William Proxmire

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on William Proxmire.

By Braden Longstreth

Wisconsin’s Class I senate seat has been filled with history in the last century. In the early 20th century, the seat was held by Robert LaFollete, a progressive politician who carried the state of Wisconsin in the 1924 Presidential Election. In 2012, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to the senate when she defeated former governor, and now president of the UW System, Tommy Thompson. More infamously, from 1947 to 1957, the seat was held by Joseph McCarthy, whose efforts to expose supposed communists sowed deep rifts in American politics.[1] Yet between McCarthy and Herb Kohl, the man who lends his namesake to the Kohl Center here at UW, the seat was held by William Proxmire, a man who played a leading role in the anti-genocide movement in America.

Born in suburban Illinois just north of Chicago, Proxmire had his roots in the midwest, though he was well travelled before moving to Wisconsin.[2] He went to school on the east coast, and after earning his undergraduate degree at Yale, Proxmire spent five years in the Army during WWII serving the military intelligence community before receiving his graduate degree from Harvard. Proxmire turned down an offer to teach Political Science at Harvard, instead moving to Wisconsin in 1949 and was swiftly elected to the State Assembly in 1950. When Proxmire came to Wisconsin, the state Democratic party was in disarray. Democrats were largely overshadowed by the Republican party and the state’s heralded Progressive Party. Proxmire ran unsuccessfully for Governor three times in the next six years, yet in a surprising special election following Joseph McCarthy’s death in 1957, Proxmire became just the third Democrat elected to the Senate in the 20th century, with Democrats in the state holding the office for just twenty years since the end of the Civil War.

A black and white photo of William Proxmire in front of a state capital building
William Proxmire (1915–2005) served in the United States Senate for the state of Wisconsin from 1957 to 1989. —Wisconsin Historical Society

Proxmire’s tenure was eventful from the beginning. Upon his election, Proxmire harkened his cause to that of Robert LaFollette, the Progressive senator who held his seat half a century earlier.[3] His rhetoric focused on support of the little guy, farmers, families, and small businesses in his call to progressive action. His arrival to the Senate was a baptism by fire. When Proxmire arrived in D.C. on August 28th, 1957, Strom Thurmond was giving a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The filibuster lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes, making it the longest filibuster in Senate history, a record that still stands today.[4] Thurmond’s filibuster was interrupted by only one thing, a brief agreement to pause the filibuster so that Proxmire could take his oath of office. When Thurmond had finished his filibuster, Proxmire cast his first vote in his Senate career, a vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction.[5]

Following WWII, the international community came together and sought to form supranational institutions to prevent future atrocities akin to the Holocaust. In 1948, the United Nations proposed The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to codify and criminalize genocide in times of war and peace.[6] Despite playing a leading role in drafting the convention, the United States became entrenched in a debate over whether or not to ratify the agreement. The main concern was one of sovereignty, that international organizations would have jurisdiction over the US, and that the US would be subject to this convention.[7] President Truman called on the Senate to ratify the treaty, but the United States decided not to sign on to the agreement. Before his election to the Senate, Proxmire wrote a correspondence urging the Senate to ratify the Genocide Convention.[8]

On April 20th, 1966, Proxmire missed a vote on a small piece of finance legislation. Shook by the experience, Proxmire vowed to never miss a roll call vote again.[9] Starting in 1967, Proxmire began giving daily speeches on the floor of the Senate arguing in favor of ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide. Proxmire gave a unique speech every day that the Senate was in session for over twenty years, totalling 3,211 speeches.[10] In the time from 1966 to his retirement, Proxmire recorded 10,252 consecutive roll call votes, a record that still stands today in the Senate.[11] In 1987, Senator Joe Biden introduced The Proxmire Act, which ratified the Genocide Convention, and which passed the senate by a vote of 83-11.[12] A year later, in November of 1988, President Reagan signed the bill into law, with Proxmire attending the signing. In January of 1989, Proxmire retired from the Senate after 32 years, the longest Senate tenure in Wisconsin history.

[1]List of United States Senators from WisconsinBallotpedia.

[2]Senator William Proxmire (1915-2005)Wisconsin Historical Society.

[3] William Proxmire, “The Progressive Revival” Originally published 1958 to International Union Digest AFL-CIO, accessed from Wisconsin Historical Society.

[4] Mark Memmot, “How Did Strom Thurmond Last Through His 24-Hour Filibuster?NPR, March 7, 2013,

[5] “Senator William Proxmire” Senate.gov.

[6] UN General Assembly, “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” United Nations, 1948.

[7] Carlston, Kenneth S. “Should The United States Ratify the Genocide Convention?Proceedings of the Section of International and Comparative Law (American Bar Association), 1949, 35–39.

[8] William Proxmire, “Memorandum on The Genocide Convention

[9]Proxmire: A Voter NonpareilThe New York Times, originally published April 24, 1986, Section A, Page 20.

[10] Richard Severo, “William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90The New York Times, December 16, 2005,

[11] Gershman, Gary P. (2008). The Legislative Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics. ABC-CLIO. p. 262. ISBN 9781851097128.

[12] S.1851 – Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987 (the Proxmire Act), 100th Congress, Congress.gov.