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Crosser, Robert (7 June 1874-3 June 1957), U.S. congressman, was born in Holytown, Bothwell Parish, Lanarkshire, in the lowlands of Scotland, the son of James Crosser, a medical doctor, and Barbara Crosser. In 1881 the Crosser family immigrated to the United States and settled in Salineville, Ohio. Crosser attended Kenyon College where he played football and earned his degree in 1897. That year Crosser enrolled at Columbia University Law School and later at the law school at the University of Cincinnati, where he graduated in 1901. In 1906 Crosser married Isabelle Hogg; they had four children.
While attending Columbia University Crosser took interest in the political economist Henry George's campaign for mayor of New York City. Crosser embraced George's economic theories and in particular the single tax. Following law school Crosser moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he practiced law and supported the policies of the Democratic mayor Tom L. Johnson, also an advocate of George's reforms. In 1910, with Johnson's endorsement, Crosser was elected to an Ohio House seat and as a delegate to the Ohio Constitutional Convention in 1912. In his first two political offices Crosser advocated direct democracy in the form of the initiative and referendum in the hope that voters would one day enact the single tax. Cleveland Democrats led by the mayor Newton D. Baker endorsed Crosser's early political career and supported him in his first successful bid for Congress as the state's congressman-at-large in 1912.
During the Woodrow Wilson presidency Crosser encountered opposition from Cleveland Democrats. While advocating George's theories Crosser endorsed Wilson's New Freedom agenda and established a progressive voting record. During the House debate of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914 Crosser stated the reform was the best antitrust legislation ever developed. However Crosser also argued it was the wrong medicine for purging the nation of trusts. Crosser recommended George's single tax as the only workable, long-term solution. "A tax sufficient to absorb economic rent, levied upon the real value of oil land, coal land, ore land, and the source of raw material . . . would find the stranglehold of monopoly soon loosened." In the end he voted for legislation because it was better than nothing. Thus the Cleveland Democrat demonstrated an ability to compromise his own convictions to achieve social improvement.
With Ohio losing its at-large congressional seat in 1915, Crosser alienated the Cuyahoga County Democratic Organization (CCDO) with his decision to challenge fellow incumbent Democrat Robert Bulkley for Cleveland's Twenty-first District seat in 1914. In the brutal Democratic primary Crosser portrayed himself as a political heir to Tom Johnson and accused Mayor Baker of practicing corrupt machine politics for endorsing Bulkley. With the support of labor groups Crosser won the primary and the general election, but in the process he alienated the CCDO for the rest of his career.
During World War I Crosser supported the Wilson administration's war policies but voted against conscription in 1917, claiming it was counter to sound democratic principles. In the war hysteria of the day, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Cleveland Press, and the CCDO depicted Crosser as unpatriotic and a supporter of Germany. The attacks on Crosser struck a nerve among his foreign-born constituents--about one-third of the total. In 1918 Crosser lost the Democratic nomination to the organization's endorsed candidate, John Babka, who went on to win the general election.
Convinced that his political enemies had distorted his record, Crosser was determined to make a comeback. In 1920 Crosser sought to regain his seat but was defeated by Babka in the primary by a single vote. This time, though, Babka lost the general election to the Republican Harry Gahn. In 1922 Crosser won the Democratic primary and general election by campaigning against the CCDO and appealing to labor and minority groups. He went on to win fifteen more consecutive congressional elections.
Between 1923 and 1939 Crosser advocated major reforms as a member of the Committee on House Interstate and Foreign Commerce. During the Republican-dominated presidencies of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, Crosser found little reception to his unique brand of reforms. Crosser experienced his greatest accomplishments, however, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. He cosponsored the Railroad Labor Act (1934), the Railway Retirement Act (1934, 1935, 1937), and the Railway Unemployment Insurance Act (1938). While his efforts attained job security, labor rights, and a social security system for railway employees, they served too as models for the Wagner Labor Relation Act (1935) and the Social Security Act (1935) that extended similar benefits to workers in other industries. In 1937 Crosser told his House colleagues: "While I derive much satisfaction from the feeling that I have done something to assure railroad workers comfort and freedom from worry during the evening of life, yet my chief desire for them is to see such an adjustment to sound economic principles as will assure men equal rights and opportunity and which will make certain that they will receive as compensation the full value of their toil." He remained convinced that George's theories offered better long-term solutions to social problems, but he also recognized that the Roosevelt administration's New Deal reforms provided the best immediate means for the relief, recovery, and reform of American society in the 1930s.
Crosser became crippled by arthritis and was forced to use a wheelchair beginning in 1942, yet he endorsed the domestic and foreign policies of President Roosevelt during the World War II and his successor, Harry S. Truman. Crosser opposed conscription in 1940 and extending the draft in 1941; a majority of Ohio's delegation to Congress took similar positions without criticism from either the state's leading newspapers or Democratic party leadership. Cleveland Democrats made no effort to use the issue against Crosser in 1940 or after because most Ohio Democrats and Republicans in general were opposed to the draft. Crosser also favored the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s. He opposed repealing the arms embargo in 1939 on two occasions (before the outbreak of war and after the outbreak of war). Before Pearl Harbor Crosser favored the Lend-Lease program, arming merchant ships and increasing the size of the U.S. Navy. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor Crosser usually approved the Roosevelt administration's conduct of the war.
As the chair of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce from 1949 through 1952, he endorsed legislation that increased and expanded benefits under the Railway Retirement and Railway Unemployment Insurance Acts. After being reelected in 1952 the New York Times said of the Ohioan: "Today he stands as one of the nation's political marvels--a man who cannot be beaten" (16 Nov. 1952).
Crosser's health and age had become major campaign issues in his bids for reelection. Nearly a decade of that kind of political rhetoric finally produced results in 1954--especially when the Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer joined the chorus of those who noted that Crosser was confined to a wheelchair and was eighty-one years old. Remarkably Crosser lost the primary election by only 510 votes in a six-person contest.
Robert Crosser lived only two and a half years after leaving Congress. During his thirty-eight-year congressional career Crosser participated in the two great twentieth-century reform impulses (progressivism and the New Deal) and earned a reputation as an opponent of special privilege and a friend of working people. An independent thinker within the Democratic Party guided by the theories of Henry George, Robert Crosser greatly contributed to the American reform tradition in the twentieth century.
The Robert Crosser Papers are in the Ohio Historical Society. The major study of Robert Crosser is Henry Franklin Tribe's "Disciple of 'Progress and Poverty': Robert Crosser and Twentieth Century Reform," (Ph.D. diss., Bowling Green State University, 1990). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4 June 1957.
Henry Franklin Tribe
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Henry Franklin Tribe. "Crosser, Robert";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.