By Duane Tananbaum
Fifty years ago, on December 5, 1963, Herbert H. Lehman passed away unexpectedly as he was preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., to receive the new Presidential Medal of Freedom the next day. The 50th anniversary of Lehman’s death is an occasion to look back at the life and legacy of this great statesman and humanitarian for whom Lehman College is named. We should always remember his concern for his fellow man, his example of changing careers at age fifty, his belief that the government has a positive role to play in improving people’s lives, his support for the system of checks and balances that prevents any one individual or branch of the government from exercising too much power, and his willingness to stand up for his ideals and principles even if they were unpopular at the time.
Herbert Henry Lehman set an example for us to follow by devoting much of his life to serving others. His father Mayer Lehman instilled in his son at an early age the belief that one had a responsibility to help other people, and a school trip to the Lower East Side made such a strong impression that Herbert Lehman still remembered sixty-five years later “the poverty, and the filth, and the bleakness” of the neighborhood. After college, Herbert Lehman began a lifelong commitment to Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement, organizing a club for 12-14-year-old boys, serving on the Board of Directors for forty-five years, and donating the money for a new building named in memory of his son Peter, who was killed during World War II. Lehman served on the boards of numerous charitable and philanthropic organizations, and his generous financial contributions helped the NAACP survive the Great Depression. Internationally, Lehman served from 1943-1946 as the first Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which provided food and other necessities to help people in countries that were liberated from the Axis Powers.
Herbert H. Lehman also demonstrated that it is never too late to change careers. After graduating from Williams College in 1899, he worked for a textile manufacturer for a few years before joining Lehman Brothers, the investment banking firm founded by his father and uncle. He remained at Lehman Brothers until 1928, when he ran for public office for the first time. Lehman had enjoyed his career in banking, but he understood that public office would allow him to do more to help others, and he was persuaded to run for Lieutenant Governor of New York in the hope that his presence on the ticket would help Al Smith carry the state in the presidential race and aid Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for the governorship.
Although Herbert Hoover easily defeated Smith, Roosevelt and Lehman were elected Governor and Lieutenant Governor of New York, and at age 50, Lehman embarked on a new career in public office, where he would remain for most of the next thirty-five years. Age was no barrier for Herbert Lehman; in 1959-1961, when he was already in his eighties, Lehman led the reform movement that ousted Carmine De Sapio and the political bosses who had controlled the Democratic Party in New York City for decades.
The Welfare State
Lehman believed that an active government was needed to combat and mitigate some of the problems resulting from immigration, urbanization, and industrialization in the early 1900s. He supported efforts to ban child labor, improve working conditions in factories, provide better housing for people living in slums, and help those who needed assistance to get back on their feet.
Governor Franklin Roosevelt considered Herbert Lehman his “splendid right hand,” and they worked together trying to help New Yorkers survive the devastating effects of the Great Depression. Roosevelt and Lehman accelerated state spending on public works to create jobs and provided unemployment relief for those in need. After Lehman was elected in 1932 to succeed Roosevelt as governor, he won legislative approval of his “Little New Deal,” which included a minimum wage bill for women and children and a reduction in their working hours, an increase in the compulsory school age from 14 to 16, relief for the unemployed and those unable to work, a state unemployment insurance program, an improved workmen’s compensation plan, limits on the use of injunctions in labor disputes, mortgage relief for homeowners, an increase in public housing, cheaper utility rates, and help for farmers.
When Lehman ran for the United States Senate in 1949, he ran on his liberal record as governor and in full support of FDR’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal policies. Republican incumbent John Foster Dulles denounced Lehman and the Democrats for supporting what Dulles derisively labeled “the welfare state,” but instead of running away from the charge, Lehman embraced it, arguing that the social welfare programs of the New Deal and the Fair Deal needed to be preserved and expanded. The people of New York agreed with Lehman and elected him to the Senate.
Checks and Balances
We should remember and honor Lehman’s devotion to the system of checks and balances that prevents any one individual or branch of the government from accumulating too much power. In January 1934, New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia sought authority to reorganize the city government, reduce the city workforce, and cut salaries—all by executive order. When the proposal reached Albany, however, Governor Lehman objected to what he characterized as La Guardia’s reach for “dictatorial powers,” insisting that the mayor needed to work in concert with the Board of Estimate to resolve the city’s fiscal problems.
A few years later, Lehman opposed his friend Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to pack the U.S. Supreme Court with pro-New Deal judges. Although Lehman shared Roosevelt’s disappointment that important New Deal measures had been declared unconstitutional by a slim majority of the Court, he feared that Roosevelt’s bill “would create a greatly dangerous precedent which could be availed of by future, less well-intentioned administrations.” Lehman expressed these concerns privately to Roosevelt, but when the president pushed ahead with his scheme, Lehman released to the press a letter he had sent urging Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr. to vote against Roosevelt’s proposal.
As a senator in 1955, Lehman confronted a request from President Dwight D. Eisenhower that Congress authorize the president “to employ the armed forces of the United States as he deems necessary” to defend Formosa (Taiwan) and related areas against armed aggression. Lehman warned that the measure constituted “a pre-dated blank check of authority . . . which might be used to involve us in a war,” but he was one of only three senators to vote against delegating to the president the power to decide whether the nation went to war.
“I Will Not Compromise with My Conscience”
When one examines Lehman’s record, what stands out most is his refusal to abandon his beliefs and his principles, even when it meant endangering his political future. In 1949, as he was about to declare his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, he risked offending Catholic voters when he defended Eleanor Roosevelt against New York Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman’s charge that she was “anti-Catholic” because she opposed federal aid to parochial schools. Despite Senator Joseph McCarthy’s strong support in Congress and among the general public for his witch-hunts for Communists under every bed, Lehman was one of the first to challenge McCarthy and his methods. Lehman was the only senator up for re-election in 1950 who had the courage to vote against the popular McCarran Internal Security Act, which, in the name of fighting Communism, authorized the detention in internment camps of Americans who might commit acts of espionage or sabotage. Emphasizing that “I will not compromise with my conscience,” Lehman explained that he would “vote against this tragic, this unfortunate, this ill-conceived legislation” even though he realized that doing so might end his political career.
Herbert Lehman saw his role as a senator as one of educating his colleagues and the American people about what needed to be done to ensure the equality of all Americans. And although he found it frustrating that the filibuster tactics of southern segregationist senators blocked the enactment of civil rights legislation and, prejudice based on people’s national origins prevented the passage of meaningful immigration reform, Lehman believed that the fight for such measures was worth waging and that they would eventually be adopted. Lehman helped ensure that civil rights and immigration reform remained in the forefront of the liberal agenda, and he would have celebrated when they were enacted in 1964 and 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Unlike many politicians, Herbert Lehman demonstrated repeatedly his honesty, integrity, and sincerity. As a friend later recalled about traveling with Lehman during his first campaign in 1928, “when Herbert Lehman said something you got an impression of sincerity which has rarely been duplicated. . . He was able to convey to his listeners the fact that what he was saying had nothing to do with political advantage, but was something which he really intensely felt.” The citation accompanying Herbert Lehman’s Medal of Freedom captures the essence of his legacy: “Citizen and statesman, he has used wisdom and compassion as the tools of government and has made politics the highest form of public service.”
Duane Tananbaum is Associate Professor of History at Lehman College. His book on Herbert H. Lehman is forthcoming by SUNY Press in 2014.