David Lewis and his bootstraps

Lawmaker: By the light of his miner's cap, he learned Latin and law and went on to fight for workers

Marylanders of the Century

September 20, 1999

DAVID John Lewis' story unfolds dramatically, like a silent movie of his day:

Enter the hero, a 9-year-old miner, who picks away at Appalachian coal seams to add $10 a month in food to his family's table.

During his few work breaks, he uses the light of his cap lamp to read, thanks to the teaching of his mother and a minister at Sunday school. He begins with paperback novels, then moves on to grammar, arithmetic and science. (After a tunnel collapse, young Lewis is pulled from the dirt, his physics book still tucked into his shirt.)

His story is one thread in the changing social fabric of early 20th-century America. But his accomplishments have seldom been equaled.

His fellow miners scratched their heads at this young lad who, after his mother died when he was 12, helped raise four younger brothers and sisters while working in the mines in Allegany County -- and used his late-evening hours to study. He stayed awake by holding his books with his arm crooked.

Like many poor children of his day, Lewis never attended school. The son of Welsh immigrants learned to write from Blue Back spellers.

"Little Davey," who stood all of 5 feet as an adult, shared his writing skill with other miners, composing letters for them.

He spoke regularly at Knights of Labor meetings. One evening, a newspaperman heard his reasoned arguments about improving life for workers and suggested Lewis study law.

That man "did me the greatest favor I've ever received in my life," Lewis recalled. A local attorney and priest helped him navigate through Latin and Kent's Commentaries on the law. Lewis still worked in the mines during those four arduous years. When he was admitted to the bar, miners proudly spread the news to colleagues as far away as West Virginia.

In 1900, the Cumberland lawyer represented leaders of a miners' strike charged with conspiracy. Though the strikers lost, Lewis became well-known in Western Maryland. In 1901, he ran for the state Senate, a Democrat winning in a heavily Republican district.

Lewis fought for mine inspections, compulsory education for children and a minimum working age of 14 for mine and factory employees. He sponsored in the General Assembly the nation's first workers' compensation law.

In 1908, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He went on to serve six terms.

In Washington, he led the fight for things we take for granted today. His legislation created the parcel post, which coordinated package pickups with railway schedules to offer a less expensive way for folks in rural areas to send small packages.

He championed unemployment insurance. He was key sponsor of the Social Security Act of 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt later hailed Lewis as "one of the American pioneers in the cause of Social Security."

Lewis was an ardent supporter of FDR's New Deal. This loyalty ultimately cost him politically.

In 1938, President Roosevelt tried to purge his enemies from Congress. He drafted Lewis, then nearly 70, to run for the U.S. Senate against conservative Democrat Millard E. Tydings. This meddling was denounced across Maryland; Lewis' image as an independent politician was compromised. Tydings easily won.

After Lewis' defeat, he served four years on the National (Railway) Mediation Board, until retiring in 1943. He returned to Cumberland, where he lived until his death in 1952 at the age of 83.

He captured his beliefs aptly when he said, "The world does not owe a man a living, but it does owe him a chance to make a living."

David Lewis knew well how precious and fleeting those chances could be. From the mines of Western Maryland to the halls of Congress, he worked to offer those opportunities to all.

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