Biography and History

Adlai Ewing Stevenson, governor of Illinois (1949-1953), Democratic candidate for President in 1952 and 1956, and United States ambassador to the United Nations (1961-1965), was born in Los Angeles, California on February 5, 1900, the son of Lewis G. Stevenson and Helen Davis Stevenson. He grew up in Bloomington, Illinois, where his ancestors had been influential in local and national politics since the nineteenth century. Jesse Fell, his maternal great-grandfather, a prominent Republican and an early Lincoln supporter, founded the Daily Pantagraph, a Bloomington newspaper. His paternal grandfather, Adlai E. Stevenson, served as Grover Cleveland's Vice President during his second term, was nominated for the office with William Jennings Bryan in 1900, and ran unsuccessfully for Illinois governor in 1908.

Stevenson attended preparatory school at Choate and went on to Princeton University, where he served as managing editor of the Daily Princetonian and was a member of the Quadrangle Club. He graduated in 1922 and matriculated at Harvard University Law School. However, in July 1924, he returned to Bloomington to work as assistant managing editor of the Daily Pantagraph while the Illinois courts probated his grandfather's will, determining share ownership of the newspaper. While working at the newspaper, Stevenson reentered law school at Northwestern University, and in 1926, graduated and passed the Illinois State Bar examination. He obtained a position at Cutting, Moore and Sidley, an old and conservative Chicago law firm, and became a popular member of Chicago's social scene. In 1928, he married Ellen Borden, a wealthy Chicago socialite. They had three sons: Adlai E. Stevenson III (1930-); Borden Stevenson (1932-); and John Fell Stevenson (1936-). The couple divorced in 1949.

In the early 1930s, Stevenson began his involvement in government service. In July 1933, he became special attorney and assistant to Jerome Frank, general counsel of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) in Washington, D. C. In 1934, after the repeal of Prohibition, Stevenson joined the staff of the Federal Alcohol Control Administration (FACA) as chief attorney. A subsidiary of the AAA, the FACA regulated the activities of the alcohol industry. He returned to Chicago and the practice of law in 1935. During this time, Stevenson also 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, in honor of its founder, William Allen White). The Stevenson's purchased a seventy-acre tract of land on the Des Plaines River near Libertyville, Illinois where they built a house. Although he spent comparatively little time at Libertyville, Stevenson considered the farm home.

In 1940, Colonel Frank Knox, newly appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Secretary of the Navy, offered Stevenson a position as his special assistant. In this capacity, Stevenson wrote speeches, represented Secretary Knox and the Navy on committees, toured the various theatres 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. After Knox's death in 1944, Stevenson returned to Chicago and attempted to purchase Knox's controlling interest in the Chicago Daily News, but another party outbid his syndicate.

After the war, he accepted an appointment 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. In 1947, Louis A. Kohn, a Chicago attorney, suggested to Stevenson that he consider running for political office. Stevenson, who had toyed with the idea of entering politics for several years, entered the Illinois gubernatorial race and defeated incumbent 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.

Early in 1952, while Stevenson was still governor of Illinois, President Harry S. Truman proposed that he seek the Democratic nomination for president. In a fashion that was to become his trademark, Stevenson at first hesitated, arguing that he was committed to running for a second gubernatorial term. Despite his protestations, the delegates drafted him and he accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with a speech that according to contemporaries, “electrified the nation.” He chose John J. Sparkman, an Alabama Senator, as his running mate. Stevenson's distinctive speaking style quickly earned him the reputation of an intellectual and endeared him to many Americans, while simultaneously alienating him from others. His Republican opponent, enormously popular World War II hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower, defeated Stevenson. Following his defeat, prior to returning to law practice, Stevenson travelled 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 entree to many foreign officials.

Back in the United States, Stevenson resumed his desultory practice of law. His national reputation, earned through his presidential campaign, made Stevenson a celebrity attorney who could pick and choose his clients. He accepted numerous speaking engagements and raised funds for the Democratic National Party, then suffering from an $800,000 deficit. Many Democratic leaders considered Stevenson the only natural choice for the presidential nomination in 1956 and his chances for victory seemed greater after Eisenhower's heart attack late in 1955. Although his candidacy was challenged by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, Stevenson campaigned more aggressively to secure the nomination, and Kefauver conceded after losing a few key primaries. To Stevenson's dismay, former president Harry S. Truman endorsed Harriman, but the blow was softened by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's continued support. Stevenson again won the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He permitted the convention delegates to choose Estes Kefauver as his running mate, despite stiff competition from John F. Kennedy. However, Stevenson's best campaign efforts could not overcome the popularity of incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower. On November 6, 1956, Stevenson was again defeated by Eisenhower, this time by a larger margin.

Despite his two defeats, Stevenson remained enormously popular with the American people. Early in 1957, Stevenson resumed law practice with associates W. Willard Wirtz, William McC. Blair, Jr. and Newton Minow. He also accepted an appointment on the new Democratic Advisory Council, with other prominent Democrats, including Harry S. Truman, David L. Lawrence, and John F. Kennedy. He continued to serve on the board of trustees of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and to act as their legal counsel.

Prior to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Stevenson announced that he was not seeking the Democratic nomination for president, but would accept another draft. Because he still hoped to be a candidate, Stevenson refused to give the nominating address for relative newcomer John F. Kennedy, a cause for future strained relations between the two politicians. 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 as an elder statesman and a natural choice for Secretary of State, an opinion shared by many.

In December 1960, Kennedy offered Stevenson the position of United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson refused to accept or decline the ambassadorship until Kennedy named the Secretary of State, deepening the rift between them. After Kennedy appointed Dean Rusk as Secretary of State, Stevenson accepted the U.N. ambassadorship. Although he was initially insulted by the offer, once he accepted the appointment, Stevenson devoted himself wholeheartedly to his responsibilities. He served as president of the Security Council and advocated arms control and improved relations with the new nations of Africa. He established residency in an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria, and threw himself into the busy social scene of the city.

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 emigres. 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. During the summer of 1961, Stevenson toured Latin America, trying to convince leaders that Castro was a threat to all of Latin America as well as to the United States. Just a year later, in October 1962, Stevenson demonstrated his seasoned statesmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the United States discovered offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba, Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit that the offensive weapons had been placed in Cuba and that he was prepared to wait “until Hell freezes over” for Zorin's answer.

In 1964, increasingly disillusioned with his inability to participate in the formulation of policy at the United Nations, Stevenson considered running for the U. S. Senate from New York, and was also regarded as a possible running mate for President Lyndon B. Johnson. In late 1964 and 1965, Stevenson and Secretary General U Thant began to discuss opening negotiations to end the war in Vietnam, although Stevenson publicly backed Johnson's Vietnam policies. Amid much speculation that he was considering resigning his post, Stevenson addressed the Economic and Social Council in Geneva in July 1965. During a stop in London, Stevenson died suddenly on July 14, 1965. Following memorial services in Washington, D.C. and Springfield and Bloomington, Illinois, Stevenson was interred in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, Bloomington, Illinois.

Source: From the finding aid for MC124


  • Politicians -- United States -- 20th century..
  • Statesmen -- United States -- 20th century..
  • Selected Records of Harper & Brothers. 1909-1960 (inclusive), 1939-1955 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0103

    The Selected Papers of Harper & Brothers consist primarily of the editorial and business correspondence of Harper & Brothers, a distinguished publishing firm, between 1909 and 1960.

  • George W. Ball Papers. 1880s-1994 (inclusive), 1933-1994 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC031

    The George W. Ball papers document Ball's career as a lawyer, diplomat, investment banker and author. His involvement in Democratic politics, including his time spent on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and his service as undersecretary of state for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson is well documented, as is his often overlooked role with Jean Monnet in European integration.

  • Walter Johnson Papers on Adlai E. Stevenson. 1952-1955 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC075

    The Walter Johnson Papers on Adlai E. Stevenson contain Johnson's records as co-chairman of the National Committee for Stevenson for President 1952, more popularly known as the Draft Stevenson Committee at the Democratic Convention. Johnson used these records to later write his book, How We Drafted Adlai Stevenson.

  • David A. Morse Papers. 1895-2003 (inclusive), 1942-1990 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC097

    The David A. Morse Papers document the life and times of David Abner Morse (1907-1990), American lawyer, soldier, and public official. While he distinguished himself in legal, military, and governmental circles, the most fruitful years of his life were spent at the helm of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the oldest member of the United Nations' family of specialized agencies. As Director-General of the International Labour Office in Geneva from 1948 to 1970, Morse guided the increasingly complex activities of this tripartite organization, which unites in one body the representatives of workers, governments, and employers. No one has had a longer tenure as its head, and no one has presided over such far-reaching changes in its composition and orientation. Drawing on a variety of experiences in the field of domestic and international labor, including appointments as Assistant, Under, and Acting Secretary of Labor in the Truman administration, Morse gave practical meaning in a postwar context to the ILO's underlying philosophy, namely, that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice." The pursuit of this object won for the ILO the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969. The David Morse Papers contain correspondence, reports, memoranda, photographs, and newspaper clippings that document this long, productive career.

  • Adlai E. Stevenson Papers. 1861-2001 (inclusive), 1952-1965 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC124

    The Adlai E. Stevenson Papers document the public life of Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), governor of Illinois, Democratic presidential candidate, and United Nations ambassador. The collection contains correspondence, speeches, writings, campaign materials, subject files, United Nations materials, personal files, photographs, and audiovisual materials, illuminating Stevenson's career in law, politics, and diplomacy, primarily from his first presidential campaign until his death in 1965.

  • John J.B. Shea Papers on Adlai E. Stevenson. 1952-1956 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC126

    The papers of John J.B. Shea document his activities as executive chairman of the 1956 Stevenson for President Committee (New York State). The committee was comprised of Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, and Independents devoted to promoting Stevenson's candidacy and election to the office of President of the United States. The New York committee organized local Stevenson for President Committees throughout New York State, and provided guidance and overall supervision to these local groups.

  • Carol Evans Collection on Adlai E. Stevenson. 1953-1979 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC127

    Consists of papers retained by Carol Evans while she was secretary (1948-1961) of Stevenson and, later, assistant editor of The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson (1972-1979), which were edited by Walter Johnson.

  • W. Willard Wirtz Collection on Adlai Stevenson. 1938-2002 (inclusive), 1938-1966 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC149

    W. Willard (Bill) Wirtz was a lawyer, an arbitrator, a law professor, and served as undersecretary and secretary of labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was a speechwriter for, and close advisor to, Adlai Stevenson from 1952 to 1960. The W. Willard Wirtz Collection on Adlai Stevenson documents Stevenson’s campaigns for president in 1952 and 1956, as well as Stevenson’s political activities in 1960 and in between campaigns. Because Wirtz was a speechwriter in 1952, in charge of speech content in 1956, and a close advisor and occasional speechwriter at other times, this collection most strongly documents the campaign activities of drafting speeches and fine-tuning campaign policy.

  • John Bartlow Martin Papers on Adlai Stevenson. 1966-1967 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC151

    The John Bartlow Martin Papers contain research materials compiled in preparation for the writing of Martin's two-volume biography 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 collection illuminates Stevenson's personal life, law practice, and political and diplomatic career.

  • Derso and Kelen Collection. 1922-1982 (inclusive), 1922-1970 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC205

    The Derso and Kelen Collection consists of correspondence, writings, published material, and over 900 cartoons and caricatures in varying media ranging from pencil sketches and ink drawings to richly-hued watercolors and limited edition lithographic portfolios created by the Hungarian caricaturists and political satirists Alois Derso and Emery Kelen. The vast majority of the works were produced between 1920 and 1950, the active period of collaboration between Derso and Kelen.