Dewey, Thomas E(dmund) (bOwosso, Mich, 24 Mar 1902; d Bal Harbour, Fla, 16 Mar 1971). Governor and presidential candidate.
Raised in rural Michigan where his father was a postmaster, Dewey worked his way through theUniversity of Michigan, graduating in 1923. He moved to New York City that same year to pursue an opera singing career under the tutelage of Percy Rector Stephens, the famous singing coach. But lacking sufficient talent, Dewey enrolled in Columbia LawSchool instead, earning his LLB in 1925.
Dewey achieved national prominence during the 1930s when, as a prosecutor, he presided over a series of sensational organized crime trials in New York City. As an assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York (1931–33), Dewey convicted Mafia boss Waxy Gordon on 1 Dec 1933 for racketeering. Building on this success, on 1 July 1935 Dewey was appointed by Democratic governor Herbert H. Lehman as a New York State special prosecutor (1935–37).
Charged with breaking organized crime’s hold over New York City, for the next two years Dewey convicted 72 of the 73 persons he brought to trial, including on 7 June 1936 the notorious Charles “Lucky” Luciano for prostitution and extortion. By 1937 Dewey’s exploits against the underworld transformed him into a national figure, which Dewey parlayed into his election as Manhattan district attorney (1937–41). Capitalizing on his stardom Dewey sought the New York State governorship in 1938 but lost by a mere 64,000 votes. In 1940 he also made an unsuccessful bid, at just 38 years of age, for the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention. With Dewey’s prosecutorial record, most New Yorkers saw his eventual election as governor preordained, and on 3 Nov 1942 Dewey was elected to that office by a near-record margin of more than 647,000 votes. He would hold the governor’s chair for three consecutive terms (1942–54).
As Governor, Dewey was the seminal figure in the Republican Party’s postwar embrace of liberal republicanism. In the face of the New Deal’s tremendous popularity, Dewey abandoned the party’s traditional antistatism, moving it toward a more politically viable progressive conservatism. In Albany Dewey not only continued the social welfare policies initiated by his Democratic predecessors but also strengthened these policies for a postwar age. Yet these programs appealed to conservatives because Dewey grounded them in a sound fiscal basis. As a result Dewey’s fiscally responsible liberalism made him tremendously popular with New York State voters. Nationally Dewey’s liberal republicanism greatly influenced Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M.Nixon (Dewey served as a close political mentor to both men). Liberal republicanism remained the party’s dominant political orientation until the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Dewey modernized many traditional Democratic programs during his tenure as governor, such as doubling state aid to localities for primary and secondary education, and tripling state aid to the poor and to mental health programs; he also expanded workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. As governor Dewey pioneered whole new policies for New York State. On 12 Mar 1945 he signed into law the Ives-Quinn bill, which outlawed racial and religious discrimination in employment, making New York the first state in the nation to have such legislation. In 1946 Dewey authorized the construction of a massive limited-access state highway system that became the New York State Thruway, renamed in 1964 in honor of the governor. On 4 Apr 1948 Dewey signed a law creating the State University of New York (SUNY) system. New York was the last state to have a public university, but in 2002 SUNY was the largest state university system in the United States.
Dewey’s record of success in New York State, however, did not extend nationally. He lost his party’s presidential nominee bid twice (1944, 1948). Dewey appeared aloof to many in public. His popularity was built instead on his analytical mind. His public persona led Alice Roosevelt Longworth to describe him as the little man on a wedding cake. In his 1944 bid for the presidency against Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dewey at first resisted his party’s nomination. He believed it was impossible to defeat Roosevelt with the nation engaged in global war. Dewey relented, however, when he feared that his refusal to run would compromise his chances of securing the 1948 nomination. On 8 Nov 1944 Pres Roosevelt won, as Dewey anticipated.
Expectations in 1948 were different, and early opinion polls assured a crushing Dewey victory. On 24 June 1948, at the Republican National Convention, Dewey captured the nomination on the third ballot. Once nominated, the governor and his advisors assumed that the election was already won because of a large lead in the polls and mistakenly adopted a campaign strategy that stressed broad political themes rather than specific policy recommendations. This approach, however, evidently led many Americans to feel that the governor was avoiding the issues.
In response, President Harry S. Truman ran an aggressive and negative campaign. On 2 Nov 1948, the president won by a narrow margin in perhaps the greatest political upset in American history.
Dewey slowly receded from the state and national spotlight after 1948. Although he wanted to retire from politics by 1950, state and national Republicans, fearful of the party losing its most prominent figure, persuaded Dewey to seek another term as governor. In 1950 Dewey was elected to a third and final gubernatorial term.
At the 1952 Republican National Convention, Dewey played a critical role in securing the presidential and vice presidential nominations for Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon.
On 7 Sept 1954 Dewey announced his decision to retire from public life at the end of his gubernatorial term for a corporate law practice in New York City. He became a partner at Dewey Ballentine, where he practiced law from 1955 until his death. He spent much of his free time in his summer home and farm at Pawling (Dutchess Co).
When Pres Nixon in 1968 offered Dewey the federal positions of chief justice of the Supreme Court or the secretary of state, the former governor declined. A father of liberal republicanism, Dewey was a vital figure in the postwar resurgence of the Republican Party.
Beyer, Barry K. Thomas E. Dewey, 1937–1947: A Study in Political Leadership (New York: Garland, 1979)
Smith, Richard Norton. Thomas E. Dewey and His Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982)
Stolberg, Mary M. Fighting Organized Crime: Politics, Justice, and the Legacy of Thomas E. Dewey (Boston: Northeastern Univ Press, 1995)
Tod M. Ottman
Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 459-60].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.