip's position fell vacant in 1933, as Senate Democrats returned to the majority after an extended season in the minority, they elected Lewis to that post. Following his death in 1939, the Senate accepted a portrait of its first whip—perhaps to inspire his successors.