Party affiliation: Democratic Party
Herbert Henry Lehman was born in East New York to a family whose father, a partner in the investment bank, Lehman Brothers, had arrived in the United States from Bavaria in 1849 and whose mother became an ardent advocate of women’s suffrage.
In 1899 he worked as a cotton-goods salesman and spent his evenings supervising a club for boys at the Henry Street Settlement, coaching basketball and debating teams.
In 1908 he entered the firm of Lehman Brothers as a partner, and in 1910 he married Edith Louise Altschul, daughter of a San Francisco banker. They adopted three children; their son Peter was killed in action over Britain in 1944 after having flown fifty-seven missions.
At the outbreak of World War I Lehman worked for several months in the office of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy. Lehman obtained a commission as captain in the U.S. Army, attaining rank of colonel by the end of the war, with responsibility for procurement and transportation on the general staff. He was awarded the distinguished service medal.
Lehman’s interest in politics began in 1910 as a delegate to the Democratic party convention. In 1926 Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed him chairman of the finance, budget, and revenue committee and in this capacity he wrote a comprehensive report on the finances of New York City. In 1926 Lehman managed Governor Smith’s election campaign and in 1928 was himself elected lieutenant governor to F. D. Roosevelt, giving up his position in Lehman Brothers. In 1930 he was reelected, again with Roosevelt. He assisted Governor Roosevelt with financial and budgetary problems, improving the scope and caliber of the state’s administration agencies and social services, particularly in the area of hospital and prison reform, and in dealing with labor crises.
In 1932, when Governor Roosevelt was elected president, Lehman was elected governor of New York State, the first of five terms — more than any other person in New York’s history, In his nine election campaigns he experienced only one defeat — for the Senate in 1946. As governor he introduced a comprehensive program of liberal legislation. He obtained enactment of statutes concerning labor relations, minimum wages, unemployment insurance, low-cost housing, and improvement of public utilities. His program of liberal legislation became known as the Little New Deal.
In 1942 Lehman resigned as governor and was drafted by President Roosevelt to become director of the Office of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation which in 1943 merged with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, responsible for rebuilding a Europe devastated by the war. In 1946 he resigned from this position and became involved in dealing with the plight of Jewish refugees and the situation in Palestine. He was not formally a Zionist and was then opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, but publicly advocated free Jewish immigration into Palestine. After the establishment of the State of Israel, Lehman became a staunch supporter and in 1958 chaired the committee to celebrate Israel’s tenth anniversary.
Herbert Lehman was elected to the Senate in 1949 and was one of the principal supporters of Truman’s Fair Deal Program. He was an outspoken critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt and they clashed violently on the Senate floor. The Lehman-Tobey bill to relax the restrictions on immigration stipulated by the Walter-McCarran immigration bill was not successful. Lehman did not run for election to the Senate in 1956.
In 1963 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Lehman College of the City University of New York is named after him; a bust of Lehman, by sculptor John Belardo, was dedicated there in September 2005.
The High School of American Studies at Lehman College is located on the campus. College dormitories are named in his honor at Williams College, the University at Buffalo, and at Binghamton University.
A ship on the Staten Island Ferry, The Governor Herbert H. Lehman, is named for him.
There is a Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History at Columbia University. His papers were donated to the Columbia University Libraries and are housed in the social sciences library – which is also named in his honor. In addition, Columbia has a Herbert Lehman Professorship of government, which is currently held by Mahmood Mamdani. Columbia's sister school, Barnard College, has a building named in Lehman's honor; it houses Barnard's library and some social sciences departments. Williams College, his alma mater, named a dormitory after him in 1928.
Lehman High School located on Westchester Square in The Bronx, New York (est. 1974) is also named in his honor.
In 1974, Herbert H. Lehman was inducted into the Jewish-American Hall of Fame.
Moshav Liman in northern Israel is named after him.
Lehman's quote, "It is immigrants who brought this land the skills of their hands and brains to make of it a beacon of opportunity and hope for all men." is inscribed on the extended-pages version of the American Passport on page 45.
Herbert Lehman was a prominent member of the Jewish community and carried on the family tradition of welfare work. Already in 1914 he helped to found the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and after the war chaired its Reconstruction Committee.
He was an active fund-raiser for the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. the United Jewish Appeal, and many other causes, and he helped in the organization of the Palestine Loan Bank and the Palestine Economic Corporation.
He was particularly interested in supporting organizations dealing with child welfare. In I960 he and his wife gave half a million dollars for the establishment of a children’s zoo in New York’s Central Park to mark the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary. He was a champion of black rights and persistently advocated civil rights in the Senate.
1929 - 1932
1933 - 1942
1943 - 1946
1949 - 1957