Harrison Arlington Williams, Jr. (1919-2001) represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate from 1959 until 1982. Originally from Plainfield, NJ, Williams also served in the House of Representatives as Congressman from New Jersey's Sixth Congressional District (Union County) from 1953 through 1956. Known since infancy by the nickname “Pete,” Williams was a member of the Democratic Party during a period when Democrats held a majority in the Senate. Consequently, until a Republican majority took office in 1981 toward the end of his career, Williams held the chairmanships of a number of committees and subcommittees over the years. Further, Williams played important roles as a leader within the Democratic Party, notably as a member of the Democratic Senate Steering Committee, the group responsible for committee assignments.
Throughout his Senate career, Williams was a member of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, becoming its Chairman for the entire decade of the 1970s. (This committee was called the Committee on Human Resources in 1977 and, prior to 1977, the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.) From this committee, Williams was at the forefront of legislative reforms in the areas of occupational safety, pension protection, access to education, equal employment opportunity, women’s rights, minimum wage, and much more. A victim of alcoholism himself, as he informed the public in 1970, Williams supported legislation aimed at the prevention and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, among other health initiatives. Senior citizens were frequently the focus of Williams's initiatives, perhaps especially concerning housing, health services, and the extent to which the elderly were often victims of fraud.
Williams also spent his entire Senate career on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs (known as the Committee on Banking and Currency before 1971). The wide scope of this committee positioned Williams to act on his interest in housing, mass transportation, and open space as part of a broader vision of a federal role in managing the natural and built environment of the United States, particularly with respect to urban centers and their greater metropolitan areas. Additionally, as Chairman of the committee’s Securities Subcommittee throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s, Williams sought to increase the regulatory oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to improve disclosure in securities offerings and in corporate takeover attempts, to enforce equitable lending practices, and to implement other market reforms.
Williams's career began to close in February 1980 when the press reported that he was a target of an FBI undercover operation, known as Abscam. In October 1980, he was indicted for bribery and other related charges. Williams was found guilty on all counts in 1981, leading to his eventual resignation from the Senate in March 1982 and a prison term. Throughout the ordeal, Williams argued that he was innocent and that the FBI had abused its power. Williams's contentions were important ones that resulted in fierce debate in the news media and in Congress where hearings were held on the FBI’s investigative tactics. After his release from prison in 1986, Williams returned home to retirement in Bedminster, NJ, where he had lived since 1974. Williams died on November 17, 2001.
The above is an abstract from the biographical sketch written for the catalog of the 2009 exhibition “Crossroads: Harrison A. Williams, Jr. and Great Society Liberalism, 1959-1981.”
"We visited camps where entire families live in 12x12 foot rooms, and yet these quarters were among the best we have seen anywhere. Educators told us that most migrant children are years behind in their schooling because of their travels from one state to another. Away from the big worker camps, off the back roads, we saw filth and decay. . . . All in all, the visit reinforced the impression received in other states—that there is a national interest to be served by eliminating the waste of human resources which occurs so often in the migrant stream. The neglected migrant child of 1960 will be the inadequate citizen 20 years hence unless federal, state and local governments work effectively with private citizens to deal with the problems now." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Report Home, 30 May 1960.
Williams reported on his visit to the migratory labor camps in the Homestead area of Florida in his newsletter to constituents. His report is representative in his concern for both the immediate human conditions he found and their long-term implications for the nation, as well as his confidence in the ability of government at all levels to partner with private interests to resolve the issues. Williams made the trip as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Migratory Labor. The subcommittee was created at Williams’s recommendation, and was one of his earliest initiatives in the Senate. He remained concerned with migratory agricultural labor throughout his Senate years. Indeed, Williams's efforts on behalf of migrant farm workers—spanning healthcare, education, working conditions, minimum wages, housing, and more—are a microcosm of his legislative career.
"I have said before that the words, "American Citizen," will become only a worthless term, if any one of us is denied the rights which belong to all citizens. We cannot stand aside and watch while one man's rights are denied, for what he loses today, we all may lose tomorrow." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Remarks on joining as a cosponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1967.
The opening of American society to include more of its citizens as full participants in its democracy and to respect all individuals’ unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is perhaps the signature legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. On the legislative front, the battle for civil rights for African-Americans culminated with landmark acts in 1964 and 1965. Other forms of legal discrimination—including, but surely not limited to, those of age, sex, and disability—were exposed, confronted, and became the subject of legislative action by Williams and others.
"In life today, learning can no longer be limited to the classroom between ages six and the mid-twenties. It must begin at birth and continue through life. The lifelong student must be able to change his career both to accommodate his talents and to fill the manpower needs of the time." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Crossroads U.S.A., 1968.
Equality of economic opportunity was essential for full inclusion in a Great Society that valued individual initiative and achievement. Education was the critical ingredient in leveling this economic playing field, or at least providing a path for raising low income individuals from poverty. Further, education was the means by which each individual, and the nation collectively, could adapt and achieve their highest capability in a technologically complex and ever-changing world. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was the federal government's first significant initiative in providing funding to local schools. The legislation required periodic reauthorizations, providing built-in opportunities for debate at the federal level about the nation's educational system. Continuing into the twenty-first century, these reauthorizations included the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Other legislation sponsored or co-sponsored by Williams was aimed at supporting innovative educational possibilities—such as Head Start for pre-school age children, federal funding for two-year community colleges, and vocational training through the Job Corps for adults—and at expanding access to education in terms of both numbers of students and the demographic groups served.
"I certainly will do everything I can to push for more and better laws to protect the working man who is the backbone of our country." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Remarks before the N.J. State AFL-CIO Legislative Conference, 24 March 1969.
With education positioning more Americans to be gainfully employed and more sophisticated participants in the nation's economy, it was essential that workplace practices be modified to support the Great Society's social goals. Williams sponsored legislation throughout his career aimed at ensuring justice for Americans in employment matters. Traditional practices of employment discrimination based on age, sex, race, and other factors were outlawed. Exploitative or abusive workplace practices were at least mitigated through legislation establishing minimum wages, occupational safety and health standards, and private pension protections. Williams advocated an active role for the federal government—via program and project funding and regulation—in ensuring that these broad social goals were accomplished within the essential framework of private enterprise. In response to cyclical economic downturns, government spending on projects and public employment were viewed as correctives and as productive alternatives to direct welfare payments.
"Poverty is the fundamental deficiency that intensifies all other weaknesses in our society. Poverty perpetuates poor education, inadequate health standards, and disgraceful housing. Poverty makes discrimination easier because its victims are usually isolated from a hostile society. Poverty cripples the spirit. The poor become hopeless or angry; the affluent become uneasy and defensive. Neither group understands or communicates one with the other." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Crossroads U.S.A., 1968.
A major emphasis of Great Society programs was the so-called War on Poverty. A principal vehicle for anti-poverty initiatives was the community action agency. Such an agency, founded on the principle of self-help, was locally formed and operated, using federal funds in part to implement programs identified by community members as appropriate for their circumstances, including education and training, legal services, health care, and economic development. Included here are examples, taken from Williams's state of New Jersey, of the agencies founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"All of us are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that it is more and more difficult to get high quality health care at a price that we can afford. Some people have characterized all of the various problems associated with this situation as "the health care crisis". . . . [In 1965] we finally enacted Medicare and Medicaid so that no elderly or poor person would have to fear that they would have to choose between eating and getting decent medical care. This was an important beginning--a landmark in this nation's quest for a comprehensive health insurance program for everyone. Harrison A. Williams, Jr., "Health" position paper, circa 1976.
Health problems could be devastating to individuals and the nation in terms of financial cost, lost productivity, personal tragedy, and social disruption. In the absence of comprehensive national health insurance, Williams and others sought alternatives that expanded access to medical care, such as Medicare and Medicaid (1965) and the 1973 legislation encouraging the development of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) as cost-effective care providers. Legislation encouraged the research and treatment of various diseases including, by the 1970s, alcoholism and drug addiction.
"What will we as a Nation do with the energy, imagination, and experience of Americans who are technically beyond retirement age, even though they feel they have something yet to give for others? We should answer that question in the most positive terms we can." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Opening statement at introduction of Older Americans Community Service Program bill, 12 January 1967.
Poverty, health care, housing, and other concerns of the elderly were a central feature of Great Society programs. As a member of the Special Committee on Aging for most of his career, Williams gained a first-hand view of the problems of the aged, leading to his advocacy of corrective legislation and involvement in programs such as Meals on Wheels. Williams viewed seniors not just in terms of their problems, but also as individuals with potential as a national human resource warranting government support. Green Thumb, Retired Senior Volunteer (RSVP), and other programs advocated by Williams and supported by federal funding reflected this view.
"Why should we be satisfied with cities and suburbs that, so often, fall far short of the standards our nation deserves? How long can we tolerate the looting of our landscapes with endless miles of sprawling development that enjoy the amenities of neither country nor city living? What are we going to do about the deterioration of stable city neighborhoods into slums for low-income newcomers? When will we find a way to coordinate city redevelopment with new highway construction and new planning for mass transit systems. . . .In short, will America continue to grow by accident—as large parts of it grow now—or can we find some coordination, cooperation, and vision to help us make the most of our opportunities to make our cities and surrounding communities the most inspiring, enjoyable and useful civilization of all times?" Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Address, “America—Home of the Urbanized”, 26 January 1963.
Given that the majority of Americans lived within a metropolitan area (i.e., an urban core and suburban fringes), Williams viewed these urban settings as potentially "the true hallmark of our civilization." Nevertheless, the deterioration of the inner cities and the sprawling waste of the suburbs were apparent. Seeking to revitalize these areas as centers of community, work, recreation, and culture, Williams encouraged long-term sustainable plans over short-term piecemeal projects. Balancing development with preservation of open space, expanding rapid mass transit capabilities to avoid traffic congestion, and supporting clean and renewable energy sources were among the legislative initiatives Williams pursued to enhance the human environment.
"It is Congress’ continuing responsibility to evaluate the operations of the markets in light of the policy objectives of our Federal securities laws. . . . The first goal is to provide a fair and honest mechanism for the pricing of securities, free from manipulative and deceptive practices of all kinds; The second is to prevent undue advantages or preferences among participants in the markets; The third is to insure that securities can be purchased and sold at economically efficient transactions costs. And the fourth is to maintain, to the maximum degree practicable, markets that are open, orderly, and fair. . . . We need less, not more, regulation. And that means more reliance on natural economic forces. Of course, federal regulation, including self-regulation through the exchanges and the NASD, remains necessary in order to insure that the markets operate in accord with these fundamental goals." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Remarks to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 9 January 1974.
Seeking the middle ground between the radical left’s condemnation of capitalism and the conservative right’s unqualified celebration of it, liberalism embraced the fundamental place of private enterprise in America while attempting through regulation to prevent abuses. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Securities and as a member of committees responsible for banking and small business, Williams participated in this balancing act at the very heart of American capitalism. His regulatory legislation sought to create confidence on the part of all participants—consumers, producers, investors, entrepreneurs, and intermediaries—in the integrity and stability of the marketplace. Full disclosure of information essential to informed choices, avoidance of conflicts of interest, transparent transaction terms and executions, and government agency oversight were among the regulatory tools favored by Williams to eliminate predatory practices and fraud while retaining competition, profit incentives, and risk-taking.
"As Chairman of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, I am, of course, concerned with a broad range of subjects of importance to large segments of our population. One of those is Federal Support of the arts and humanities in general, and of museums in particular." Harrison A. Williams, Jr. Remarks before American Association of Museums, 2 April 1974.
Senator Williams was a member of the Special Subcommittee on the Arts, which served under the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. This subcommittee was charged with considering the formation of an organization to assist with the growth and development of the arts in the United States. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) were signed into law in September 1965. Williams later assisted New Jersey associations seeking funding from the NEA and NEH.
An Ongoing Debate
"I believe that sensible, practical programs to rebuild our cities, conserve our energy and natural resources, find jobs for the unemployed, feed the hungry and clothe the needy, can be designed and carried out. But such programs have not often been forthcoming, perhaps because they would involve major changes in our priorities and life styles." Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Commencement address, Seton Hall University, 17 May 1975.
Although a liberal program encompassing the expansion of civil rights, economic opportunity, environmentalism, access to education, and other policies advanced through the 1960s and 1970s, dissent was always present. By the end of the 1970s, this dissent over liberal programs, along with dissatisfaction with the nation’s foreign affairs, ongoing economic crisis, energy costs, and cultural upheavals, led to a political shift favoring a conservative ideology and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President in 1981. The correspondence presented here provides a sense of the debate over liberal policies leading to the election of 1980. In their familiar issues and arguments, over 30 years after Reagan’s election, we find the continuing influence of Great Society liberalism, points of opposition to it, and the present opportunity to join in the enduring themes of political debate in America.