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This is about the mid-20th-century politician and diplomat who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956; for other American politicians so named, see Adlai Stevenson .

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II (February 5, 1900 July 14, 1965) was an American politicianmarker, noted for his intellectual demeanor, eloquent oratory, and promotion of liberal causes in the Democratic Party. He served one term as governor of Illinoismarker, and received the Democratic Party's nomination for president in 1952 and 1956; both times he was defeated by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination for a third time in the election of 1960, but was defeated by Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachussettsmarker. After his election, President Kennedy appointed Stevenson as the Ambassador to the United Nations; he served from 1961 to 1965. He died on 14 July 1965 in London, Englandmarker after suffering a fatal heart attack at age 65.

Childhood, education, and early career

Although Stevenson was born in Los Angelesmarker, he was a member of a famous Illinoismarker political family. His grandfather Adlai E. Stevenson I had been Vice President of the United States under President Grover Cleveland from 1893-1897. His father, Lewis Green Stevenson, never held an elected office, but was appointed Secretary of State of Illinois and was considered a strong contender for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1928. A maternal great-grandfather, Jesse W. Fell, had been a close friend and campaign manager for Abraham Lincoln; Stevenson often referred to Fell as his "favorite" ancestor. His mother was Helen Davis Stevenson.

Stevenson was raised in the small city of Bloomington, Illinoismarker; his family was a member of Bloomington's upper class and lived in one of the city's well-to-do neighborhoods. At the age of twelve Stevenson accidentally killed Ruth Merwin, a 16-year-old friend, while demonstrating drill technique with a rifle, inadvertently left loaded, during a party at the Stevenson home. Stevenson was devastated by the accident and rarely referred to it as an adult. However, as the Governor of Illinois he was told about a teenager who had survived an automobile accident while his friend was killed. Stevenson told the teen's father that he should tell his son that "he now has to live for two", which Stevenson's friends took to be a reference to the shooting incident.

Stevenson left Bloomington after his junior year in high school and received his diploma from University High School in Normal, Illinoismarker, Bloomington's "twin city" just to the north. After high school, he attended preparatory school at The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticutmarker, where he participated in sports, acting and journalism, the last as business manager of the school paper The News, where he was elected editor-in-chief. In 1918, he enlisted in the United States Navy and served at the rank of Seaman Apprentice, but his training was completed too late for him to participate in World War I.

He attended Princeton Universitymarker, becoming managing editor of The Daily Princetonian and a member of the Quadrangle Club, and receiving a B.A. degree in 1922 in literature or history. He was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity there. He then went to Harvard Law Schoolmarker under prodding from his father but failed several classes and withdrew. He returned to Bloomington where he wrote for the family newspaper, The Daily Pantagraph, which was founded by his maternal great grandfather Jesse W. Fell, who had also served as Abraham Lincoln's campaign manager in his 1858 race for the US Senate.

Stevenson became interested in the law again a year or so after leaving Harvard after talking to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. When he returned home to Bloomington, he decided to finish his law degree at Northwestern University School of Lawmarker, attending classes during the week and returning to Bloomington on the weekends to write for the Pantagraph. Stevenson received his LL.B. law degree from Northwestern in 1926 and passed the Illinois State Bar examination that year. He obtained a position at Cutting, Moore & Sidley, an old and conservative Chicago law firm.

In 1928 Stevenson married Ellen Borden, a well-to-do socialite. The young couple soon became popular and familiar figures on the Chicago social scene. In 1935 they purchased a tract of land along the Des Plaines River near Libertyville, Illinois, a wealthy suburb of Chicagomarker. They built a home on the property and it served as Stevenson's official residence for the rest of his life. Although he spent relatively little time there due to his career, Stevenson did consider the farm to be his home, and in the 1950s he was often called "The Man from Libertyville" by the national news media.

1933 to 1948

In July 1933, Stevenson took a job opportunity as special attorney and assistant to Jerome Frank, the general counsel of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, Stevenson changed jobs, becoming chief attorney for the Federal Alcohol Control Administration (FACA), a subsidiary of the AAA which regulated the activities of the alcohol industry.

In 1935, Stevenson returned to Chicago to practice law. He 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, after its founder, William Allen White).

In 1940, Colonel Frank Knox, newly appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Secretary of the Navy, offered Stevenson a position as Principal Attorney and 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. A report he wrote following that mission was very well regarded, and he was offered several jobs as a result.

After Knox died in April 1944, Stevenson returned to Chicago where he attempted to purchase Knox's controlling interest in the Chicago Daily News, but his syndicate was outbid by another party.

In 1945, Stevenson accepted what he called a "temporary" position in the State Departmentmarker, 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. When the head of the delegation fell ill, Stevenson assumed his role. His work at the Commission, and in particular his dealings with the representatives of the Soviet Unionmarker, resulted in appointments to the US delegations to the UN in 1946 and 1947.

1948 election as Illinois governor

In 1948, Stevenson entered the Illinois gubernatorial race as a Democrat, and in an upset victory he defeated incumbent Republican 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. He was a popular public speaker, gaining a reputation as an intellectual, with a self-deprecating sense of humor to match.

In 1949, Governor Stevenson appeared as a character witness in the first trial of Alger Hiss.

In 1949, Adlai Stevenson was divorced by his wife, Ellen Borden Stevenson. They had been married for 21 years and had three sons.

1952 presidential bid

Early in 1952, while Stevenson was still governor of Illinois, President Harry S. Truman decided that he would not seek another term as president. Instead, Truman met with Stevenson in Washington and proposed that Stevenson seek the Democratic nomination for president; Truman promised him his support if he did so. Stevenson at first hesitated, arguing that he was committed to running for a second gubernatorial term in Illinois. However, a number of his friends and associates (such as George Wildman Ball) quietly began organizing a "draft Stevenson" movement for President; they persisted in their activity even when Stevenson (both publicly and privately) told them to stop. When Stevenson continued to state that he was not a candidate, President Truman and the "bosses" of the Democratic Party looked for other prospective candidates. However, each of the other main contenders had a major weakness. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee won most of the primaries, but he was unpopular with President Truman and other prominent Democrats, who saw him as a party maverick who could not be trusted. Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia was popular in the South, but his support of segregation and opposition to civil rights for blacks made him unacceptable to Northern and Western Democrats. Truman favored U.S. diplomat W. Averell Harriman, but he had never held elective office and was inexperienced in national politics. Truman next turned to his Vice-President, Alben Barkley, but at 74 years of age he was dismissed as being too old by labor union leaders. In the end Stevenson, despite his reluctance to run, remained the most attractive candidate heading into the Democratic Convention.

A poster from the 1952 campaign

At the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Stevenson, as the governor of the host state, was assigned to give the welcoming address to the delegates. His speech was so stirring and witty that it helped stampede his nomination. Despite his protestations, the delegates drafted him, and he accepted the Democratic nomination with a speech that according to contemporaries, "electrified the nation:"

When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, dissension, and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable, and hostile power abroad.
The ordeal of the twentieth century the bloodiest, most turbulent age of the Christian era is far from over.
Sacrifice, patience, understanding, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come.
Let's talk sense to the American people!
Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions.

Although Stevenson's eloquent oratory and thoughtful, stylish demeanor impressed many intellectuals and members of the nation's academic community, the Republicans and some working-class Democrats ridiculed what they perceived as his indecisive, aristocratic air. During the 1952 campaign Stewart Alsop, a powerful Connecticut Republican and the brother of newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop, labeled Stevenson an "egghead", based on his baldness and intellectual air. Joe Alsop used the word in a column describing Stevenson's problems in wooing working-class voters, and the nickname stuck. Stevenson himself made fun of his "egghead" nickname; in one speech he joked "eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yolks!" His running mate was Senator John Sparkman of Alabamamarker. In the 1952 presidential election against Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eisenhower won the popular vote by 55% to 45%. Stevenson lost heavily outside the Solid South; he won only nine states and lost the Electoral College vote 442 to 89. In his concession speech on election night, Stevenson quoted a story told by Abraham Lincoln to describe how he felt: "it hurts too much to laugh, but I'm too old to cry."

During the campaign, a photograph revealed a hole in the sole of Adlai's right shoe. This became a well-known symbol of Adlai's frugality and earthiness. Photographer Bill Gallagher of the Flint Journal won the 1953 Pulitzer prize on the strength of the image.

Following his defeat, Stevenson traveled 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 access to many foreign officials.

1956 presidential bid

With Eisenhower headed for another landslide, few Democrats wanted the 1956 nomination. Although challenged by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and New Yorkmarker Governor W. Averell Harriman, Stevenson campaigned more aggressively to secure the nomination than he had in 1952, and Kefauver conceded after losing several key primaries. To Stevenson's dismay, former president Truman endorsed Harriman, but the blow was softened by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's continued support. Stevenson again won the nomination at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, becoming the last Unitarian to be nominated for the presidency by a major party. He was aided by strong support from younger delegates, who were said to form the core of the "New Politics" movement. He permitted the convention delegates to choose Senator Kefauver as his running mate, despite stiff competition from Senator John F. Kennedy. Following his nomination, Stevenson waged a vigorous presidential campaign, delivering 300 speeches and traveling . 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 a Partial Test Ban Treaty to aboveground nuclear weapons tests proved premature and lost him support.

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 and Hungary crises erupted simultaneously. The public was not convinced that a change in leadership was needed. Stevenson lost his second bid for the Presidency by a landslide, winning only 42% of the popular vote and 73 electoral votes in the 1956 presidential election.

Despite his two defeats, Stevenson considered a third nomination. Early in 1957, he resumed law practice, allying himself with Judge Simon H. Rifkind in a firm based in Washington, D.C. (Stevenson, Paul, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison) and another in Chicago (Stevenson, Rifkind & Wirtz), both related to New York City's Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Associates included 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. He was employed part-time by the Encyclopædia Britannica.


Prior to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Stevenson announced that he was not seeking the Democratic nomination for president, but would accept a draft. Because he still hoped to be a candidate, Stevenson refused to give the nominating address for relative newcomer John F. Kennedy, which strained relations between the two men. 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 United States Secretary of State, an opinion shared by few in the Kennedy camp. The prestigious post went to the (then) little-known Dean Rusk and Stevenson was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. There, he worked hard to support U.S. foreign policy, even when he personally disagreed with some of Kennedy's actions.

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 émigrés. 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.

"Until Hell Freezes Over"

Stevenson shows aerial photos of Cuban missiles to the United Nations.
His most famous moment came on October 25, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, when he gave a presentation at an emergency session of the Security Council. He forcefully asked the Soviet representative, Valerian Zorin, if his country was installing missiles in Cuba, punctuated with the famous demand "Don't wait for the translation, answer 'yes' or 'no'!" Following Zorin's refusal to answer the abrupt question, Stevenson retorted, "I am prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over." In one of the most memorable moments in U.N. history, Stevenson then showed photographs that proved the existence of missiles in Cuba, just after the Soviet ambassador had implied they did not exist.

Stevenson was assaulted by an anti-United Nations protester in Dallas, Texasmarker, on October 24, 1963, one month before the assassination of Kennedymarker in that same city. A woman carrying an anti-United Nations sign hit Stevenson in the head with the sign. A man spat on him and on a policeman. Amid the furor, Adlai Stevenson said of his assailants: 'I don't want to send them to jail. I want to send them to school.

While walking in Londonmarker with Marietta Tree through Grosvenor Squaremarker, Stevenson suffered a heart attack on the afternoon of July 14, 1965, and died later that day of heart failure and the fatal heart attack at St George's Hospitalmarker in London, Englandmarker.

Marietta Tree recalled:
[After leaving the Embassy] [w]e walked around the neighborhood a little bit and where his house had been where he had lived with his family at the end of the War, there was now an apartment house and he said that makes me feel so old.
Indeed, the whole walk made him feel very not so much nostalgic but so much older.
As we were walking along the street he said do not walk quite so fast and do hold your head up Marietta.
I was burrowing ahead trying to get to the park as quickly as possible and then the next thing I knew, I turned around and I saw he'd gone white, gray really, and he fell and his hand brushed me as he fell and he hit the pavement with the most terrible crack and I thought he'd fractured his skull.

That night in her diary, she wrote, "Adlai is dead. We were together." Following memorial services at the United Nations General Assembly Hallmarker (on July 19, 1965), and in Washington, D.C.marker; Springfield, Illinoismarker; and Bloomington, Illinoismarker, Stevenson was interred in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, Bloomington, Illinois. The funeral in Bloomington's Unitarian Church was attended by many national figures, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Additional facts of note

He classified himself as a Unitarian.Adlai Stevenson:"I think that one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there's nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way: not in making the whole world Unitarian [Universalist], but in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one's own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination."

Adlai Stevenson statue showing hole in sole of shoe
Stevenson's wit was legendary. During one of Stevenson's presidential campaigns, allegedly, a supporter told him that he was sure to "get the vote of every thinking man" in the U.S.marker, to which Stevenson is said to have replied, "Thank you, but I need a majority to win."

On another campaign occasion, he was somewhat rudely introduced at a Houston Baptist convention in the following way: "Gov. Stevenson, we want to make it clear you are here as a courtesy because Dr. Norman Vincent Peale has instructed us to vote for your opponent." Stevenson stepped to the podium and quipped, "Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling."

Stevenson's father, Lewis G. Stevenson, was Illinois secretary of state (1914–1917). Stevenson's eldest son, Adlai E. Stevenson III, was a U.S. Senator from Illinois (1970–1981). Actor McLean Stevenson was a second cousin once removed.

The Central Illinois Regional Airportmarker near Bloomington has a whimsical statue of Stevenson, sitting on a bench with his feet propped on his briefcase and his head in one hand, as if waiting for his flight. He is depicted wearing the shoes that he famously wore during one of his campaigns, with a hole worn in the sole from all the miles he had walked in an effort to win the election and which became a campaigning symbol.

Stevenson in popular culture

Stevenson has been referenced in television episodes of The Simpsons (in the episodes "Lisa the Iconoclast" and "The Secret War of Lisa Simpson"), The Golden Girls, Happy Days (in the Jan 28, 1975, episode "The Not Making of the President") and Mystery Science Theater 3000's presentation of Manos - The Hands of Fate (a Stevenson lookalike buys a car and one of the MST3K characters comments on it). Murphy Brown briefly names her newborn son 'Adlai Stevenson'.

Stevenson has also been referenced in films. Most notably, Peter Sellers claimed that his portrayal of President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove was modeled on Stevenson. Stevenson's legendary " Don't wait for the translation" speech to Russian ambassador Valerian Zorin during the Cuban Missile Crisis inspired dialogue in a courtroom scene in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The historical speech itself is depicted in the 2000 film Thirteen Days with Michael Fairman playing Stevenson, as well as partially depicted in the 1974 television play The Missiles of October. Stevenson is also referenced in Wayne's World 2 ("Waynestock" is held in an Aurora, Illinoismarker park named for Stevenson), Plain Clothes (the high school is named for Stevenson), Annie Hall (Woody Allen's character tells a standup joke about the Stevenson-Eisenhower campaign) and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Stevenson comes close to being assassinated by a 12-year-old in James Patrick Kelly's Hugo Award-winning novelette, "1016 to 1" (1999). In David Gerrold's short story "The Impeachment of Adlai Stevenson", featured in the anthology Alternate Presidents, Stevenson is elected President in 1952 and 1956, but impeached in 1958, with his Vice President, John Kennedy, succeeding him. In Robin Gerber's novel Eleanor vs. Ike, Stevenson suffers a fatal heart attack as he approaches the podium to accept the Democratic nomination in 1952.

The Avalanche, an album by acclaimed folk artist Sufjan Stevens, contains a song called "Adlai Stevenson".

Adlai Stevenson was quoted in the legal Drama, Boston Legal. While Alan Shore defends a client who had withheld her taxes to protest the current state of America, he quotes Stevenson's Nature of Patriotism speech. "The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the Bill of Rights, to the freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak of anti-communism." What has changed now, he argues, is the cloak has morphed into anti-terrorism.

Schools and other entities named after Stevenson


  • Broadwater, Jeff. Adlai Stevenson and American Politics: The Odyssey of a Cold War Liberal. Twayne, 1994. 291 pp
  • Cowden, Jonathan A. Adlai Stevenson: a Retrospective. Princeton University Library Chronicle 2000 61(3): 322-359. ISSN 0032-8456
  • Martin, John Bartlow . Adlai Stevenson of Illinois: The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson (1976) and Adlai Stevenson and the World: The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson (1977), the standard scholarly biography
  • Murphy, John M. Civic Republicanism in the Modern Age: Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 Presidential Campaign Quarterly Journal of Speech 1994 80(3): 313-328. ISSN 0033-5630
  • Slaybaugh, Douglas. Adlai Stevenson, Television, and the Presidential Campaign of 1956 Illinois Historical Journal 1996 89(1): 2-16. ISSN 0748-8149
  • Slaybaugh, Douglas. Political Philosophy or Partisanship: a Dilemma in Adlai Stevenson's Published Writings, 1953-1956. Wisconsin Magazine of History 1992 75(3): 163-194. ISSN 0043-6534. Argues, by 1956, Stevenson had alienated many of his well-placed and well-educated supporters without winning over many new rank-and-file Democrats.
  • White, Mark J. Hamlet in New York: Adlai Stevenson During the First Week of the Cuban Missile Crisis" Illinois Historical Journal 1993 86(2): 70-84. ISSN 0748-8149
  • Stevenson, Adlai. The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson (8 vol) 1972)
  • Blair, William McC. ed. Adlai Stevenson's Legacy: Reminiscences by His Friends and Family. Princeton University Library Chronicle (2000) 61(3): 360-403. ISSN 0032-8456 Reminiscences by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William McC. Blair, Adlai Stevenson III, Newton N. Minow, and Willard Wirtz.


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