Herbert Lehman was the first Jewish Governor of New York. For most of his term in the U.S. Senate, he was the only Jewish Senator in Congress.
Herbert Lehman was born on March 28, 1878 in New York City. His father, Meyer Lehman, was an original founder of Lehman Brothers and a founder of the Cotton Exchange. He attended Sachs Collegiate Institute and received his A.B. from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1899. Following graduation, he worked at J. Specter Turner Company textile manufacturers. In 1908, he joined the family investment firm Lehman Brothers. He entered the Army during World War I and reached the rank of full colonel upon his departure in 1919.
In 1920, Lehman began his career in politics. He worked on Alfred E. Smith’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. Smith won the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1928, and Lehman was selected to chair the Finance Committee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). That year, he won the election for New York Lieutenant Governor on the ticket with the gubernatorial candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1932, Roosevelt ran for President, and Lehman entered the race to succeed him as Governor. He won his gubernatorial race in 1932, and served until 1942. In 1940, his brother Irving was elected as the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. His election marked the first time in New York history that brothers were in charge of executive and judicial branches of government, respectively.
As Governor during the Great Depression, Lehman employed “Little New Deal” progressive policies. He implemented worker protection laws such as unemployment insurance and public housing projects. He also successfully turned a budget deficit into a surplus while in the midst of the Depression. In 1943, as the United States became more involved World War II, Lehman entered the State Department as the Director of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation Operations. He was then appointed to lead the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as the Director from 1943 to 1946. The agency provided aid to citizens under occupation by an Axis-aligned country.
Following the war, Lehman ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1946 against Irving M. Ives. In 1948, he joined the Public Advisory Board of the Economic Cooperation Administration. A year later, he ran again for U.S. Senate in a special election to succeed Robert F. Wagner. This time, he defeated his opponent John Foster Dulles and became the New York Senator. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1949 until 1957. As a Senator, Lehman fought against McCarthyism and voted against anti-immigrant legislation. He said, “I will not compromise with my conscience. I will cast my vote to protect the liberties of our people.”
Following his departure from the Senate, he worked with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support the Democratic reform movement in New York. He also founded the Lehman Children’s Zoo in Central Park, now called the Tisch Zoo.
Lehman passed away on December 5th, 1963. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. The Bronx campus of Hunter College was renamed as the Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY). His name was selected for his “integrity in public service, humanitarism, love of country, commitment to equal opportunity for all Americans, and a willingness to work hard.” The Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History at Columbia University is also in his honor. Lehman was inducted into the Jewish-American Hall of Fame in 1974.
He married Edith Louise Altschul in 1910, and the couple had three children. Their son, Peter, was killed while on active duty during World War II.
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