The career of Robert Ferdinand Wagner (1877-1953) represents the fruition of the Progressive Movement under the New Deal. A Tammany Hall Democrat, German immigrant, and pro-labor liberal, Robert Wagner entered politics in the Progressive Era in New York State and continued in national politics through the Depression, the New Deal, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War. He was a member of both the New York State Assembly and State Senate, a Justice of the New York Supreme Court, and finally one of the most influential liberal senators of his time. During his forty-five years in public service he remained true to his background by championing the rights of immigrants and working people, and crusading for social welfare.
Born in Nastätten, Germany on June 8, 1877, Robert Wagner immigrated to New York City with his family in 1886 at the age of 9. In the Horatio Alger tradition, as the writers of his campaign material were fond of pointing out, he worked as a janitor's assistant and newsboy throughout his school years, graduated from the City College of New York in 1898, and finished off his formal education two years later, when he received an LL.B. with honors from New York Law School. His political activities began concurrently with the establishment of a law office in partnership with Jeremiah Mahoney in 1900. The influence of Tammany Hall was still such that involvement with the Machine could only help a fledgling law practice. By 1914, however, the politics had become more important than the law practice to Robert Wagner; in that year he ran for the seat of the 30th Assembly District, Yorkville, winning easily over the incumbent Republican. Four years later, Wagner was in the State Senate and well on his way to establishing his reputation as a reform liberal.
As a New York State Senator, Robert Wagner introduced many measures which had their roots in the Populist Movement, such as a bill to provide direct election of US Senators, a direct primary bill, a woman suffrage amendment to the state constitution, and a resolution to ratify the Federal Income Tax Amendment. However, he directed the major part of his energy towards relief for the urban laborer, introducing bills to effect child labor regulation, establish a minimum wage commission for women, limit the issuance of labor injunctions, and to establish the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, to name a few. The last was perhaps the most significant; known as the Triangle Commission, it was created to investigate factories after the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 brutally exposed the necessity for state regulated health and safety standards in manufacturing establishments. With Robert Wagner as chairman and Al Smith as Vice-chairman, the Commission's investigations and recommendations resulted in much needed regulatory legislation, continuing to expose the appalling working condi¬tions in factories and tenements until 1915, when the Commission's mandate was not renewed.
In 1918, the same year that Al Smith became Governor of New York, Robert Wagner temporarily left the arena of partisan politics upon his election to a 14 year term on the bench of the New York Supreme Court. In 1925, he ascended to the appellate division of the Court; however, he resigned in 1926 when the Democrats joined his name with Al Smith's in a nomination which would return Smith to the Governor's mansion and would send Wagner to Washington as a United States Senator.
From March of 1927 to July of 1949, Robert Wagner served in the United States Senate. Among the measures that he was responsible for during that twenty-two year period were the Wagner Act the National Labor Relations Act, 1935), the Social Security Act (1935), and the National Housing and Slum Clearance Act of 1937. Robert Wagner also authored the Railroad Pensions and Unemployment Insurance Acts, the Civilian Conservation Corps Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the United States Employment Service Act, the Relief and Construction Act, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act. Although they did not pass, the Wagner-Costigan Anti-lynching bill, and a National Health bill give additional testimony to Robert Wagnerfs farsighted liberalism. His interests ranged beyond domestic issues to encompass support of the Zionist cause in Palestine; he was also actively involved in matters concerning veterans.
After the death of his wife in 1919, Robert Wagner's private and public life both seemed to consist in the main of devotion to his work. Wagner married Margaret Marie McTague in 1908; two years later their only child, Robert Wagner, Jr., was born. This son followed in his father's footsteps as far as the New York State Assembly, and then deviated from the pattern to the extent of becoming the mayor of New York instead of running for the U.S. Senate. Robert Wagner converted to Catholicism later in life, probably due to the influence of his late wife, who had been Catholic. Though considered to be a thoroughly eligible bachelor, Wagner never remarried. He was ill for the last several years in office, and finally resigned for that reason in 1949. He went to live with his son and daughter-in-law, and died in their home in 1953. His papers were presented to Georgetown University in 1949 by Robert Wagner, Jr.