Herbert Henry Lehman (March 28,1878–December 5,1963) was a New York businessman who served as governor of New York and United States senator. Lehman was born and grew up in New York City. The son of one of the founders of Lehman Brothers, he worked at the family's investment banking firm and engaged in philanthropy after graduating from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. A lifelong Democrat and party fundraiser, he was elected as Franklin D. Roosevelt's lieutenant governor in 1928. Four years later he was elected governor of New York, a position he held for ten years.
Under Lehman's leadership, New York state adopted a package of reforms that won recognition as the country's premier "Little New Deal." Some programs, such as public housing, involved state-federal cooperation, but most were exclusively state operations that benefited groups hard hit by the Depression. While some state reforms resembled federal measures, in several cases, notably unemployment insurance and a minimum wage law, New York acted before Washington. In other instances, such as creation of the State Labor Relations Board, New York programs were copied almost verbatim from federal statutes. New York also established a system of price supports for dairy farmers. Other state reforms included restrictions on child labor, as well as state aid, as part of Social Security, for needy people burdened by unemployment, old age, physical disabilities, or fatherless families. Through these programs, New York laid the foundations for a welfare state that became a model for other states.
The Depression provided much of the impetus for New York's reform movement by revealing the impersonal causes of poverty and stimulating a rising demand for government action. Some proposals had been suggested before, but the Depression, which devastated so many people, made the reforms more acceptable. New York proved fertile ground for reform, in part because of its progressive traditions and because it had access to greater taxable wealth than most states. Herbert Lehman also contributed to the success of welfare state reforms, guaranteeing a minimum standard of living to many groups. Despite his wealth, Lehman was genuinely interested in the plight of those in need, seeing "no inconsistency between being a business man and a liberal." Thus, he welcomed the suggestions of social workers and union leaders and in his quiet manner fought doggedly for enabling legislation. On January 6, 1938, the New York Times credited the "modest, hard-working and undramatic governor" with guiding passage of "a labor and social program transcending any ever executed in America."
Lehman's reputation as a liberal reformer later helped him win a seat in the U. S. Senate, where he served from 1949 to 1957 and became an out-spoken opponent of controversial Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
See Also: DEMOCRATIC PARTY; ELECTION OF 1928; ELECTION OF 1932.
Ingalls, Robert P. Herbert H. Lehman and New York's Little New Deal. 1975.
Nevins, Allan. Herbert H. Lehman and His Era. 1963.
ROBERT P. INGALLS