Historical Highlights

Representative Victor Berger of Wisconsin, the First Socialist Member of Congress

February 28, 1860
Representative Victor Berger of Wisconsin, the First Socialist Member of Congress Image courtesy of Library of Congress Wisconsin Representative Victor Berger became the first Socialist elected to Congress when he won election to the House of Representatives in 1910.
On this date, Representative Victor L. Berger of Wisconsin, the first Socialist ever elected to Congress, was born in Nieder Rebbach, Austria-Hungary. Educated in Vienna and Budapest, Berger immigrated to the United States in 1878 and began his career as a teacher in Milwaukee. Shortly thereafter, he entered the newspaper business and made his mark with the Milwaukee Leader. In 1897, Berger and others created an organization called the Social Democracy group, which later became the American Socialist Party. After a short term as a Milwaukee alderman in 1910, Berger sought and won election to the 62nd Congress (1911–1913) as a Socialist. On June 14, 1911, Representative Berger gave his maiden speech on the House Floor. With a measure of wit, the Congressman held the floor for an hour of debate on wool tariffs. “If you will bear with me in patience for an hour . . . I am told that oratory counts for little or nothing in this House–that you want facts," Berger said, "I am very glad of that, because I hope to convince you within 5 minutes that I am not an orator, and within 10 minutes that I have some facts.” Berger earned notoriety for authorizing a constitutional amendment to abolish the United States Senate (H. J. Res. 79). When the Congressman sought re-election in 1912, he lost to former Congressman William Stafford, a Fusion Democrat. He ran again in 1918 for the 66th Congress (1919–1921) and won, but the House refused to seat him due to an ongoing legal battle relating to his antiwar positions. After the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, Berger lost election to the 67th Congress (1921–1923), but successfully won election to the 68th, 69th, and 70th Congresses (1923–1929). Defeated for re-election for the 71st Congress (1929–1931), Berger returned to his newspaper business in Milwaukee. He died on August 27, 1929, as a result of the injuries he sustained in a trolley accident. His casket laid in state at city hall and thousands of mourners attended his funeral. Representative Edward Brown of Wisconsin telegraphed the following message to Berger’s widow: “Victor Berger, leader of the Socialist party, was a man of great ability who had the courage of his convictions. He was always given a respectful hearing in congress and while very few, if any, agreed with his theories of government, they recognized him as a man who was sincere in his belief and a pleasant, courteous gentleman.”

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