Born in Los Angeles; grandson of Adlai Ewing Stevenson (1835–1914). A graduate (1922) of Princeton, he received his law degree from Northwestern Univ., was admitted (1926) to the bar, and practiced law in Chicago. He entered government service as special counsel to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (1933–34) and later served as assistant general counsel to the Federal Alcohol Bureau (1934) and as an assistant to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy (1941–44). In 1945 he became special assistant to Secretary of State Stettinius and attended the San Francisco Conference that founded the United Nations. He was a member of the U.S. mission to the UN General Assembly in 1946 and 1947. In 1949, Stevenson was elected Democratic governor of Illinois by an unprecedented majority; his record of reforms in office brought him national prominence, and he was drafted (1952) to be the Democratic presidential candidate. Despite an eloquent campaign, he was decisively defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1956, Stevenson campaigned actively and successfully for renomination but was defeated by Eisenhower by an even greater margin. In 1960 he was a more reluctant contender for the Democratic nomination, which he lost to John F. Kennedy. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, with cabinet rank. He held this position until his death. Despite his electoral defeats, Stevenson won enormous respect and admiration as an eloquent spokesman for liberal reform and for internationalism. His oldest son, Adlai Ewing Stevenson 3d, 1930–, b. Chicago, served as U.S. senator from Illinois (1970–81). He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Illinois in 1982 and 1986. Stevenson's works include A Call to Greatness (1954), Friends and Enemies (1959), and Putting First Things First (1960). His papers were edited by Walker Johnson (8 vol., 1972–79).
See biographies by K. S. Davis (1957, repr. 1967), S. G. Brown (1961), H. J. Muller (1967), and Bert Cochran (1969).
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