William Edgar Borah was born on June 29, 1865, in Fairfield, Illinois, just as the United States was emerging from its four-year civil war. After attending the University of Kansas and being admitted to the Kansas bar in 1887, Borah moved to Idaho in 1890 and became a successful attorney.
Defeated in his first attempt to enter Congress as a Republican in 1896, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1907 and remained there until his death in 1940. In the Senate, he favored the income tax (which was enacted by the Sixteenth Amendment), direct election of senators (the Seventeenth Amendment), and Prohibition (the Eighteenth Amendment) and an eight-hour day. However, he opposed women`s suffrage (the Nineteenth Amendment) and child labor legislation.
Following World War I, Borah was firmly aligned with the isolationist "irreconcilables" who opposed ratification of the Treaty of Versailles in any form, with or without reservations. In 1924, Borah became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. The World Court seemed to Borah to be a "back-door" effort to bring the United States into the League of Nations, and he opposed American participation. He favored, however, the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war as an instrument of national policy.
Perhaps because of his personal isolationism and perhaps from a simple desire for justice, Borah was concerned when those who had opposed American participation in World War I were in many cases kept in prison for years after the end of the war. In 1923, in a speech at the Lexington Theatre in New York City, he declared:
It is now four years since the armistice. All the foreign governments released their political prisoners three years ago. This is the only government that now has political prisoners.
During the Great Depression, Borah showed considerable independence. He supported Roosevelt`s New Deal reforms such as Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act but criticized the National Industrial Recovery Act because he thought the NRA codes encouraged monopoly. He was a supporter of the Neutrality Acts before World War II.
The outbreak of World War II in Europe did nothing to deflect Borah from his isolationism, and until his death he opposed any effort to end American neutrality or provide aid to the allies. He died in Washington DC on January 19, 1940.