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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 721


This is the grave of Herbert Lehman.

Born in 1878 in Manhattan, Lehman grew up in the Jewish elite of New York City. His father was a co-founder of Lehman Brothers, so yeah, that elite family. The family’s money had actually come from slavery. Lehman’s father and uncles had left Germany for Alabama in 1850 where they became profitable cotton merchants before moving the operation to New York. As with so many northern fortunes, the roots of it all came back to the enslavement of Black Americans. In fact, Lehman’s father remained in the South during the Civil War, trying to find ways to break the Union blockade and ship Confederate cotton to England.

Lehman went to fancy schools and graduated from Williams College in 1899. He went into the textile business himself and rose rapidly to become vice-president of the J. Spencer Turner Company, which was known for making the best sail cloth in the country. He left that in 1908 to become a partner in the family firm of Lehman Brothers. He was incredibly rich soon after, retiring from business with ease in the 1920s. A liberal in a way his father could not dream of, he was heavily involved in the city’s charitable scene. He supported the Henry Street Settlement House founded by Lillian Wald and was an active member of the NAACP.

Lehman was a strong Democrat and became the state’s leading political fundraiser by 1920. He was close to Al Smith. He then ran for political office himself, winning election as lieutenant governor in 1928 and 1930, with Smith’s support. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932, Lehman ran to replace him and won. They were already close and Lehman had been his right-hand man in Albany. In fact, Lehman had led the fight in the state to create the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration in 1931, a precursor to the New Deal that employed people at the state’s expenses. At this time, the governor terms in New York were still two-year terms, so he won reelection in 1934, 1936, and 1938. But also in 1938, the state switched to four-year terms, so he remained in office until 1942. A strong New Dealer, Lehman built on Roosevelt’s national policies at the state level. Like FDR, he faced a lot of legislative opposition to what became known as the Little New Deal. Republicans controlled at least one chamber of the legislature for all but one year of his governorship. But he still got through a minimum wage bill for women and children, unemployment relief, limits on companies using injunctions to bust strikes, a big expansion of public housing, cheaper utility rates, and other progressive goals. He also ensured that his state got their fair share from the federal government, which Roosevelt of course also supported.

In late 1942, already not running for reelection, Lehman stepped down in order to join the war effort as director of foreign relief and rehabilitation operations for the State Department. The goal here was to feed and clothe people around the world after the Allies liberated them. Roosevelt couldn’t think of anyone with the skills to administer such a program equal to what Lehman provided and so he asked him personally. He was mostly pretty miserable in the role because, as was so common in the Roosevelt administration, there was no clear jurisdiction so infighting between multiple agencies dominated his time. He was also the director-general for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration from 1943-46. This was a real honor as it was an elected position by the 44 involved nations. It was still a tough job, largely because the Soviets resisted allowing the UNRRA into eastern Europe as it consolidated control there. Lehman left the role in 1946 when it was clear Harry Truman didn’t really care about it and wasn’t providing enough food to do the job. Lehman also suffered personal tragedy during the war; one of his sons was a fighter pilot shot down and killed over Europe.

In 1946, Lehman ran for Senate and it’s too bad he lost to Irving Ives in the Republican wave that year. He was such a strong labor supporter, actively promoting the CIO, that he would have been a great addition to that body. But it was moving toward a Taft-Hartley vote, not a Fair Labor Standards Act vote, sadly. But Lehman ran second time, after Robert Wagner stepped down in 1949 due to bad health. This time he faced the odious John Foster Dulles and defeated him. Dulles ran an anti-Semitic campaign to undermine Lehman upstate but it didn’t work. Lehman was elected to a full term in 1950, defeating Joe Hanley. There, he was a strong liberal at a time when it was hard to do so.

Lehman was one of the only senators to actively denounce Joe McCarthy during his anti-communist rants. Once when McCarthy accused a State Department advisor in Asia of promoting communism, Lehman denounced him and said it was unfair to slander someone based on the misinterpretation of a classified document. McCarthy said he would show Lehman the document if the latter walked over to his desk. Of course, when Lehman called the bluff and did so, McCarthy refused to show it to him because of course he had absolutely nothing, as per always. He then went ahead and voted against the McCarran Internal Security Act in 1950, the only person in a competitive Senate race to do so.

Lehman and Wayne Morse teamed up to oppose James Eastland of Mississippi becoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They didn’t win that fight of course, but he was defining himself as on the left edge of a quite conservative Senate. For liberals, Lehman became known as “the conscience of the Senate.” As such a liberal, the other senators did not like him much. As the body’s only Jewish senator, he also faced the anti-Semitism of the day. He did not run for reelection in 1956.

After he left the Senate, his main goal was to end Tammany Hall’s dominance in New York politics. Working with Eleanor Roosevelt and Thomas Finletter, Lehman was a major player in reforming the city’s Democratic Party that eventually led to the fall of Tammany’s boss Carmine DeSapio. He also founded the children’s zoo in Central Park. Although he supported a third nomination for Adlai Stevenson (again, the love of mid-century liberals for Stevenson is utterly befuddling), he rallied liberals behind John F. Kennedy to ensure that Richard Nixon would not be in the White House.

By the early 1960s, Lehman’s health was declining. He died of heart failure in 1963 at the age of 85. Sadly, he was one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Kennedy had created. The ceremony was supposed to be in September, but the medals themselves were delayed. It was rescheduled for December 6. Despite Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson decided to continue the ceremony as planned. It was on the morning of December 5 that Lehman had his heart attack. His wife Edith, who also came from a rich Jewish banking family, survived him until 1976. Like the wives of many rich and powerful men at this time, she was actually an astute political advisor that he trusted, but she also remained out of the spotlight.

Herbert Lehman is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1950, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Duff is in Carnegie, Pennsylvania and Carl Hayden is in Tempe, Arizona. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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