Adlai Stevenson

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Stevenson, Adlai Ewing (5 February 1900 - 14 July 1965)

Stevenson, a Democrat, a Governor of Illinois, a nominee for United States President, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, and a Unitarian, was an eminent spokesman for internationalism and liberal reform, but he was unsuccessful as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956. His grandfather had been Vice-President under President Grover Cleveland.

Called Adlai by most, he was said to have felt that he inherited his Democratic politics from his father’s side of the family and his Unitarian religion from his mother’s. Few in his time were so witty, and Stevenson was likened to Abraham Lincoln, also from Illinois. A reader once wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt,

  • I know Adlai Stevenson and other important people have belonged to the Unitarian Church, but to me a Christian religion that does not admit the divinity of Christ just isn’t a religion. It’s certainly not much of a test of your faith, is it?

To which the President’s wife responded in McCalls,

  • I have always had a great respect for Unitarians. My husband’s mother was brought up a Unitarian and later became an Episcopalian, but there never was any question that she was a good Christian; and most of the Unitarians I have known have been extremely good Christians. The Trinity is not essential, evidently, to leading a Christian life, nor does its denial seem to detract from the reverence in which Christ is held.

Wags and gossips still discuss the meaning of Washington Post owner Katharine Graham’s autobiography, on page 378 of which she says that Stevenson left his tie and glasses in her room the night before he dropped dead on the street in London.

His twenty-one-year marriage to Ellen Borden ended with divorce in 1949. The couple had three sons: Adlai III, Borden, and John Fell. Stevenson did not remarry.

Words Stevenson spoke at a memorial service for Winston Churchill January 28, 1965, at Washington's National Cathedral, can serve as his own epitaph as well, suggested a biographer, Richard Henry:

  • We shall hear no longer the remembered eloquence and wit, the old courage and defiance, the robust serenity of indomitable faith. Our world is thus poorer, our political dialogue is diminished and the sources of public inspiration run more thinly for all of us. There is a lonesome place against the sky.


Richard Henry, in the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, wrote about Stevenson. His political successes and failures are noted. President Kennedy appointed him Ambassador to the United Nations, in which post he had died. The principal founder of the Bloomington, Illinois, Unitarian church had been Jesse Fell, his great-grandfather. With no Unitarian church in Lake Forest, Illinois, Stevenson had signed the roll of the Second Presbyterian Church there. His papers are at the Seeley G. Mudd Library at Princeton University.

{CE; EG; U; UU}