Robert Ferdinand Wagner, the youngest of nine children, was born in Hesse-Nassau, Germany, on 8th June, 1877. His family emigrated to the United States in 1885 and settled in New York City. Wagner was unable to speak English when he started school but he was a good student and eventually graduated from the New York City College (1898) and the New York Law School (1900).
Wagner was active in the Democratic Party and with the support of Charles Murphy and the Tammany Society he won a seat in the state legislature in 1904 and four years later was elected to the state senate. Wagner took a particular interest in industrial working conditions and developed a sympathy for the emerging trade union movement.
The New York Times reported: "In ability and character, in honesty of purpose and manliness of action. Senator Wagner has been an inspiration to younger legislators and a beacon light to men older than him in years. He was the friend of the laboring man and the defender of women and children who have to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow and yet he never was a demagogue. All the gold in the world could not buy him; all the beckonings of ambition could not induce him to abandon the cause that was righteous and the issue that was true. There is not a black spot upon him. He has served the people well." In 1919 Wagner became a justice of the New York Supreme Court. He held this position to 1926 when he was elected to the United States Senate. During his first term Wagner failed in his attempts to persuade Congress to pass legislation to help trade unions and the unemployed.
After he was elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially opposed massive public works spending. However, by the spring of 1933, the needs of more than fifteen million unemployed had overwhelmed the resources of local governments. In some areas, as many as 90 per cent of the people were on relief and it was clear something needed to be done. His close advisors and colleagues, Wagner, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, Robert LaFollette Jr., Fiorello LaGuardia, George Norris and Edward Costigan eventually won him over.
On 9th March 1933, Roosevelt called a special session of Congress. He told the members that unemployment could only be solved "by direct recruiting by the Government itself." For the next three months, Roosevelt proposed, and Congress passed, a series of important bills that attempted to deal with the problem of unemployment. The special session of Congress became known as the Hundred Days and provided the basis for Roosevelt's New Deal.
Wagner was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the first chairman of the National Recovery Administration. Wagner became an important figure in the Roosevelt administration and helped draft the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Social Security Act, and the National Labour Relations Act - commonly called the Wagner Act.
Frances Perkins explained in her book, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946): "It ought to be on the record that the President did not take part in developing the National Labor Relations Act and, in fact, was hardly consulted about it. It was not a part of the President's program. It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him. All the credit for it belongs to Wagner. The proposed bill, it must be remembered, was remedial. Certain unfair practices which employers had used against workers to prevent unionization and to cripple their economic strength had been uncovered by Wagner. The bill sought to correct these specific, known abuses, and did not attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behaviour in labor relations. Such a comprehensive code, however, was needed. Roosevelt supported my suggestion that labor leaders who wanted to distinguish themselves should draw up such a code and let us take a look at it."
Wagner and Hugh Johnson, the head of the National Industrial Recovery Act often disagreed on the subject of trade unions. As William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) has pointed out: "President Roosevelt shared Wagner's indignation at the intransigence of employers, but he shared too Johnson's perturbation that mass labor organizing might impede the recovery drive... Roosevelt had far more interest in developing social legislation to help the worker than in seeing these gains secured through unions."
The NAACP hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt would bring an end to lynching. Two African American campaigners against lynching, Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White, had been actively involved in helping Roosevelt to obtain victory. The president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, had also been a long-time opponent of lynching.
Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan agreed to draft a bill that would punish the crime of lynching. In 1935 attempts were made to persuade Roosevelt to support the Costigan-Wagner bill. However, Roosevelt refused to speak out in favour of the bill that would punish sheriffs who failed to protect their prisoners from lynch mobs. He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him if he supported the bill and he would therefore lose the next election.
Even the appearance in the newspapers of the lynching of Rubin Stacy failed to change Roosevelt's mind on the subject. Six deputies were escorting Stacy to Dade County jail in Miami on 19th July, 1935, when he was taken by a white mob and hanged by the side of the home of Marion Jones, the woman who had made the original complaint against him. The New York Times later revealed that "subsequent investigation revealed that Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had gone to the house to ask for food; the woman became frightened and screamed when she saw Stacy's face."
Wagner argued in the Senate that "there is no greater evil than mob violence and there is no reform for which I have pleaded with greater certainty of its wisdom than this bill." The Costigan-Wagner received support from many members of Congress but the Southern opposition managed to defeat it. However, the national debate that took place over the issue helped to bring attention to the crime of lynching.
In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Wagner as the first chairman of the National Recovery Administration. Wagner became an important figure in the Roosevelt administration and helped draft the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Social Security Act, and the National Labour Relations Act - commonly called the Wagner Act.
In 1937 Wagner persuaded Congress to establish the United States Housing Authority, an agency to provide loans for low-cost public housing. However, he was less successful in his attempts to create a national health care system.
Wagner resigned from the Senate for health reasons in 1949. However, he recovered and spent his last few years helping to establish the new nation of Israel. Robert Ferdinand Wagner died in New York City on 4th May, 1953.