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John L. Lewis

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Busy attacking President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lewis declines an invitation

John Llewellyn Lewis, 1880–1969.  American labor leader.  Typed Letter Signed, John L. Lewis, one page, 8” x 10”, on blind-embossed, engraved stationery of the United Mine Workers of America, Washington, D.C., February 10, 1940.

The day that he lambasted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor policies in a speech before the American Youth Congress in Washington, D.C., Lewis, one of the most powerful and obstinate labor leaders of the 20th Century, declines an invitation to attend the annual dinner of the Illinois State Society.  Writing to Illinois Congressman Laurence F. Arnold, president of the society, Lewis writes, in full:  “I am most appreciative of your letter of February 8, calling my attention to the address of Dr. Hertz before the Illinois State Society on February 14.  /  Most unfortunately, I expect to be in New York City on Wednesday of next week, and for that reason I am very regretful to say that I will not be able to be present.  If, however, I should return to Washington that evening, I will be glad to come.  /  I hope sometime in the future that possibly I can attend one of the meetings of the Society.  /  With my compliments, I am  /  Sincerely yours . . . .”

Just nine days before he wrote this letter, Lewis, president of both the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the United Mine Workers of America, a CIO affiliate, had publicly broken with Roosevelt.  Although he was a Republican, Lewis had nevertheless supported Roosevelt for reelection in 1936 based on the President’s support for organized labor.  By 1940, however, he was disillusioned.  He blamed Roosevelt for failing to support labor during the long dispute between the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a precursor to the United Steelworkers, which tried to organized 186,000 employees of the six companies of “Little Steel.”  Lewis, an isolationist, also opposed Roosevelt’s efforts to aid Britain in the early stages of World War II.

Thus, on February 1, 1940, speaking at the United Mine Workers’ convention, Lewis argued that the Roosevelt Administration “finds itself without a solution to the major questions of unemployment, low national income, mounting international debt, increasing direct and consumer taxation, and restricted foreign markets.  There still exists the national unhappiness that it faced seven years ago,” when Roosevelt took office in 1933 in the depths of the Great Depression.  Lewis charged that in Congress, “the unrestrained baiting and defaming of Labor by the Democratic majority has become a national pastime.”  Furthermore, he argued, Roosevelt had not given organized labor “representation in the cabinet, nor in the administration or policy-making agencies of government.”  Ultimately, Lewis endorsed Republican Wendell Willkie for president as Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term. 

Nine days later, the day that he wrote this letter, Lewis spoke to 4,500 delegates to the American Youth Congress.  Roosevelt had just told the delegates, who were assembled on the White House lawn, and who booed his attacks on the Soviet Union, that they could not criticize his foreign policy because they knew too little about it.  He also told them that they were too young to understand how difficult the problem of unemployment was.  Afterward, when the delegates met at the Department of Labor, Lewis took on the President.  Who, he asked, “has a bigger, greater right to protest against war or any part of war, or the diplomatic intrigues of war, or the subtle politics preceding war, than the young men who, in the event of war, would become cannon fodder?”  He also dug at Roosevelt’s labor policies:  After listening to Roosevelt, he said, “when you came away you didn’t know where to get a job if you needed one; he didn’t tell you that if you waited a year there would be a job for you, he didn’t say that if you waited five years there would be a job for you.  Because, apparently, he didn’t know . . . .”  Roosevelt had diminished the problem of youth unemployment, saying that young people had also wanted jobs in previous decades.  Lewis retorted:  “How much does that mean to one of you who needs a job?  How much does that mean to those of you who have plans to get married and live the normal life of Americans?  And how many years of interrupting your normal plans will you enjoy?  How many years must you wander and hope that you will have an opportunity here in your native land to live the normal life of a normal citizen?”

In the 1940 election, however, CIO members chose Roosevelt over Lewis.  Some 85% of them supported Roosevelt against Willkie.  Lewis therefore resigned as president of the CIO, although he remained as president of the United Mine Workers.  In 1942, he took the United Mine Workers out of the CIO and continued to lead the UMW until he retired in 1960.

Emanuel Hertz (1870–1940), the speaker whom Lewis mentions in this letter, was a noted authority on Abraham Lincoln.  By the time of his death, Hertz had assembled the largest private collection of material relating to Lincoln.  The New York Times reported that his collection included some 4,000 previously unknown items.  Hertz, a lawyer, was a prolific writer:  He published several books and pamphlets on various aspects of Lincoln’s life, including Abraham Lincoln: His Political Vision (1926); The Many Sided Lincoln: What Would He Do Were He Here Today? (1926); The Wizardry of Lincoln’s Political Appointments and Party Management (1927); Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of the Synagogue (1927); The Lincoln Collection (1927); Abraham Lincoln: More Than A Country Lawyer (1928); Abraham Lincoln: His Inventive Mind (1930); The Children’s Lincoln (1930); Lincoln’s Spells of Gloom (1930); Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait (1931); and Hidden Lincoln (1938)A lawyer, Hertz donated some 20,000 books to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, 20,000 to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and 8,000 to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He was also a substantial benefactor of the Library of Congress.

This is a beautiful letter with a large, bold signature by Lewis.  It has two normal horizontal mailing folds, neither of which affects the signature, and a penciled filing note in the blank area at the upper left corner.  It is in very fine condition.

Unframed.  Click here for information about custom framing this piece.


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