Historic Liberal Republicans: Jacob Javits

Jacob Koppel “Jake” Javits (May 18, 1904 – March 7, 1986) was a Republican politician who served as a U.S. Representative and as a U.S. Senator from New York from 1957 to 1981. He was one of the most liberal of the liberal Republicans. Javits originally was allied with Governor Nelson Rockefeller, as well as fellow Senators Irving Ives and Kenneth Keating. Javits voted with Democrats more often than with Republicans.

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The son of Ida and Morris Javits, the latter a janitor, Javits grew up in a teeming Lower East Side tenement. When not in school, he helped his mother sell dry goods from a pushcart in the street. In his youth, Javits had watched his father work for Tammany Hall, and he experienced firsthand the corruption and graft associated with New York’s notorious Democratic political machine. Tammany’s operations repulsed Javits so much that he forever rejected the city’s Democratic Party, and in the early 1930s, he joined the Republican-Fusion Party, which then was supporting the mayoral campaign of Fiorello H. La Guardia (also a reformist Republican).

Although he frequently differed with the more conservative members of his party, Javits always maintained that a healthy political party should tolerate diverse opinions among its members. He rejected the idea that either Party should reflect only one point of view. Javits liked to think of himself as a political descendant of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Republicanism. He was strongly committed to social issues, believing that the Federal government should have a role in improving the lives of Americans. Nevertheless, as a lawyer who for years represented business clients, Javits also advocated an economy in which business and government would cooperate to further the national welfare, instead of government regulating business too much, which he felt was an erroneous policy of Democrats.

During Javits’ first two terms in the House of Representatives, he often sided with the Truman Administration. For example, in 1947, Javits supported Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Bill, which he believed was antiunion. A strong opponent of discrimination, Javits also endorsed anti-poll tax legislation in 1947 and 1949 and, in 1954, he unsuccessfully supported a bill banning segregation in federally funded housing projects.

Javits supported Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights measures and generally endorsed Johnson’s Great Society programs. Javits initially backed Johnson during the early years of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. By the end of 1967, however, he joined twenty-two other Senators in calling for a peaceful solution to the conflict. In 1964, Javits refused to support his party’s conservative presidential nominee, Barry M. Goldwater.

Javits was especially proud of his work in creating the National Endowment for the Arts; of his sponsorship of the ERISA Act, which regulated corporate pension plans; and of his leadership in promoting the cause of Federal support of education for gifted individuals (so-called “Javits Grants”).

In an essay published in 1958 in Esquire, the magazine, Javits predicted the election of the first African-American president by the year 2000.

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