Harold Ickes was born in Frankstown, Pennsylvania on 15th March, 1874. He attended the University of Chicago and after graduating in 1897 he set himself up as a lawyer. Ickes held progressive political views and often worked for causes he believed in without pay.
As a young man he was deeply influenced by the politics of John Altgeld. He later wrote: "How the Chicago Tribune and others had smeared this humane and courageous man because he had fought for the underdog, and especially because he had pardoned those who still lived of the innocent victims who had been railroaded to the penitentiary after the Haymarket riot! So far as I could see, Altgeld stood about where I wanted to stand on social questions."
Ickes worked for Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election. After the demise of the Progressive Party, Ickes switched to Hiram Johnson and managed his unsuccessful campaign to became a presidential candidate in 1924.
Ickes became a follower of Franklin D. Roosevelt after being impressed by his progressive policies as governor of New York. In 1932 Ickes played an important role in persuading progressive Republicans to support Roosevelt in the presidential election. He was a supporter of the New Deal. As he later argued: "Many billions of dollars could properly be spent in the United States on permanent improvements. Such spending would not only help us out of the depression, it would do much for the health, well-being and prosperity of the people. I refuse to believe that providing an adequate water supply for a municipality or putting in a sewage system is a wasteful expenditure of money. Any money spent in such fashion as to make our people healthier and happier human beings is not only a good social investment, it is sound from a strictly financial point of view. I can think of no better investment, for instance, than money paid out to provide education and to safeguard the health of the people."
In 1933 Roosevelt appointed Ickes as his Secretary of the Interior. This involved running the Public Works Administration (PWA) and over the next six years spent more than $5,000,000,000 on various large-scale projects. Ickes, a strong supporter of civil rights, he worked closely with Walter Francis White of the NAACP to establish quotas for African American workers in PWA projects.
His work was praised by the New York Times: "Mr. Ickes knows all the rackets that infest the construction industry. He is a terror to collective bidders and skimping contractors. He warns that the PWA fund is a sacred trust fund and that only traitors would graft on a project undertaken to save people from hunger. He insists on fidelity to specifications; cancels violated contracts mercilessly, sends inspectors to see that men in their eagerness to work are not robbed of pay by the kickback swindle."
Ickes felt that others in the administration, such as Harry L. Hopkins, had more power and influence over Roosevelt's decision. Ickes did not get on with Harry S. Truman and resigned from his government in 1946 in protest over the appointment of Edwin W. Pauley, Under Secretary of the Navy.
In his final years Ickes wrote a syndicated newspaper column and contributed regularly to the New Republic. Ickes wrote several books including New Democracy (1934), Back to Work: The Story of the PWA (1935), Yellowstone National Park (1937), The Third Term Bugaboo: A Cheerful Anthology (1940), Fighting Oil: The History and Politics of Oil (1943) and The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon (1943).