Biographical Note


Note: Click right mouse button to go "Back in Frame"

John James Williams was born in Bayard, Delaware on May 17, 1904, the ninth of eleven children in a farming family. He attended Frankford High School and settled in nearby Millsboro where he married Elsie Steele in 1924. With borrowed money, John Williams established the Millsboro Feed Company with his brother Preston.

The partnership was successful, and John Williams's business ventures broadened to include the Williams Hatchery, raising broilers and turkeys, and 2000 acres of farms and timberland. He was a Mason, a Rotarian, and a Sunday school teacher and trustee of the United Methodist Church in Millsboro. His civic duties included serving on the Town Council of Millsboro, population 470 in 1946.

In 1946, with little more political experience than his fourteen years on the Town Council, John Williams decided to run for the United States Senate. The forty-two-year-old businessman was dissatisfied with the post-war Democratic administration's handling of domestic affairs and wanted to counter what he feared was a drift toward socialism. Williams disapproved of Truman's continuation of New Deal programs, lingering wartime price controls, and government regulations. The incumbent from Delaware was the popular Democratic Senator James M. Tunnell. Everyone assumed that Tunnell would be re-elected easily, and so, even as a political unknown, John Williams had little difficulty winning the state Republican Party nomination to challenge the incumbent. But the campaign of a small businessman against big government struck a sympathetic chord in voters and Williams won the 1946 election with an 11,713-vote margin out of 113,500 votes cast.

John Williams's senatorial career began on firm footing, due in part to the assistance of a small but experienced staff. His administrative assistant, George S. Williams (no relation), was a former U.S. representative and mayor of Millsboro with special expertise on civil service issues. Arden Bing, executive secretary, was well connected in the Republican State Committee, and had administrative experience under the Assistant Secretary of State and secretarial experience in the office of two previous congressmen. Mr. Bing was knowledgeable about legal issues and foreign affairs. Eleanor Lenhart, a native of Millsboro and graduate of Goldey Beacom Business College, managed all aspects of the office and knew every detail of Senator Williams's work.

From the very beginning, John Williams's senate activities were true to the goals of his conservative campaign. He worked to promote the poultry industry in Delaware, opposed government farm price support programs that benefited large cooperatives at the expense of small farmers, opposed the continuation of the New Deal Office of Price Administration, supported reduced taxes, and suggested that the budget could be balanced with a reduction of one million federal jobs.

With his first committee assignment in 1947--to the Committee to Investigate the National Defense--Senator Williams began the investigative work to which he devoted much of his career. The committee was charged to investigate contracts and programs for supply of war equipment and facilities, in particular to examine cases of fraud, inefficiency, and waste. The period of his committee service coincided with the investigation of the aircraft and tool companies owned by Howard Hughes, which received widespread news coverage. His other early assignments--to the committees on Post Office and Civil Service, Public Service, and the District of Columbia--gave him thorough exposure to the bureaucracy of the Capital. An appointment in 1949 to a special bipartisan committee to investigate the relationship between the federal and state governments provided Senator Williams with the opportunity to study another area of significant concern to him, what he saw as the tendency of the federal government to usurp the responsibilities of state and local governments.

Senator Williams was awarded an important committee assignment at the opening of the 80th Congress in 1949. In recognition of Williams's diligent work on the National Defense Committee, Senator Arthur Vandenberg (MI) pulled rank during committee assignments and threatened to claim a coveted spot on the Finance Committee if the position was not given to John Williams. Senator Williams was appointed to the influential Finance Committee and the partisan support he had received in seeking the position was noted in the press as well as the Senate.

Although Senator Williams was dropped from the Finance Committee in a political rebalancing in the 81st Congress, he regained his seat in 1951 and rose to become ranking minority member by 1958. In anticipation of this seniority, Williams declined to consider running for the governorship of Delaware in 1956. He wanted Delaware, the state which paid one percent (the highest per capita rate) of the nation's income tax, to reap the benefits of having a senator on the Finance Committee with ranking position.

The Finance Committee remained Senator Williams's primary committee interest throughout his career. As a member of the committee he had access to detailed reports and information that enabled him to study taxation issues and other financial aspects of government programs. Williams launched several significant projects from his position on the Finance Committee, including investigation of complaints about widespread fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid in the late 1960s. Six months after Williams retired in 1970, rules resulting from the findings of Senator Williams and Committee Chairman Russell Long (LA) were issued to prevent Medicaid fraud.

It was also from his position on the Finance Committee that Senator Williams, who had opposed deficit spending throughout his career, was able to win what he considered to be the most significant legislative battle of his career. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was unable to make progress on legislation seeking a tax increase with Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills (AR). Senator Williams, recognizing that a tax increase was inevitable, began lobbying for simultaneous and mandatory cutbacks in federal spending. With Senator George Smathers (GA), Williams sponsored a tax plan with a 10 percent surcharge on personal and corporate income taxes, accompanied by a $6 billion federal spending reduction. The Williams-Smathers amendment was successful, and it was an unprecedented manipulation of the right of the House to initiate major income tax legislation.

Senator Williams's secondary committee assignments in the 1950s were to the Interstate and Foreign Commerce (1950-1952), Agriculture and Forestry (1953-1960), and Labor and Public Welfare (1957) committees. On each committee, he pursued government accountability. In the early 1950s, Senator Williams engaged in well-publicized debate with Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan over the farm programs of the Truman administration. As early as 1949, Williams exposed a $350 million discrepancy in the bookkeeping of the Commodities Credit Corporation (CCC). He called for mandatory audits of the CCC and questioned the authority of Secretary Brannan to appoint the director of the CCC. On the Agriculture Committee, Senator Williams tracked government farm programs of particular interest to his Delaware constituents and monitored costly agricultural policies. He opposed government price support programs because he believed high subsidies set unrealistic prices and increased inflation. As a feed merchant, he understood perfectly the cycle of high-priced subsidized feed driving up the price of poultry raised on the feed. Remembering his experiences as an independent businessman, Senator Williams particularly watched for the programs that benefited large agricultural corporations at the expense of the smaller rural farmers which the programs were designed to help. In 1967, Senator Williams received the highest award of the American Farm Bureau Federation for his distinguished service to agriculture.

In 1960, Senator Williams was assigned to the Foreign Relations Committee, defeating twenty-five other bids for the seat. He served as the Republican party liaison between the Finance and Foreign Relations committees and automatically became a member of the tax subcommittee. Senator Williams focused on the financial aspects of foreign loan and development programs, issues of foreign currency, tariffs, and international tax conventions. During the late 1960s, Williams followed the affairs of the Agency for International Development (AID) and on several occasions questioned their use of funds. In 1968, he was highly critical of AID's shipment of luxuries such as cocktail glasses and televisions to the Dominican Republic. Also in 1968, Williams began investigations into reports of a black market and corrupt use of AID funds in Vietnam. Senator Williams charged that many government documents were unnecessarily classified in an effort to conceal inefficient distribution of AID funds.

Senator Williams's dual assignment to the Finance and Foreign Relations committees marked the end of an era in the Senate. In 1965 the Senate leadership decided, in recognition of the increased burden of committee work, that no single senator should serve on more than one of five key committees at a time. The key committees were Finance, Foreign Relations, Appropriations, Armed Services, and Labor and Public Welfare. Williams continued in his liaison role until his retirement in 1970, but since then there have been no overlapping assignments.

Committee work contributed to national recognition of Senator Williams, but it was his independent investigative efforts which brought him widest acclaim. In 1947, Senator Williams followed up on the leads supplied to him by a Delaware constituent complaining of irregularities in the Wilmington office of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. In early 1948, he was joined by the other members of the Delaware congressional delegation in demanding the resignation of employees involved in the embezzlement of taxpayers' funds through the Wilmington office. As a result of media coverage of the tax fraud, Senator Williams's office was deluged with anonymous tips as well as signed complaints of corruption in other regional offices and the Treasury Department in Washington. The tax scandal was nationwide, and Senator Williams led public denunciation of the tax collection system which had been abused by political appointees. The investigation resulted in indictments of over 200 employees of the Treasury Department and discharge or resignation of many others. Ultimately the scandal brought about reorganization of the system into the Internal Revenue Service, with tax collectors hired through civil service rather than as political appointees.

The investigation which received the broadest press coverage and sparked the widest public interest was Senator Williams's probe into the unethical practices of Robert G. ("Bobby") Baker, Secretary to the Senate Majority, in late 1963. Baker, who had been the political protege of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, was a potential embarrassment to Johnson as he prepared for the 1964 election. Senator Williams, prompted by leads provided by an individual, pressed for a formal investigation of senate employee Baker before the Rules Committee. When the Rules Committee hesitated to pursue charges against one of their own, Williams renewed his determination to confront the issue of ethical standards for elected officials and government employees. The public, fed up with another case of corruption and fascinated with the details of Bobby Baker's "wheeling and dealing," perceived Senator Williams as courageous and conscientious, and lent tremendous support to this investigation.

Senator Williams had been a member of the "Class of '46," a tide of twelve Republican freshmen who temporarily gave Republicans control of the Senate. The group included, among others, Joseph McCarthy (WI), John Bricker (OH), Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (MA), and Arthur Watkins (UT). Throughout his career, Senator Williams was a prominent member of the Republican party. In 1952, editorials appeared in the national press echoing party interest in John Williams as a running mate for presidential nominee General Dwight Eisenhower. Party strategy calculated that his stand for fiscal responsibility and reputation for addressing political corruption, especially in light of the recent Bureau of Internal Revenue scandals, would appeal to voters and strengthen the Republican slate. But Senator Williams squelched any possibility of his nomination, stating that he had no interest in national office. Senator Williams held to that position twice again, when he was considered for the vice-presidential nomination in 1964 and when he was suggested as a successor to Spiro Agnew who had resigned the vice presidency in 1973.

In 1956, Senator Williams was considered as a candidate for governor of Delaware. However, he declined to accept support for the nomination in the conviction that he could best serve the public by remaining in the Senate where he was just beginning to achieve rank in the seniority system. Senator Williams considered retiring from the Senate in 1964, but he bowed to a sense of obligation to continue with the Bobby Baker case. For this reason, he was targeted by Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic National Committee for defeat. This once again brought national press attention to a Delaware campaign, as Williams won with the narrowest margin of votes of his four elections.

Senator Williams was an active and loyal Republican party member, participating in activities such as Lincoln Day Speeches and the 1960 "Truth Squad" for the Nixon/Lodge campaign, and earning a consistently high rating on conservative issues with his voting record. But he was also recognized for taking stands on issues independent of the Republican party line. Shortly after the investigations that exposed corruption of the Bureau of Internal Revenue under the Democratic administration of Harry Truman, Williams uncovered problems in his own party. In 1951 he denounced abuse of a public position by the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and in 1959 he called for the resignation of a prominent Eisenhower aide, Sherman Adams. In 1970, his final year in office, Senator Williams led bipartisan opposition to the Family Assistance Plan which was a key program of Republican President Richard Nixon. Williams criticized the welfare plan for decreasing the incentive of relief recipients to take jobs, believed that cost projections for the plan were underestimated, and called for the Department of Welfare to compile data and produce a detailed analysis of the plan. Williams's insistence on financial scrutiny of the Family Assistance Plan cost Nixon support for the program.

Senator Williams was known for doing his committee homework and early in his career earned a reputation as a stickler for procedure. Colleagues were not surprised when he opposed measures on conservative principles, but they were sometimes annoyed when he delayed actions by insisting on procedural review. In 1948, Senator Williams provoked the Chairman of the Civil Service Committee, William Langer (ND), by blocking a maternity leave bill. Although Williams did not oppose the merits of the legislation, he wanted to see the cost estimates of the bill before approving it.

Ultimately, Senator Williams's knowledge and use of senate rules and procedures earned him recognition as one of the Senate's most effective members. In a 1960 poll of Washington correspondents conducted by Newsweek and again in a 1969 UPI poll, Senator Williams was selected as one of the ten most effective members of Congress. In 1967, Senator Williams opposed a proposed rule change to limit floor debate, revealing that it was his use of the existing rules for unlimited debate prior to voting that had enabled him to bring information on both the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bobby Baker cases to the Senate floor.

John Williams twice received the Watchdog of the Treasury Award from the National Association of Businessmen. In addition to investigative work exposing corruption in the Department of Treasury, his reputation for fiscal responsibility was based on oversight work performed in committees. From his experiences on the Civil Service Committee, he had a record of opposing costly pension programs and retirement bills. He called attention to significant losses from government employees' abuses of accumulated leave payments and tax-dodging scams. He also followed closely government spending for defense and strongly supported competitive bidding for defense contracts. On one occasion he revealed an Air Force purchase of screws that returned a 2000 percent profit to the seller, and during the 1950s he carefully monitored government losses on surplus ship sales and construction contracts by the Maritime Commission. In 1959, he revealed that Aristotle Onassis received an $8 million windfall because the government underwrote 87 percent of construction costs for three tankers.

Senator Williams believed financial accountability was crucial to the government's ability to counter inflation. In 1951 when the nation was preoccupied with fear of communism, Williams stated that inflation was a greater threat to the country, and that the root of inflation was to be found in loosely audited agricultural programs such as subsidies and stockpiling of government surplus commodities. He called for repeal of 90 percent parity and dramatized the waste of other programs by publicizing the destruction of $50 million worth of potato surplus in 1950. Senator Williams also called for limits on subsidies awarded through the Soil Bank and, additionally, for disclosure of all subsidies over $25,000. In 1962, Williams requested an investigation of Texan Billie Sol Estes who had fraudulently manipulated Agriculture Department programs of crop control allotments and grain storage.

As with many of his issues, Senator Williams was respected for his stand on inefficiency and waste because of his personal adherence to stringent economic policy. Although he was on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Williams never used public funds to travel abroad while in office, and he sponsored legislation curbing junkets and suggested annual publication of all junkets taken. He waged another economic battle over a second congressional perquisite, use of the franking privilege. Senator Williams persisted with legislation and eventually won passage of bills curbing abuse of the frank for campaign promotion and other congressional junk mail. His best-known campaign against congressional waste was an eleven-year effort to have unused stationery allowances returned to the Treasury. In 1957, he tried unsuccessfully to return the remaining portion of his allowance and was dismayed by official orders to keep the balance. Finally in 1968, legislation was passed returning unexpended stationery funds to the U.S. Treasury.

The career of John Williams spanned the decades which included the important Supreme Court desegregation decision in 1954, the civil rights legislation of 1964, and the escalation of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. Senator Williams is widely credited with having quelled civil unrest in Delaware over the issue of court-ordered integration. In 1954, an agitator from a group called the National Association for the Advancement of White People came to Delaware, and law enforcement officers anticipated major disturbances. Senator Williams called for restraint, stating that although citizens might disagree with the Supreme Court's decision (as he acknowledged he did), it was their civic duty to observe the Court's decision as the law which must therefore be obeyed.

A decade later, Senator Williams withheld support for civil rights legislation until it included an amendment ensuring the right to trial by jury for anyone charged with criminal contempt of civil rights. Williams supported cloture of the civil rights debate to bring the legislation to vote. Coincidentally, he cast the 67th vote supporting cloture which gave the two-thirds majority needed to bring the debate to a close. In 1965, the Senate unanimously passed (86-0) Senator Williams's Clean Elections amendment which strengthened the Voting Rights Bill by making vote-buying and provision of false information at registration federal crimes.

Senator Williams's attitude toward U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia changed during the 1960s. In 1965 he criticized the Johnson administration for what he called an uncommitted policy in Vietnam. By 1967, Williams believed victory in Vietnam was improbable and predicted that the war would end by negotiation. Senator Williams did not support President Nixon's escalation of the war in Cambodia in 1970, but at the same time he opposed the Cooper-Church amendment. Williams pointed out the irony of an amendment, which sought to limit Nixon's power to support Cambodia, but which rode on a bill extending the President's power to ship arms anywhere else.

Senator Williams was sympathetic to criticism of the foreign policy in Vietnam, but he was concerned with widespread civil unrest from anti-war demonstrators and other protestors in the 1960s. He called for the same observance of law and order as he had summoned from Delawareans in 1954.

Senator Williams's disagreement with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 was based on his belief that the Supreme Court had trespassed on states' rights to set their own policies with regard to education. Williams's philosophy of strict separation of state and federal issues guided his involvement on many other Delaware issues. Senator Williams withheld statements on issues and referred cases to state jurisdiction unless federal regulations or funds were involved. For example, he called for an investigation of misused federal funds by the Delaware State Highway Department in 1960. Senator Williams intervened to bring federal aid to the state on the occasion of two disasters. He convened a meeting of federal officials to dislodge the African Queen, a tanker which had been grounded off the coast of Delaware in 1959, and secured tax relief for victims of the March 1962 storm at Rehoboth Beach.

Senator Williams promoted several federally funded projects for Delaware in the 1950s, and his successful realization of them was due to effective collaboration with the other members of the Delaware delegation, especially Senator J. Allen Frear, Jr. Senators Frear and Williams jointly sponsored legislation for public works projects such as the deepening of the Mispillion River, the widening of the Summit Bridge, and the improvement of the Roosevelt and Indian River Inlets. They also presented legislation supporting the interests of the poultry industry, enabling labor law exemptions for the holly wreath home industry, and securing funds for beach erosion surveys.

Senator Williams consistently represented Delaware's interests in federal land holdings within the state. In 1958, he supported plans for the transfer of federal lands to create a state recreational park at Lums Pond. And, throughout the 1960s, Williams sought the return of land leases from the Army and the Navy to increase holdings of the state park at Cape Henlopen.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Senator Williams was involved with an issue of great interest to many Delawareans, the court-ordered divestment of Du Pont-General Motors stock. In 1957, the Supreme Court reversed an earlier district court decision that Du Pont's acquisition and ownership of General Motors stock did not violate Section 7 of the Clayton Act, and the Department of Justice proposed a divestment plan to distribute the stock to Du Pont stockholders. Of special concern was how the Internal Revenue would rule on the tax consequences of the Department of Justice proposal. Both Senator Williams and his colleague, Senator Frear, were seeking fair and equitable relief for the stockholders caught up in the divestment plan, but Senator Williams was in disagreement with a Du Pont-General Motors bill proposed by Senator Frear in 1959. In addition to several technical flaws in the bill which made it improbable that the bill would pass the Senate, Senator Williams considered it to be more of a private bill than general legislation with broader applications. Final resolution was reached with the passage, in 1962, of legislation sponsored by Senator Williams which stated that divestment of stock to an individual "shall not be treated as distributed dividends, but as a return of capital."

Senator Williams and his wife, Elsie, were able to maintain close ties to Delaware throughout his twenty-four years of service in Washington. The Williamses refused numerous invitations to cocktail parties, receptions, dinners, and diplomatic functions during their years in Washington. They resided in the Capital at the Mayfair Hotel, but preferred to return to their home in Millsboro on weekends. There, Williams was able to see constituents and occasionally enjoy gunning in Delaware's wetlands.

It was also at home in Delaware that Senator and Mrs. Williams were able to enjoy the company of their grandchildren. Their only child, Blanche, lived in Millsboro with her husband, Raymond Baker, and three daughters, Janet, Lora, and Holly. Senator Williams joked when he entered the Senate in 1946 that he was its youngest grandfather, and when he left the Senate in 1970 that he was its youngest great-grandfather.

Elsie Williams was active in Washington charities and social affairs. She served two terms as vice-president of the Senate Ladies Club which supported the Red Cross, and as secretary and president of the Congressional Club. The Congressional Club consisted of wives of congressmen, cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices. Mrs. Williams's election to the Club's presidency in 1957-1959 attests to her popularity in Washington. Mrs. Williams shared her observations of the Capital with Delawareans through a weekly column called "Washington Chatter" in the Wilmington Morning News.

Beginning in 1965, Senator Williams pressed for mandatory retirement at age 65 from elected officials, and adhering to this principle, he announced in 1969 that he would not seek re-election in 1970. Representative William V. Roth won the Senate seat in the November election and Senator Williams left the Senate on January 1, 1971. He had resigned his seat one day early in order to give Roth seniority over other incoming freshman senators.

Upon his retirement, Senator and Mrs. Williams returned to Millsboro. Eleanor Lenhart returned with Senator Williams to continue working with him in a Millsboro office. Williams became an active partner with his son-in-law in real estate ventures, and he also served from 1971 to 1975 on the Board of Directors of the Continental American Life Insurance Company in Wilmington.

Senator Williams's retirement was marked by continuation of public service and interest in public affairs. In 1972 he joined the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and in 1973 he served as vice-chair of the Delaware Tax Study Commission. In 1977, he was honorary chairman of the Inaugural Committee for the installation of Governor Pierre S. duPont. In the same year, he delivered recommendations based on his private study of crime in Delaware to the Council on the Administration of Justice. In 1980, Senator Williams joined the Committee to Fight Inflation, a bipartisan group that formed to urge strong action to control inflation. The group of thirteen former senior government and executive officials was chaired by Dr. Arthur F. Burns and included former Congressman Wilbur Mills (AR), and former secretaries of the Treasury, Douglas Dillon, George Schulz, Michael Blumenthal, and William Simon.

When John Williams died on January 11, 1988, the state of Delaware and the nation lost a dedicated public servant. Senator Williams's career demonstrates the effectiveness of one individual in confronting the issue of ethics in government. At the root of his relentless demands for financial accountability, responsible and efficient use of public resources, and honesty from elected officials, was an uncompromising stand for integrity in government. Williams presented his Senate colleagues and the public with evidence of wrongdoing and provoked awareness of unacceptable practices. He was persistent with his floor speeches on cases of corruption and government waste, but his colleagues learned that he never presented unchecked facts and took his comments seriously. He was called "Lonewolf Investigator," "Watchdog of the Treasury," "Honest John," "Mr. Integrity," and "the Conscience of the Senate" by his peers, the press, and his constituents. Upon Senator Williams's receipt of the George Washington Award from the American Society for Good Government in 1963, Senator Sam Ervin called him "the gadfly of the Senate...on many occasions he has stung the Congress and the executive agencies into righteous conduct." Those words are apt testimony to the significance of his career and his legacy.