One of the best resources we students have on River Campus is the Rare Books Library. Many times overlooked, it is the holder of important documents such as Lincoln’s last letters before he was assassinated and works by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and it is currently home to the Thomas E. Dewey and His Times display. Richard Norton Smith, author, historian and political pundit for C-SPAN, embarked in the 1980s on one of the first major projects of his career: piecing together the life of Thomas Dewey.
Through careful and continuous research on the man many of us today are familiar with because of the New York State thruway system, Smith published the book, ‘Thomas Dewey and His Times.” Critically acclaimed, the book was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. In accord with the recent political climate, it was only appropriate to revive the past display for a new Rochester audience.
Dewey was born in 1902 in the small town of Owosso, Mich. His mother was known as vivacious, and she owned a cookbook that is one of the many items on display and, in addition to holding special family recipes, also contains special profane phrases for added spice. His father owned, edited and published his own newspaper. The product of two strong and ambitious parents, it was not surprising that Dewey likewise had an impact on the world.
His first attempt to make a difference was when he served as a federal prosecutor. Within a short period of time, Dewey transitioned to a private practice on Wall Street. After being recommended as a special prosecutor, he left his practice to begin cleaning up New York.
As special prosecutor, he arrested and locked up some of New York’s strongest mobsters. In 1937, his campaign helped by 35-mm street movie advertising, Dewey was elected district attorney. His term as district attorney is mostly remembered by his conviction of mobster Lucky Luciano. Unlike many politicians, Dewey lived up to his election slogan buttons (showcased in the Rare Books Library), catapulting his celebrity.
His service to the citizens of New York was monumental, but he wanted to do more and attempted to run for the Republican presidential nomination. In 1940, his attempt proved to be in vain, but this did not deter him from larger political endeavors. In 1942, he became governor of New York.
The library display holds the original reading paper for Dewey’s acceptance speech. He continued his attempt toward the presidency again in 1944 to no avail, but in 1948 he was elected as the Republican presidential nominee. Earl Warren, who would later be known as chief justice of the Supreme Court and was instrumental in passing Civil Rights legislation, was appointed his vice-presidential running mate.
As the history books and the display will show, he lost the election to Harry Truman. Not everyone was ecstatic about the decision, as is clearly depicted by a young toddler on the verge of tears, shunning a newspaper that read, ‘TRUMAN WINS!” Despite his many presidential disappointments, Dewey continued to have a prolific political career and was instrumental in the Eisenhower campaign.
After leaving his governorship in 1955, Dewey retired from politics. He obtained an honorary degree from UR a few years later and donated his papers to the University, where they have since resided.
From a picture with Joe Lewis to telegrams, aged political buttons and letters from major presidents such as Lyndon B. Johnson, the Rare Books Library highlights what it was like living in a different America.
Massie is a member of the class of 2011.