“J. Ham” – Eccentric Democratic Leader and Mentor to a Future President

If you were to observe the Senate during the first six years of the Wilson Administration, a figure you may hear speak, debate, and push his party colleagues to vote for important bills backed by the president is a man who dresses like a dandy, wears spats, makes no effort to hide that he wears a toupee (although he is never photographed without it!), and even has some pink in his Van Dyke whiskers! This is Illinois’ J. Hamilton Lewis (or “J. Ham”) (1863-1939).

Although Lewis represented the “Land of Lincoln” in the Senate, he was the son of an invalid Confederate veteran and his mother had died in childbirth. Thus, he was raised by relatives and after earning his law degree at Augusta University, he in 1885 made his way to the Washington territory, where he practiced law and got into politics. In 1887, Lewis was elected for a single term to the state legislature as a Democrat and after the state’s admission he was on a commission to determine boundaries with Canada. Although his gubernatorial bid in 1892 was unsuccessful, he attracted a lot of support from state Democrats for the 1896 election, namely for the vice-presidential nomination, receiving 11 votes at the Democratic National Convention on the first ballot for vice president, despite not being minimum age. He benefited, however, from the presidential election in 1896, as William Jennings Bryan won the state by double digits, and Lewis in turn won an at-Large Congressional seat. Although Lewis faced a Republican Congress and president, he made his mark even in his first term. He proved a highly capable debater to the degree that even Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, a giant both intellectually and physically, preferred not to tangle with the young lawyer from Seattle. However, in 1898 he lost reelection to Republican Francis W. Cushman. He then served in the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of colonel. In 1900, he ran for the vice-presidential nomination, but it went to Adlai Stevenson instead. In 1903, Lewis got a compelling offer to join a law firm in Chicago and moved, and this is where he would stay. In 1908, he ran for governor, but just like in Washington before, he was unsuccessful.

The Senate

In 1913, the situation for Illinois and the Senate was in tumult. The state’s senior senator, Shelby Cullom, was an octogenarian who had been in the House when President Lincoln was assassinated. The state’s other senator, William Lorimer, was a Chicago political boss who got expelled for corruption. Cullom had stuck by Lorimer and was defeated in the “advisory” primary by Lawrence Y. Sherman, a Lorimer critic. Given the divided powers of the state legislature, a compromise was crafted in which they elected Lewis and Sherman. Lewis would be elected Majority Whip, second to Majority Leader John W. Kern of Indiana.

Senator Lewis was critical in pushing Democratic senators to back “New Freedom” legislation such as the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the creation of the Federal Reserve and was mostly loyal in his record to the administration. His appearance, as noted earlier, was the talk of the town. He didn’t dress down for audiences either; once he was advised to do so when attending a political gathering with working class voters, but instead he came with coattails and a top hat and said to them that he had come to pay them his respects and that this warranted him wearing the best clothes he had, and they were won over, cheering him as he left the hall (Hill).

Lewis, consistent with his support for Wilson, backed American entry into World War I as well as wartime restrictions on civil liberties. He also supported women’s suffrage and opposed Prohibition. However, Lewis’ time in the Senate would be cut off by dissatisfaction with Wilson in the 1918 midterms. He was defeated by Republican Congressman Medill McCormick, who was known for his dislike of the British government and brother of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, owner of the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune. Now instead of a highly capable debater in Lewis who almost certainly would have supported the Versailles Treaty, Wilson had to contend with an irreconcilable; McCormick would not back the treaty under any circumstances. In 1920, Lewis was trounced in his run for governor by Republican Len Small, who would become one of the state’s numerous corrupt governors.

Second Act

Although Lewis was in the electoral wilderness in the Republican twenties, he made a good deal of money practicing international law. His chance came around again in 1930. McCormick’s widow (he had committed suicide in 1925), Ruth Hanna, was running for the Senate. However, questionable levels of campaign expenditures haunted her campaign and this with the backdrop of the onset of the Great Depression contributed to J. Ham’s landslide win: he defeated McCormick by almost 34 points. Although in 1932 he was the “favorite son” candidate from Illinois for president with the backing of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, he soon came around to supporting FDR. After the election of Roosevelt to the White House, “J. Ham”, remembered fondly for his efforts for Wilson by fellow Democrats, was again elected the Senate Majority Whip, this time serving under Majority Leader Joe Robinson of Arkansas. Like he had done for Wilson’s New Freedom, he used his position to whip up votes for FDR’s New Deal programs.

Helping a Young Senator

The 1934 midterms were good for Democrats, and in Missouri, incumbent Republican Roscoe Patterson was defeated for reelection. The new senator was a favorite of the Kansas City based Pendergast Machine, and its leader Tom Pendergast was not liked by Roosevelt and his people in the Administration, who had a strong distaste for political bosses. This man initially had a difficult time getting people to talk to him given the reputation of the machine he had come from, and Roosevelt wouldn’t meet with him for five months. However, Lewis decided to befriend and mentor him. He would tell the senator, “Harry, don’t start out with an inferiority complex. For the first six months you’ll wonder how the hell you got here. After that you’ll wonder how the hell rest of us got here” (Hill). Senator Truman, who was regarded as the honest public face of the Pendergast machine, would eventually be preferred by the Administration to his colleague J. Clark Bennett, who was too independent-minded and non-interventionist. He would make his mark during World War II, heading up a committee investigating waste and corruption in the government, which would save the US billions in military spending and ultimately result in his rise to the presidency. Lewis would continue to dress in his way, by this time being out of date, wearing spats and he would also wear wavy pink toupees.

Roosevelt’s Second Term

Unlike 1918, Lewis won reelection in 1936 by over 15 points against his former colleague, Otis F. Glenn, who remained a supporter of the at the time deeply unpopular former President Hoover. Although a Roosevelt Administration loyalist, he did cast a few adverse votes as far as Roosevelt was concerned: he supported deleting the “death sentence clause” of the Public Utilities Holding Company Act in 1935, which was the core of the law, and voted to kill his “court packing plan” in 1937. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Lewis opined on September 12, 1938, regarding the Sudeten Crisis, “Czechoslovakia isn’t the real object at all. That is a small matter that could be settled at any time. These gestures of Germany toward Czechoslovakia are to test how far France and England will go in combatting Germany’s larger aims” (The Associated Press). Two days later, England caved and three days after France did so. The Munich Agreement was formalized on September 29-30, 1938, and Nazi Germany occupied the Sudetenland in the following days. They would also invade Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. On the afternoon of April 9, 1939, Lewis suffered a heart attack and although rushed to the hospital, he died five hours later (The New York Times). The New York Times incorrectly reported his age as 72, when he was in fact 75. The last vote Lewis had cast was to confirm William O. Douglas to the Supreme Court. Lewis stands out as the first official Majority Whip in Senate history (and a highly effective one at that) as well as being one of the few politicians to have represented two states in Congress.


Hill, R. The Senate’s Dandy: James Hamilton Lewis of Illinois. The Knoxville Focus.

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Hitler’s Speech Relieves America of War Fears. (1938, September 13). The Associated Press.

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Senator Lewis, 72, Stricken Fatally; Congress Veteran Is Rushed to Capital Hospital When He Suffers Heart Attack. (1939, April 10). The New York Times.

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