Burton K. Wheeler (1882-1975) may have been the most powerful politician Montana ever produced, and he was one of the most influential—and controversial—members of the United States Senate during three of the most eventful decades in American history. A New Deal Democrat and lifelong opponent of concentrated power—whether economic, military, or executive—he consistently acted with a righteous personal and political independence that has all but disappeared from the public sphere. Political Hell-Raiser is the first book to tell the full story of Wheeler, a genuine maverick whose successes and failures were woven into the political fabric of twentieth-century America.
Wheeler came of political age amid antiwar and labor unrest in Butte, Montana, during World War I. As a crusading United States attorney, he battled Montana’s powerful economic interests, championed farmers and miners, and won election to the U.S. Senate in 1922. There he made his name as one of the “Montana scandalmongers,” uncovering corruption in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Drawing on extensive research and new archival sources, Marc C. Johnson follows Wheeler from his early backing of Franklin D. Roosevelt and ardent support of the New Deal to his forceful opposition to Roosevelt’s plan to expand the Supreme Court and, in a move widely viewed as political suicide, his emergence as the most prominent spokesman against U.S. involvement in World War II right up to three days before Pearl Harbor.
Johnson provides the most thorough telling of Wheeler’s entire career, including all its accomplishments and contradictions, as well as the political storms that the senator both encouraged and endured. The book convincingly establishes the place and importance of this principled hell-raiser in American political history.
“Marc Johnson’s biography of Burton K. Wheeler rescues an important early-twentieth-century U.S. senator from obscurity. Recapturing the colorful qualities of this most independent of politicians, he expands our understanding of Wheeler’s significance and our country’s past even as he provides guidelines for thinking about our current political issues.”—Robert Dallek, author of Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life and An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963
“This long-awaited and first extensive biography of one of America’s most effective and productive U.S. senators, the honorable maverick Burton K. Wheeler, arrives right on time. We Americans need a good and true story like this—about a determined lawyer who defended the rights of day laborers in a hard-rock mining camp out west and went on to represent his constituents as their U.S. senator to his final breath. Marc Johnson has provided that biography.”—Pat Williams, U.S. Representative from Montana, 1979–1997
“In this richly sourced, excitingly written biography, Marc Johnson describes the career of four-term senator Burton K. Wheeler: progressive, thorn in FDR’s side, staunch America First isolationist, constant partisan, and ‘the most powerful politician Montana ever produced.’”—Walter Nugent, author of Progessivism: A Very Short Introduction and Color Coded: Party Politics in the American West, 1950–2016
“Marc Johnson has delivered the long-awaited life story of the national statesman who represented Montana in the U.S. Senate with “more than one man’s share of fights” during the twentieth century’s transformative second quarter. At last, Burton K. Wheeler has the biography his public service deserves.”—Richard A. Baker, U.S. Senate Historian Emeritus and coauthor of The American Senate: An Insider’s History
“Johnson leaves room for argument about Wheeler’s legacy, but he performs a welcome service by bringing forth this hell-raiser’s story from out of the shadows of public forgetfulness. It is the story of a ruggedly independent-minded patriot whose prophetic warnings about the danger posed to the American people by their militarized empire have come to pass in our time.”—The American Conservative