Emanuel Celler

Emanuel Celler

Emanuel Celler, the son of a shop owner, was born in Brooklyn on 6th May, 1888. His grandmother was a Jewish immigrant from Germany. He later wrote: "In our house we repeated the pattern of thousands of other homes. There were a few books and a lot of music. Our food and our furniture were no different from our neighbors'. While we ourselves were not poor, I had only to walk a few streets away to find the sounds and the smells of poverty. We were respectable and middle-class. But we were not very far from the Brooklyn dockyards. I didn't know then that I would never be able to leave the sounds and smells of these sights behind me, but I was fiercely conscious of one thing - of my ambition."

After attending the Brooklyn Boys' High School he worked as a wine salesman while studying at the Columbia University Law School. His father provided him with some of the money to help him study. He told him: " I am not giving the money to you. It will be a loan. This is how you will pay me back: Some day, when someone stands before you in need of help, you will help him as I will help you. In this way only will I consider the loan repaid."

In 1912 Celler was admitted to the bar and began working as a lawyer in New York City. A member of the Democratic Party, Celler was elected to the Senate 1923. As the grandson of immigrants, Celler was a strong opponent of the 1924 Immigration Act. He also campaigned in favour of equal civil rights for African Americans and argued against Prohibition. Celler later admitted: "For the first ten years of my life in Congress, I had been timid. I had been too timid to tell the truth as I saw it. In a way I had betrayed my trust. Yes, I had fought against the unjust restriction of immigration. I worked what seemed to me endlessly on the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment. I had advocated the establishment of a Negro industrial commission. I had gestured against the growth of monopoly power. I had introduced a few civil rights bills. But, actually, I had taken on the color of the climate around me and I had driven back all the emotion that rose from the Brooklyn streets, so that I could belong unobtrusively to the exclusive club of Congress."

Celler was a great supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He argued in his autobiography: "The first days of the Roosevelt Administration charged the air with the snap and the zigzag of electricity. I felt it. We all felt it. It seemed as it you could hold out your hand and close it over the piece of excitement you had ripped away. It was the return of hope. The mind was elastic and capable of crowding idea into idea. New faces came to Washington - young faces of bright lads who could talk. It was contagious. We started to talk in the cloak rooms; we started to talk in committees. The shining new faces called on us and talked. In March of 1933 we had witnessed a revolution - a revolution in manner, in mores, in the definition of government. What before had been black or white sprang alive with color. The messages to Congress, the legislation; even the reports on the legislation took on the briskness of authority."

Celler was an early critic of Martin Dies and the House of Un-American Activities Committee: "The Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities is now a standing investigatory committee with power to initiate legislation.... The vaudevillian antics, the brass band tactics, the star chamber proceedings of the Dies Committee have put all of us on notice. Bluntly then, the present committee can make its choice. It can either adopt the Dies course of unfounded character assassinations, lynch-law, prosecutor-jury and executioner all in one - or it can proceed in a manner consonant with the American tradition of the right to be heard, the right of counsel and the right of confrontation of witnesses, placing emphasis on investigation of all foreignisms with honest judicious objectivity. If we are to have again an extravaganza of persecution - a deep-seated mania of embracing some I individually conceived notion of alienism, we face again a betrayal of our basic constitutionally guarded frights. The power to investigate is a great public trust. And we ask the newly constituted committee not for one instant to forget that."

Celler became associated with many progressive causes and was one of those attacked by Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s. He defended himself against these attacks at the 1952 Democratic National Convention: "Let's name the evil which has called this plank forth, an evil recognizable to every mature mind. It has a name - McCarthyism. Let us not underestimate the width and the depth of the fear blanketing this country because of McCarthyism. Let us not underestimate how many people, both within the Democratic and Republican Parties and the independents, are crying out for leadership to cut out this cancer. Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend, and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack. I have no wish to indulge in histrionics, but I do know that McCarthyism represents a danger in this country we dare not ignore. I say it is a cold hand creeping over our vitals. The fact that the author of McCarthyism was given the distinction of addressing the Republican National Convention strikes terror in the hearts of honest men. Many who have flirted with the idea of voting the Republican ticket have turned away from that ticket because of the acceptance by the Republican Party of McCarthy and McCarthyism."

In the Senate he was chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary. Celler's autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn, was published in 1953. After Celler was defeated in 1972 Celler returned to his work as a lawyer in New York City.

Emanuel Celler died in Brooklyn on 15th January, 1981.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Emanuel Celler, wrote about his childhood in his autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn (1953)

My grandfather, in 1848, had fled from Germany to find political freedom in the United States. My grandfather was Catholic; my grandmother, Jewish. I have heard the story of their meeting so many times that it has taken on the form of a ballad. Crossing over from Bavaria, as immigrants to the United States, they did not meet on board ship. Outside of New York Harbor, the ship started to sink. My grandmother jumped overboard. My grandfather followed, to save this girl he had never met. Save her he did.

In our house we repeated the pattern of thousands of other homes. There were a few books and a lot of music. Our food and our furniture were no different from our neighbors'. While we ourselves were not poor, I had only to walk a few streets away to find the sounds and the smells of poverty. We were respectable and middle-class. But we were not very far from the Brooklyn dockyards. I didn't know then that I would never be able to leave the sounds and smells of these sights behind me, but I was fiercely conscious of one thing - of my ambition. Where it would take me and where I would go, I didn't know.

I read whatever I could put my hands to. I became the "scholar" of the family. I became, too, more than just a bit of a snob. The studied, unquestioning pace of my family irritated me. There were "things" to be done. Nobody asked me what I meant by "things." I couldn't have defined them if I had tried. "Things" had to do with the study of music (this was a family interest), the books I read, and the dreams of travel, and the glimpses of elegance I caught on Fifth Avenue. But "things" had also to do with the way people were hurt and how, because they were hurt, they were angry and quarreled and were jealous of one another.

(2) Emanuel Celler, You Never Leave Brooklyn (1953)

I remember now how my wife-to-be and I, after I had graduated from law school, went to see my father. Only he could answer the two questions before us: "Shall we get married now? Shall I begin the practice of law, or continue being the successful wine salesman I had become, working my way through law school?"

"Get married now," he said in answer to the first question. To the second question, he parried with his own: "What do you really want to be?"

"I want to be a lawyer," I said.

"Then be one and I will help you. I am not giving the money to you," he continued; "It will be a loan. This is how you will pay me back: Some day, when someone stands before you in need of help, you will help him as I will help you. In this way only will I consider the loan repaid."

I don't know, I can only hope, that I repaid that loan.

(3) Emanuel Celler, You Never Leave Brooklyn (1953)

For the first ten years of my life in Congress, I had been timid. I had been too timid to tell the truth as I saw it. In a way I had betrayed my trust. Yes, I had fought against the unjust restriction of immigration. I worked what seemed to me endlessly on the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment. I had advocated the establishment of a Negro industrial commission. I had gestured against the growth of monopoly power. I had introduced a few civil rights bills. But, actually, I had taken on the color of the climate around me and I had driven back all the emotion that rose from the Brooklyn streets, so that I could belong unobtrusively to the exclusive club of Congress.

The panic of the depression loosened my inhibitions against being different. For the first time in ten years I could be myself. I realized that there were some things I cared about passionately. One of them was independence for India; another, the establishment of the National Homeland for the Jews in Palestine; another was our immigration laws; and the fourth was economic freedom for the people of the United States as against the growth of monopoly power stifling that freedom.

(4) Emanuel Celler, speech in the Senate in 1924.

It is the most vaunted purpose of the majority of the Immigration Committee to encourage assimilation, yet this bill has already done more than anything I know of to bring about discord among our resident aliens. Processes have been encouraged that make for the very antithesis of assimilation. The Italian is told he is not wanted; the Pole is confronted with the stigma of inferiority; the bar sinister is placed upon the Czech and the Russian. Fortunate is the one whose cradle was rocked in Germany or England. The 'inferior complex' is now extended to all Europe, save Nordics. The Austrian rubbing elbows with the Norwegian in the subway or on the street is beset with emotions of inferiority. His pride surges within him. He resents the stigma placed upon him. Surely he does not view the favored one with complacency. Does he not rather view him with hatred? Thanks to the ill-considered and improvident Johnson bill; and so race is set against race, class against class.

(5) Emanuel Celler, wrote about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal in his autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn (1953)

The first days of the Roosevelt Administration charged the air with the snap and the zigzag of electricity. I felt it. We all felt it. It seemed as it you could hold out your hand and close it over the piece of excitement you had ripped away. It was the return of hope. The mind was elastic and capable of crowding idea into idea. New faces came to Washington - young faces of bright lads who could talk. It was contagious. We started to talk in the cloak rooms; we started to talk in committees. The shining new faces called on us and talked.

In March of 1933 we had witnessed a revolution - a revolution in manner, in mores, in the definition of government. What before had been black or white sprang alive with color. The messages to Congress, the legislation; even the reports on the legislation took on the briskness of authority. I have asked myself often, "Did one man do this? If one did this, what manner of man was he?" I don't know. I think nobody does. Since those days I have read every bit of writing on Roosevelt: Perkins, Sherwood, Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Flynn, Gunther. Out of these cascades of words no definite or sharp outline arises. Whenever I visited Roosevelt on official business, I found a man adroit, voluble, assured, and smiling. I was never quite sure he was interested in the purpose of my visit; we spent so little time on it.

Mostly he talked. He talked with seeming frankness, and when I left, I found that he had committed himself to no point of view. At the end of each visit I realized that I had been hypnotized. His humor was broad, his manner friendly without condescension. Of wit there was little; -of philosophy, none. What did he possess? Intuition, yes. Inspiration, yes. Love of adventure, the curiosity of the experimental. None of these give the answer. None of these give the key. I believe his magic lay in one facet of his personality. He could say and he did say, "Let's try it." He knew how to take the risk. No other man in public life I knew could so readily take the challenge of the new.

(6) Robert N. Rosen, Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust (2006)

Congressman Emanuel Celler wrote FDR a strong letter on October 10, 1942, denouncing Vichy France's "pogroms and persecutions of helpless Jews." He alleged that Premier Pierre Laval had promised Hitler to deliver the 170,000 Jews in unoccupied France to be interned. "They are to be deported to Germany or Axis-controlled lands, there to linger in a slavery worse than death." Celler reported suicide, children snatched from parents, and huge fines. He asked Roosevelt to call Laval to task while the United States still had an embassy in Vichy. It was evident that Celler, a Jewish congressman from Brooklyn, did not know or did not believe as late as October 10, 1942, what exactly was taking place in France. Like others, he was still talking about pogroms, persecutions, and slave labor camps.

Roosevelt replied that Celler had raised a question "that has given me deep cause for thought. The end we have in view is identical and there only remains a question as to how best we can relieve the persecutions and sufferings of these unhappy refugees." He reviewed his previous actions of withdrawing the U.S. diplomats in France and making strong protests. "Our representative also stressed the fact," FDR told Celler, "that the world, and the people of France, would one day pass judgment on Laval for this callous act." Hull had directly confronted Vichy's ambassador. The American attitude, Roosevelt continued, was well known. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and the wise course was to concentrate on quietly assisting those who could be rescued, including children who were scheduled to come to America. At that moment Tuck was negotiating to get departure permits for Jewish children. While its actions were of limited success, the United States had done all it reasonably could in Vichy France under the circumstances.

(7) Edward Celler, speech (23rd January, 1945)

The Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities is now a standing investigatory committee with power to initiate legislation. I mean this to be a direct talk. The vaudevillian antics, the brass band tactics, the star chamber proceedings of the Dies Committee have put all of us on notice. Bluntly then, the present committee can make its choice. It can either adopt the Dies course of unfounded character assassinations, lynch-law, prosecutor-jury and executioner all in one - or it can proceed in a manner consonant with the American tradition of the right to be heard, the right of counsel and the right of confrontation of witnesses, placing emphasis on investigation of all foreignisms with honest judicious objectivity. If we are to have again an extravaganza of persecution - a deep-seated mania of embracing some I individually conceived notion of alienism, we face again a betrayal of our basic constitutionally guarded frights. The power to investigate is a great public trust. And we ask the newly constituted committee not for one instant to forget that.

In the final count, it remains with the American people whether it will countenance the continuation of the former practices of the Dies Committee. Illegality will never solve the problem of political lawlessness. As we have seen so clearly demonstrated in Europe, hate breeds hate and the vicious circle revolves with all its attending madness.

Let the over-zealous be reminded of Hawthorne's description of those "who go all wrong by too strenuous a resolution to go right."

(8) Emanuel Celler, speech in the Senate in 1948.

The Immigration Act of 1924, establishing the annual quotas for countries based on a computation of approximately one-sixth of one per cent, presumably reflects composition of national origin of the inhabitants of the country in the year 1920. Due to the rigidity of our quota system, during the twenty-seven years the present quota law has been in effect, only forty-four per cent of the possible quota immigrants have actually been admitted. Of the total number of 154,000 annual quotas permitted under the law, 65,700 are allotted to Great Britain; 25,900 to Germany; and 17,800 to Ireland. Every other country having a quota is accorded a quota allotment of less than 7,000. This startling discrimination against central, eastern and southern Europe points out the gap between what we say and what we do. On the one hand we publicly pronounce the equality of all peoples, discarding all racialistic theories; on the other hand, in our immigration laws, we embrace in practice these very theories we abhor and verbally condemn. In the meantime, because Great Britain and Ireland barely use the quota allotment, a large percentage of the 154,000 annual quotas go to waste each year. They are non-transferable. The simple, practical solution - which it seems to me could easily be adopted without even going so far as to disturb the national origin system be to take the unused quotas and distribute them among countries with less than 7,000 quota allotments in the same proportion as they bear to the total quota pie.

It is important that we do so in terms of our own productivity and growth. If we take a long-range view of the position of the United States in the world, we must recognize that our rapid rise to world power during our 176-year history was based upon our population growth from four million to one hundred and fifty million, and this growth was largely the result of immigration. In the years ahead our population is headed for a stable plateau which means an aging population; that is, fewer young persons and more old persons proportionately in the total population. The rate of population growth in the United States is slightly below that required to reproduce itself. The American rate between 1933 and 1939 was 0.96. Compare that with the rate of Russia alone, which was 1.70. The population forecast for the United States in 1970 is 170 million people. The population forecast for Russia alone in 1970 is 251 million. The implications are clear.

(9) Edward Celler, speech at the Democratic National Convention (1952)

The Democratic Party will never desert the freedoms of our people under the guise of pretending to protect them. We pledge to fight the dark and reactionary forces high in the counsels of the Republican Party which have made political capital out of the techniques of character assassination by innuendo and who have adopted the dishonoring and dishonorable concept of guilt by association. We shall wipe out the climate of fear which has led men of good will to avoid freedom of expression and assembly. We pledge ourselves to reinvigorate our fundamental precept that a man is innocent until proven guilty. We believe firmly that Communism internally and externally can and must be fought without resort to the Communist tactics of the suppression of all individual freedom. It is this respect for the individual and his rights as an individual which compels our abhorrence of Communism. Communism which feeds on aggression, hatred, and the imprisonment of men's minds and souls shall not take root in the United States. To that end we pledge our every resource.

Let's name the evil which has called this plank forth, an evil recognizable to every mature mind. It has a name - McCarthyism. Let us not underestimate the width and the depth of the fear blanketing this country because of McCarthyism. Let us not underestimate how many people, both within the Democratic and Republican Parties and the 'independents,' are crying out for leadership to cut out this cancer. Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend, and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack. I have no wish to indulge in histrionics, but I do know that McCarthyism represents a danger in this country we dare not ignore. I say it is a cold hand creeping over our vitals. The fact that the author of McCarthyism was given the distinction of addressing the Republican National Convention strikes terror in the hearts of honest men. Many who have flirted with the idea of voting the Republican ticket have turned away from that ticket because of the acceptance by the Republican Party of McCarthy and McCarthyism.