Robert F. Wagner

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Robert F. Wagner
Harris & Ewing photo, Library of Congress
United States Senator
from New York
In office
March 4, 1927 – June 28, 1949
Preceded byJames W. Wadsworth Jr.
Succeeded byJohn Foster Dulles
Acting Lieutenant Governor of New York
In office
October 17, 1913 – December 31, 1914
GovernorMartin H. Glynn
Preceded byMartin H. Glynn
Succeeded byEdward Schoeneck
Member of the New York Senate
from the 16th district
In office
January 1, 1909 – December 31, 1918
Preceded byJohn T. McCall
Succeeded byJames A. Foley
Member of the
New York State Assembly
In office
January 1, 1905 – December 31, 1905
Preceded byGotthardt A. Litthauer
Succeeded byMaurice F. Smith
Constituency30th New York district
In office
January 1, 1907 – December 31, 1908
Preceded byThomas Rock
Succeeded byGeorge W. Baumann
Constituency22nd New York district
Personal details
Robert Ferdinand Wagner

(1877-06-08)June 8, 1877
Nastätten, Hesse-Nassau, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
DiedMay 4, 1953(1953-05-04) (aged 75)
New York City, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Margaret Marie McTague
(m. 1908; died 1919)
ChildrenRobert Ferdinand Wagner II
Alma mater

Robert Ferdinand Wagner I (June 8, 1877 – May 4, 1953) was an American attorney and Democratic Party politician who represented the state of New York in the United States Senate from 1927 to 1949.

Born in Prussia, Wagner immigrated to the United States with his family in 1885. After graduating from New York Law School, Wagner won election to the New York State Legislature, eventually becoming the Democratic leader of the New York State Senate. Working closely with fellow New York City Democrat Al Smith, Wagner and Smith embraced reform, especially to the benefit of their core constituency, the working class. They built a coalition for these reforms that embraced unions, social workers, some businessmen, and numerous middle-class activists and civic reform organizations across the state.[3] Wagner left the state senate in 1918, and served as a justice of the New York Supreme Court until his election to the U.S. Senate in 1926.

As a Senator, Wagner was a leader of the New Deal Coalition, putting special emphasis on supporting the labor movement. He was a close associate and strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He sponsored three major laws: the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act), the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Housing Act of 1937.[4] Wagner resigned from the Senate in 1949 due to ill health, and died in 1953. His son, Robert F. Wagner Jr., was mayor of New York City from 1954 through 1965.

Early life and education[edit]

Robert Ferdinand Wagner was born on June 8, 1877, in Nastätten, Hesse-Nassau, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire (now in Rhein-Lahn-Kreis, Rhineland-Palatinate, Federal Republic of Germany). The family immigrated to the United States in 1885[2] and settled in New York City's Yorkville neighborhood, where Wagner attended the public schools. His father was a janitor.

He graduated from the College of the City of New York (now named City College of New York) in 1898, where he was a brother of Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity and from New York Law School in 1900. He was admitted to the bar in 1900.

Political career[edit]

As a young lawyer he became part of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine in Manhattan. He was elected to New York State Assembly in 1905 (New York Co., 30th D.), 1907 and 1908 (both New York Co., 22nd D.).

New York State Senate[edit]

He was a member of the New York State Senate (16th D.) from 1909 to 1918, sitting in the 132nd, 133rd, 134th, 135th, 136th, 137th, 138th, 139th, 140th and 141st New York State Legislatures. He was President pro tempore of the New York State Senate from 1911 to 1914. Wagner became Acting Lieutenant Governor of New York after the impeachment of Governor William Sulzer, and the succession of Lieutenant Governor Martin H. Glynn to the governorship. In 1914, while Wagner remained President pro tempore, John F. Murtaugh was chosen Majority Leader of the State Senate. That was the only time before 2009 that the two offices were not held by the same person. After the Democrats lost their Senate majority, Wagner was Senate Minority Leader from January 1915 until he retired in 1918.

In the aftermath of the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he was Chairman of the State Factory Investigating Committee (1911–1915). His Vice Chairman was fellow Tammany Hall politician, Al Smith. They held a series of widely publicized investigations around the state, interviewing 222 witnesses and taking 3500 pages of testimony. They started with the issue of fire safety and moved on to broader issues of the risks of injury in the factory environment. Their findings led to 38 new laws regulating labor in New York State and gave each of them a reputation as leading progressive reformers working on behalf of the working class. In the process, they changed Tammany's reputation from mere corruption to progressive endeavors to help workers.[5][6][7]

Wagner was a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Conventions of 1915 and 1938 and a justice of the New York Supreme Court from 1919 to 1926.

U.S. Senate[edit]

President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act into law, August 14, 1935. (Wagner second from left)
Federal Housing Administrator Stewart McDonald (right) discussing with Senator Robert F. Wagner, author of The Wagner Housing Act

Wagner was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in 1926 and re-elected in 1932, 1938, and 1944. He resigned on June 28, 1949, due to ill health. He was unable to attend any sessions of the 80th or 81st Congress from 1947 to 1949 because of a heart ailment.[8] Wagner was the Chairman of the Committee on Patents in the 73rd Congress, of the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys in the 73rd and 74th Congresses, and of the Committee on Banking and Currency in the 75th through 79th Congresses. He was a delegate to the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944.

Wagner, who had known the future President when they were in the New York state legislature together, was a member of Franklin Roosevelt's Brain Trust. He was very involved in labor issues, fought for legal protection and rights for workers, and was a leader in crafting the New Deal.

In April 1943, a confidential analysis by British scholar Isaiah Berlin of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the British Foreign Office stated of Wagner:

a veteran Liberal Tammany statesman, author of the United States labour code and devotee of the New Deal who is respected by the White House for his political acumen within his own State no less than for his political connexions. Greatest champion of the Liberal cause in the United States Senate since [George W.] Norris. A typical anti-Nazi German Democrat who has supported all the Administration measures, being usually well in advance of them.[9]

His most important legislative achievements include the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and the Wagner–Steagall Housing Act of 1937. After the Supreme Court ruled the National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Recovery Administration unconstitutional, Wagner helped pass the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) in 1935,[10] a similar but much more expansive bill. The National Labor Relations Act, perhaps Wagner's greatest achievement, was a seminal event in the history of organized labor in the United States. It created the National Labor Relations Board, which mediated disputes between unions and corporations, and greatly expanded the rights of workers by banning many "unfair labor practices" and guaranteeing all workers the right to form a union. He also introduced the Railway Pension Law and cosponsored the Wagner–O'Day Act, the predecessor to the Javits–Wagner–O'Day Act.

Wagner was instrumental in writing the Social Security Act, and originally introduced it in the United States Senate.

The Wagner–Hatfield amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, aimed at turning over twenty-five percent of all radio channels to non-profit radio broadcasters, did not pass. In 1939 he co-sponsored with Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R–MA) the Wagner–Rogers Bill to admit 20,000 Jewish refugees under the age of 14 to the United States from Nazi Germany, but the bill never passed.[11]

Wagner and Edward P. Costigan sponsored a federal anti-lynching law in 1934. They tried to persuade President Roosevelt to support the bill but Roosevelt refused for fear of alienating Southern Democrats and losing their support for New Deal programs. There were 18 lynchings of blacks in the South in 1935, but after the threat of federal legislation, the number fell to eight in 1936 and to two in 1939.[12]

On June 28, 1949, Wagner resigned from the Senate because of ill health; John Foster Dulles was appointed by Governor Thomas E. Dewey on July 7, 1949, to fill the vacancy temporarily.

Personal life and death[edit]

Wagner was raised as a Lutheran, but he became a Methodist in his college years and taught Sunday school; he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1946.[13]

In 1908, Wagner married Margaret Marie McTague.[14] She died in 1919. They had one son, Robert F. Wagner Jr.

In 1927, he received the first honorary citizenship of Nastaetten, his town of birth.[15]

In the 1930s, Wagner dated the communist journalist Marguerite Young.[16]

He died on May 4, 1953, in New York City, and was interred in Calvary Cemetery, Queens.


His son Robert F. Wagner Jr. was Mayor of New York City from 1954 to 1965. His grandson, Robert (Bobby) Ferdinand Wagner III, was a Deputy Mayor, Director Urban Planning Commission and President of the New York City Board of Education in the 80s and 90s.

On September 14, 2004, a portrait of Wagner, along with one of Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, was unveiled in the Senate Reception Room. The new portraits joined a group of distinguished former senators, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Robert M. La Follette, and Robert A. Taft. Portraits of this group of senators, known as the "Famous Five", were unveiled on March 12, 1959.

The public middle school located at 220 East 76th Street in New York City is named after him.

The former Wagner Hall on the campus of the City College of New York is named for him.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Robert Ferdinand Wagner". Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1977. GALE|BT2310001400. Retrieved February 26, 2012 – via Fairfax County Public Library. Gale Biography In Context. (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b "Robert F. Wagner Sr". NNDB. Retrieved February 26, 2012. Birthplace: Nastatten, Hessen-Nassau, Germany
  3. ^ Robert A. Slayton, Empire statesman: The rise and redemption of Al Smith (2001) ch 6-11
  4. ^ J. Joseph. Huthmacher, "Senator Robert F. Wagner and the rise of urban liberalism." American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1969): 330-346. in JSTOR
  5. ^ "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911)". The New York Times. March 11, 2011.
  6. ^ Robert Ferdinand Wagner" in Dictionary of American Biography (1977)
  7. ^ Robert A. Slayton, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (2001)
  8. ^ Zernike, Kate (December 14, 2006). "Stricken Senate Democrat Undergoes Surgery". New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  9. ^ Hachey, Thomas E. (Winter 1973–1974). "American Profiles on Capitol Hill: A Confidential Study for the British Foreign Office in 1943" (PDF). Wisconsin Magazine of History. 57 (2): 141–153. JSTOR 4634869. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 21, 2013.
  10. ^ "U.S. Department of Labor - Labor Hall of Fame - Robert F. Wagner". Archived from the original on March 1, 2012. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  11. ^ Wagner-Rogers Bill. Holocaust Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 20, 2022.
  12. ^ Huthmacher, Senator Robert Wagner (1971) pp 171-174.
  13. ^ J. Joseph Huthmacher, Senator Robert F. Wagner and the rise of urban liberalism (1968) pp 14–15
  14. ^ "12 Aug 1908, Page 5 - The New York Times at". August 12, 1908. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  15. ^ Printed chronic of Nastaetten "893 Nastede - Nastaetten 1993" ISBN 3-920388-20-8
  16. ^ Ritchie, Donald A. (2005). Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517861-6. Retrieved December 18, 2016.
  17. ^ "The Lost World of CCNY: Architectural Gems of Our Past: Wagner Hall". Archived from the original on June 12, 2010. Retrieved June 12, 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link), CCNY Libraries Exhibitions website

Further reading[edit]

  • Biles, Roger. "Robert F. Wagner, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Social Welfare Legislation in the New Deal." Presidential Studies Quarterly 28.1 (1998): 139–152. online
  • Casebeer, Kenneth M. "Holder of the Pen: An Interview with Leon Keyersling on Drafting the Wagner Act." University of Miami Law Review 42 (1987): 285+. online
  • Eldot, Paula. "Wagner, Robert F."; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000, Access Feb 22 2015
  • "Robert Ferdinand Wagner." Dictionary of American Biography New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977. Biography in Context. Web. February 22, 2015 online
  • Huthmacher, J. Joseph. "Senator Robert F. Wagner and the rise of urban liberalism." American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1969): 330–346. in JSTOR
  • Huthmacher, J. Joseph. Senator Robert F. Wagner and the Rise of Urban Liberalism (1968) [ISBN missing]
  • Wagner Jr., Robert F. "The Philosophy of the Wagner Act of 1935." St. John's Law Review 32 (1957): 1–7, by his son the mayor; online.

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from New York
(Class 3)

1926, 1932, 1938, 1944
Succeeded by
New York State Assembly
Preceded by New York State Assembly
New York County, 30th District

Succeeded by
Preceded by New York State Assembly
New York County, 22nd District

Succeeded by
New York State Senate
Preceded by New York State Senate
16th District

Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Majority Leader of the New York State Senate
Succeeded by
Preceded by President pro tempore of the New York State Senate
Succeeded by
Preceded by Lieutenant Governor of New York

Succeeded by
Preceded by Minority Leader of the New York State Senate
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. senator (Class 3) from New York
Served alongside: Royal S. Copeland, James M. Mead, Irving Ives
Succeeded by