In Conversation

Robert C. Byrd: Senator Extraordinary

Miriam Hauss, January 2004

Return to “In Conversation with Senator Robert C. Byrd

Senator Byrd received his American University JD diploma from President Kennedy.Born in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1917, Robert C. Byrd was raised in the coal-mining regions of West Virginia by his aunt and uncle. Unable to afford a college education after graduating from high school, Byrd worked in different jobs to support himself, including a spell as a welder in the shipyards of Maryland and Florida during World War II. He won election to the state house of delegates in 1946, to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, and to the United States Senate in 1958. He attended American University's law school at night even while fulfilling his responsibilities as a U.S. Senator and had the pleasure of receiving his law degree from President Kennedy in 1963. Quite characteristically transcending the usual academic sequence, Byrd then went on to attend several colleges as an undergraduate and ultimately received his BA (cum laude) in political science from Marshall University in 1994.

Senator Byrd was elected Senate Democratic Whip in 1971 and Senate Democratic Leader in 1977. He served as majority leader from 1977 to 1981, and again from 1985 to 1989, during which time he led the effort to ratify the Panama Canal treaties and to extend civil rights legislation. In 1989 he became chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and President Pro Tempore of the Senate, holding those positions until 1995 and again from 2001 through 2003.

During the 1980s, he delivered a hundred speeches on the floor dealing with various aspects of the Senate's history, which were published in four volumes as The Senate, 1789–1989: Addresses on the History of the Senate (Government Printing Office, 1989–94). The first volume won the Henry Adams Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government as "an outstanding contribution to research in the history of the Federal Government." He also published The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism (Government Printing Office, 1995).

In 2001, Senator Byrd introduced legislation instituting what are now known as the "Teaching American History" grants.

—Abridged from a fuller biographical note (by Miriam Hauss) that appeared in the December 2003 Perspectives.