Homer Cummings (1870-1956)

Homer Cummings was President Roosevelt’s attorney general from March 4, 1933 to January 2, 1939 [1].  He was also one of the five executive members of the Committee on Economic Security, the group of New Deal policymakers that helped shape Social Security [2].  He was described by the New York Times as “one of the leading figures in what has come to be known as the third New Deal [c. 1936-1938]” [3].

Homer Stillé Cummings was born in Chicago on April 30, 1870, the only child of Uriah and Audie Stillé Cummings.  Uriah was a man of many talents, as well as a social activist with an interest in American Indians and labor issues.  His “versatile accomplishments, his civic awareness, and his humanitarian qualities profoundly influenced his son” [4].  As Homer was receiving his early education at Heathcote School in Buffalo, and then his bachelor’s and law degrees from Yale University (the latter in 1893), he came to believe that “American prosperity ultimately rested on protection of the working classes and a more equitable distribution of wealth generated by capitalist enterprise” [5].

In 1900, after practicing law for a few years, Cummings was elected mayor of Stamford, Connecticut.  Thus began a very long political and legal career in the Democratic Party.  He was Stamford’s mayor from 1900-1902 and then again from 1904-1906 [6]; the state’s attorney for Fairfield County, Connecticut from 1910-1924 [7]; vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 1913-1919, and chair of the DNC c. 1919-1925 [8].  After a seven-year break from politics, Cummings became a leader in Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign for president in 1932.  The two had been “close friends and political allies… since they first met during the [Woodrow] Wilson campaign in 1912” [9].

During the New Deal, a time period that he would describe in 1938 as “perfect and beautiful” [10], Cummings worked on a number of legal cases and reforms, a great many of which were successful.  The FBI credits Homer Cummings with fighting “an unrelenting campaign against rampant crime,” which helped result “in the arrest or demise of all the major gangsters by 1936” [11].  Cummings defended many New Deal programs and policies in the federal courts, such as the Securities and Exchange Act, Tennessee Valley Authority, National Recovery Administration, and policies related to the gold standard and gold hoarding [12].  Cummings helped draft the National Firearms Act of 1934 (regulating machine guns and sawed-off shotguns), broke up monopolies, and inspired the conversion of Alcatraz to a federal prison [13].  Cummings gave FDR the idea of asking Congress to add one Supreme Court Justice for each one over the age of 70, an effort that became popularly known as FDR’s “court-packing” plan and ultimately failed [14].

One of the priorities of Cummings’ Department of Justice was the prosecution of financial crimes, and Cummings remarked that “the prosecution of banking and income tax cases will be, is and has been, vigorous” [15].  Many cases of securities fraud, often resulting in prison terms, were prosecuted by the department.  The former governor of Colorado, Clarence Morley, and four others were sent to prison for selling fraudulent securities.  That same year, a “stock swindling ring” that operated in multiple states was prosecuted and multiple prison sentences were imposed for securities fraud [16].

Homer Cummings retired from government service on January 2, 1939, and returned to private practice [17].  On September 10, 1956, a few days after visiting his Washington, D.C. office at the law firm Cummings, Sellers, Reeves & Connor, he died from heart failure.  He was 86 years old and survived only by his grandson, Schuyler Cummings [18].

Sources: (1) “Attorney General: Homer Stillé Cummings,” U.S. Department of Justice, accessed April 26, 2016.  (2) “Committee on Economic Security,” Social Security Administration, accessed April 27, 2016.  (3) “Homer Cummings, Ex-U.S. Aide, Dies,” New York Times, September 11, 1956.  (4) John R. Vile (ed.), Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001, p. 150.  (5) Ibid., p. 151.  (6) “Stamford Mayors,” Stamford Board of Representatives, accessed April 27, 2016.  (7) See note 4, p. 152.  (8) Ibid., p. 153, and also see note 1.  (9) Quote from note 4, p. 153.  Also see, “Cummings To Lead In Roosevelt Drive,” New York Times, February 12, 1932.  (10) “Cummings Extols President As Chief,” New York Times, November 18, 1938.  (11) “History of the FBI, The New Deal: 1933– Late 1930’s,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed April 27, 2016.  (12) See notes 3 and 10. (13) See note 3 and Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011.  (14) See note 3.  (15) “Medalie To Stay, Says Cummings,” New York Times, April 11, 1933.  (16) Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1938, p. 86.  Also see, “Four Get Prison Terms In Securities Cases,” New York Times, September 7, 1937.  Convictions were upheld on appeal and Supreme Court review denied – see, e.g., Kopald-Quinn & Co. v. United States, 101 F.2d 628 (5th Cir. 1939), Justia, accessed April 27, 2016.  To see other examples of how the Justice Department handled financial crimes during Cumming’s administration, see the Annual Reports of the Attorney General (available at www.hathitrust.org) for the fiscal years 1934-39.  (17) See, e.g., “Cummings Retires, Asks Law Changes,” New York Times, January 1, 1939.  (18) “Homer S. Cummings, FDR’s Attorney General, Dies,” Associated Press, in the Janesville Daily Gazette (Janesville, Wisconsin), September 11, 1956.