George Aiken:Progressive Republican

Portrait of George AikenGeorge Aiken, a horticulturist and nurseryman from Putney, Vermont, served in elective office on the state and national levels from 1931 until 1975. He was a loyal Republican his entire life but was often viewed as a maverick within his own party. Aiken and Ernest Gibson, Jr., created and led the progressive wing of the Vermont Republican Party during the mid-twentieth century.

During his tenure as governor (1937–1941) Aiken supported some of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal programs. He was able to maneuver between the big business interests of his own party and the increasing reach of the federal government into state and local affairs and work for the interests of the average Vermonter. He especially favored the Rural Electrification Administration as a means to get electricity to Vermont farms. Though Aiken viewed federal programs with suspicion, he accepted them when he felt they could help Vermonters.

Governor Aiken with others signing a bill for the New York World’s Fair  appropriation, April 10, 1937.

Aiken was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1941 and held that office until 1975. During his tenure he introduced the legislation to build the St. Lawrence Seaway and continued his support of the Rural Electrification Administration. In the 1950s he joined in the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy, following the lead of fellow Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders. During the 1960s he opposed the rise of Senator Barry Goldwater in the Republican Party.

Governor Aiken receiving the key to the World’s Fair on the State House steps, May 4, 1938.

Vice President John Garner (on right) swears in newly elected Senator George Aiken as Vermont Senior Senator Warren Austin looks on.

Aiken was nicknamed “the wise old owl” during the Vietnam War when he asserted that the U.S. should just declare victory and get out. At the end of his career he sponsored the Eastern Wilderness Act, hoping it would create an area for recreational use in Vermont’s northeastern counties, the region he is credited with naming the Northeast Kingdom.

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