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Burton, Theodore Elijahlocked

(20 December 1851–28 October 1929)
  • James N. Giglio

Burton, Theodore Elijah (20 December 1851–28 October 1929), senator and congressman, was born in Jefferson, Ohio, the son of the Reverend William Burton, a Presbyterian minister, and Elizabeth Grant. After attending Grand River Institute in Austinburg, Ohio, Burton entered Grinnell College (Iowa) as a sophomore and graduated from Oberlin College in 1872. He received legal training in the office of Judge Lyman Trumbull of Chicago before being admitted to the Ohio bar in 1875. He practiced law in Cleveland, Ohio, served on the city council from 1886 to 1888, and then was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1888. After completing one term, he lost to Tom L. Johnson before regaining his seat in 1894.

The tall, slight, and quiet-mannered Burton looked more like a college professor than a politician, yet he battled for forty-one years in the Congress. He rose to the chairmanship (1898–1908) of the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors, inspiring the renovation of the harbors of key port cities and effecting other maritime improvements. Recognized as a navigational and financial expert, he also became known for his opposition to pork-barrel legislation and his occasional political independence. In 1907, encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt, he unsuccessfully challenged progressive Democratic incumbent Tom Johnson in the Cleveland mayoralty contest. He also opposed Senator Marcus Hanna’s domination of Ohio Republican politics and briefly acted as a progressive insurgent. In January 1909 he replaced conservative Joseph Foraker in the Senate. Thereafter his reform zeal cooled considerably, as he became a strong defender of President William Howard Taft and the Republican old guard. He played a key role in Taft’s renomination in 1912, thereby antagonizing progressive elements in Ohio. Burton was especially sensitive about his unpopular stand on legislative measures. He had voted for the controversial Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909 and had supported President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to repeal the Panama Canal Toll Exemption Act of 1912, which had exempted U.S. vessels from canal levies. With deep conviction, he favored the neutralization of the Panama Canal—an unpopular stand among Republicans. As a result, in 1914 Burton declined to seek reelection, and Warren G. Harding became Burton’s Republican successor.

In the following years Burton practiced law, presided over a Wall Street bank, and became Ohio’s favorite-son candidate for the presidency in 1916. In 1920 he again was elected to the House of Representatives, serving until 1928. In 1924 he was the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention. During the 1920s he played an active part in arms limitation movements, labored on the World War Debt Funding Commission, and advocated American participation on the World Court. On domestic issues, Burton usually remained a conservative, opposing the veterans’ bonus and the McNary-Haugen farm bill. He was politically close to Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. In 1928 he again was elevated to the Senate, where he remained until his death in Washington, D.C.

A bachelor, Burton devoted himself completely to his work, which also involved the writing of several books, including Financial Crises and Periods of Industrial and Commercial Depression (1902) and The Life of John Sherman (1906).

Burton’s legacy includes an aversion to pork-barrel legislation, a commitment to world peace, and a longtime devotion to congressional service. No other person had ever returned to serve in both the House and the Senate after having completed earlier successive stints in those bodies. His conservative career bridged the McKinley and the Harding-Coolidge eras. Even Burton’s critics admired him for his integrity and resourcefulness.