- Historic Sites
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
A noted Englishman ‘s perspective on a sad but gallant loser
“Americans have always assumed, subconsciously, that all problems can be solved; that every story has a happy ending; that the application of enough energy and goodwill can make everything come out right. In view of our history, this assumption is natural enough. As a people we have never encountered any obstacle that we could not overcome. The Pilgrims had a rough first winter, but after that the colony flourished. Valley Forge was followed naturally by Yorktown. Daniel Boone always found his way through the forest. We crossed the Alleghenies and the Mississippi and the Rockies with an impetus that nothing could stop. The wagon trains got through; the Pony Express delivered the mail… the Union was somehow preserved. We never came across a river we couldn’t bridge, a depression we couldn’t overcome, a war we couldn’t win. So far, we have never known the tragedy, frustration and sometimes defeat which are ingrained in the memories of all other peoples.” —1954
Stevenson was born in Los Angeles. His father, Lewis Stevenson, spent about ten years in various places on the West Coast, mainly because he thought it would be good for his always somewhat ailing health. In 1906 he came back to Illinois, to Bloomington, the hometown of himself and his wife and their many relations, and became a largescale farm manager, supervising twelve thousand acres on behalf of an aunt. Bloomington, a hundred twenty-five miles southwest of Chicago, then had about thirty thousand inhabitants and was an agreeable mixture of farm center and college town. The Stevenson forebears had been there since it became a settled community about 1850. They were all of old American stock and had come in from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.
Lewis Stevenson also engaged mildly in politics, becoming Illinois secretary of state in 1913. He knew the great national figures of the Democratic Party, to which he had a firm hereditary affiliation, and they treated him as a figure of considerable local importance.
Lewis Stevenson’s father, Adlai E. Stevenson i, was a more serious politician. He had been appointed Assistant Postmaster General in Grover Cleveland’s first administration and won the Vice-presidential nomination in 1892, when Cleveland became the only President ever to go back to the White House. Adlai i served his four years in Wash- ington and then returned to Bloomington. He died in 1914.
This was Stevenson’s family background: political, prosperous, rooted, small-town oriented. It was an agreeable and on the whole relaxed upbringing, marred by one dreadful and little-known incident. When he was twelve, he accidentally shot dead in his own house a sixteen-yearold girl, who was his sister’s closest friend and a distant cousin of them both. He was hardly guilty even of carelessness. The gun with which he was playing had been sent for and checked as empty of bullets by the older children. But the effect of the tragedy was temporarily devastating and musi have left some more permanent scars. It may have accounted for the fact that although he went to school in the East, as his father had done before him, he did not go until he was sixteen. He then went to Choate in Connecticut for two years and next to Princeton. He had some difficulty in getting in. Throughout his life, indeed, and contrary to widespread belief, his intellectual qualities were never particularly strong. He read comparatively little and very slowly, often moving his lips as he did so. He preferred to inform himself through the ear rather than the eye. He was quick to have some idea of what was in the books he had not read.
He graduated in 1922, went on to Harvard Law School, and was admitted to the Illinois bar in June, 1926. By the end of the year he had established himself, by Princeton rather than nepotic influence, as a law clerk in a Chicago firm of highest repute and the best possible financial contacts. For the rest of his life Stevenson became to some considerable extent a Chicago man. Bloomington rather faded into the background. He maintained the connection when campaigning in mid-Illinois, of course, but not much on other occasions.
It was his early Chicago life, more than his family and Bloomington upbringing, that put upon Stevenson something of the stamp of a Scott Fitzgerald socialite of the restless twenties. In fact he was not very restless, nor particularly pleasure-loving, and he worked hard, with growing but not sensational success, at the law. He lived mostly in a small apartment on the North Shore Gold Coast but spent much of the summer in a shared house at Lake Forest. So he was never far from the center of the social scene. The culmination of this phase of his life was his marriage in December, 1928, to Ellen Borden. She was rich, pretty, and barely twenty, one of the most soughtafter butterflies of the Chicago scene. She lived in a mockRenaissance chateau on Lake Shore Drive. Her father, rich by inheritance, both made and lost a lot of money. But in 1928 he, like most American men of property, was on the upswing.