During a recent visit to Cumberland, the seat of Allegany County in Western Maryland, I wandered up to the Washington Street Historic District to see the towering county courthouse, a stunning Episcopal church and a parish house designed by Bruce Price, a native of Cumberland and one of the most accomplished architects of the Gilded Age.
Down the hill and around the corner, I came upon the Cumberland Masonic Temple and a stone building known as “the Lewis house.”
Turns out, I had come across a shrine to something the nation needed 100 years ago and could use today — progressive politics, selfless leadership and a belief in government for the common good.
The owner of No. 18 Greene Street was David J. Lewis, a Maryland state senator and Democratic member of Congress who deserves overdue credit for the workers’ compensation and Social Security payments sent to millions of American households each month.
Lewis was born in 1869 in central Pennsylvania, the son of Welsh immigrants. From the age of nine, he worked in coal mines into his early 20s. His congressional biography notes no formal education but states that Lewis “studied law and Latin” and was admitted to the bar in 1892. He set up his practice in Cumberland.
A decade later he was elected to represent Allegany County in Annapolis. Once there, Lewis championed workers’ compensation. In fact, Maryland became the first state to enact a workers’ compensation law, though it at first only applied to coal miners. Having read annual injury and death reports from the mining that took place in Garrett and Allegany counties around Lewis’ time, I can understand why the General Assembly’s first effort on that front was for miners. Hundreds of them were seriously injured on the job every year, receiving no income while recovering (or not) from broken bones or concussions. There were horrendous working conditions in other industries, too.
Though the Maryland law was declared unconstitutional, a movement to provide workers’ compensation for all had commenced. It was the Progressive Era, after all, and soon laws were enacted in Maryland and other states that survived court challenges. Lewis remained an advocate after his election to Congress in 1910.
“For 14 years,” he once said, “I have been working to bring about a workmen’s compensation law. For 10 years, perhaps, I was considered a crank, a dreamer. But the time has come when every thoughtful person is in favor of a compensation law.”
Wait, there’s more. As a member of the House in 1935, Lewis introduced the first legislation to create Social Security for elderly and retired Americans. Other Democratic leaders took credit for Lewis’ work, according to a published reminiscence by Thomas Eliot, counsel for the committee that drafted the Social Security bill. “Rep. Lewis, a little pepper pot of a man with a deep and passionate commitment to social welfare, sputtered and swore,” Eliot recalled. “Then he went to work to understand every sentence of the bill and to master the arguments in favor of it. … When [the bill] eventually was debated, the House of Representatives gave Lewis a standing ovation as he stumped down the aisle to speak on its behalf.”
My “discovery” in Cumberland serves as a reminder of what Democrats stood for for most of the last century, and anyone who received worker’s comp or Social Security should remember that.
If it’s possible to look past the main issue in this year’s midterm elections — the future of democracy, as we’ve known it — Americans of all political persuasions should think hard about the kind of government they want. Do we want one that constantly supports progress and a decent life for all or one that stands still, or even regresses, while serving those already privileged? Do we want a government that identifies and solves problems or one that looks the other way and refuses to foot the bill while our infrastructure, environment and quality of life deteriorate?
Republicans eager to regain a majority in the House are already talking about cutting taxes again. As usual, they are promising to scale back the functions of government, repealing everything achieved in Congress during the last two years.
This is the say-no party that opposed the Affordable Care Act, then tried to repeal it, though more than 31 million Americans now have health insurance because of it. Most congressional Republicans have opposed raising the minimum wage. For years, they refused to accept the human causes of climate change; they continue to push fossil fuel production and they generally oppose Biden’s spending to address the warming planet.
It’s hard to think of a major domestic program pushed by Republicans. They complain a lot but offer little in the way of solutions. They accuse Democrats of being “socialists,” when for most of the last century Democrats devised and promulgated laws and policies that provided a safety net for Americans and turned out to be quite popular.
In virtually all realms of life — health, housing, education, environment, retirement, child welfare, working conditions, nutrition — Democrats should get the lion’s share of credit for progress. There’s a long history of it, going back to the likes of David J. Lewis of 18 Greene Street, Cumberland. His political descendants should be proud of being progressive, boast of it, promise and deliver more of it — assuming, you know, that our democracy survives.