Although Oscar Solomon Straus (1850-1926) was a diplomat, author, philanthropist, merchant, jurist, and public servant, he is perhaps best known for being the first Jew to serve as a presidential cabinet secretary when Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of Commerce and Labor, in which capacity he served from 1906-09.
He aptly titled his 1922 autobiography Under Four Administrations, having served in four administrations under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Although he had no formal Jewish education and his “religious instruction” came from his father, Straus loved Jewish tradition and always manifested a proud sense of Jewish identity. Throughout his life, he served as a shtadlan on behalf of Jews in America and around the world.
He was fiercely dedicated to his Reform synagogue and its members and was active in an incredible range of Jewish charities and other Jewish organizations, including serving as president of the Jewish Historical Society; as trustee of the Jewish Publication Society of America; and as a member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Committee. He was also a founder of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA).
Opposed to political Zionism, Straus nevertheless strongly supported the Balfour Declaration and contributed to various projects for the rehabilitation of Eretz Yisrael. During a trip to Vienna, he met with, and was impressed by, Theodor Herzl, to whom he explained that though he was not a Zionist, he deeply respected the solemn aspirations for a Jewish homeland manifested by religious Jews for centuries through prayer and sorrow.
He told Herzl that, although he had not discussed a Jewish state with the Sultan, he did discuss his negotiations regarding the immigration of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael, and it was he who planted in Herzl the idea of meeting personally with the Sultan.
Straus was born in Germany into a prestigious Jewish family which included his great-grandfather, Jacob Lazar, who was among the deputies chosen by Napoleon to serve in the “Great Sanhedrin” of 1806. He was also the younger brother of Isador and Nathan Straus, who had built Macy’s into the largest department store in the world.
He immigrated to the United States and settled in Georgia in 1854, before moving to Philadelphia and then to New York after the Civil War. After graduating Columbia Law School in 1873, he practiced law with a specialization in railway litigation before turning to public service and writing scholarly works, which were well received.
His public fame began in 1883 when he delivered a seminal lecture to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of New York on “The Origin of the Republican Form of Government in America” in which he demonstrated the positive impact of Biblical origins and Hebraic concepts on American culture. He was brought to the attention of President Grover Cleveland, who appointed the 37-year-old lawyer and scholar as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire in 1887.
Straus quickly defused a volatile situation involving the Christian Mission to Turkey whose schools were under threat of attack, thereby earning the gratitude of the Mission, the respect and admiration of the Sultan, and the appreciation of Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, who issued a letter of recognition, an uncommon accolade.
On a trip to Jerusalem, Straus learned that more than 400 Jews had been incarcerated without cause and were facing imminent deportation. Rather than following protocol and paying the expected courtesy call to the “Vali,” the local Turkish official, he transmitted a note threatening to appeal directly to the Grand Vizier for the removal of the Vali if he failed to immediately release the Jewish prisoners – which he did expeditiously. Straus received an effusive letter of thanks from Chief Rabbi Shmuel Salant and the Chacham Bashi on behalf of all the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.
On his first visit to Constantinople, Straus met the great Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who was negotiating the Turkish government’s claim to 100 million francs related to Hirsch’s railroad construction on Turkish land. When the dispute proved intractable, the Sultan appointed Straus to mediate the dispute for a fee of one million francs, but Straus took on the assignment gratis and resolved the quarrel, earning everlasting good will from both the Sultan and Hirsch.
Straus thus may have been the first American foreign ambassador to decline gifts and honoraria while serving as his country’s minister or ambassador. At the end of his final term of duty, he donated all the gifts he had received to the Smithsonian. Straus’ friendship with Hirsch later yielded great dividends, as he brought about some $62 million in gifts from the Baron de Hirsch Fund and urged the establishment of the famed Baron de Hirsch Trade School. He always played down his important role, though, and gave all credit to Hirsch.
When William Henry Harrison defeated Cleveland in the latter’s reelection bid in 1888, Straus followed custom and tendered his resignation, returning to New York to rejoin his brothers’ business. However, he remained forever a close and loyal friend to Cleveland, as evidenced by the warm March 12, 1907 correspondence exhibited here, written on his Secretary of Commerce and Labor letterhead to the ex-president almost 20 years later:
My Dear Mr. Cleveland:
Seventy years is an enviable record when one has the supreme satisfaction which is yours, to look back upon such preeminent patriotic achievement by you for the lasting benefit of the country.
Those of us who have enjoyed the rare and precious privilege of striving with you in however humble degree, towards the goals to which you so courageously and wisely led the way, have profited by the inspiration your leadership imparted, and feel a special sense of gratitude which we recognize we can best repay by striving for those ideals which your public career has so eminently typified.
Long may you live to enjoy in repose, health and happiness, surrounded by those who are nearest and dearest to you – a wish that I desire to convey to you with the cordiality of affectionate friendship.
Even after leaving public service, Straus continued to advocate on behalf of his fellow Jews. For example, when he learned about the horrific condition of Jews in Russia, he joined a committee that brought the matter to President Harrison who was so moved that he addressed the czar’s persecution of Jews in his next State of the Union Address in 1899, which led to a temporary amelioration of the Jewish condition in Russia.
Straus was universally respected by both Republicans and Democrats to the point where, upon his election as president, McKinley (a Republican) appointed him Minister to Turkey, marking the first time in American history that a person had been appointed to the same diplomatic post by both a Democratic and Republican president. Many commentators characterize Straus’ appointment as a key early step in the depoliticization of the diplomatic service and its rendering as a true meritocracy.
The highlight of Straus’ second tenure in Turkey was his key role in quelling a Muslim insurrection, as the Jewish minister convinced the pan-Islamic Sultan to order the insurgent radical Muslims not to resist America, thereby averting a “holy war” against the West. President McKinley sent a personal letter of thanks to Straus crediting him for saving the lives of some 20,000 American servicemen.
When Teddy Roosevelt succeeded McKinley in 1901, one of his first acts was to appoint Straus as a member of the permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague – he was reappointed by presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson – and he later served as an American representative at the Paris Peace Conference and advised Wilson concerning the needs and interests of European Jewry.
After the infamous Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 – and after a meeting held at Carnegie Hall in New York at which ex-president Cleveland again came to the defense of the Jews of Russia – Straus, ever the shtadlan, assumed the chairmanship of a committee organized to collect money for survivors of the pogrom.
At a meeting with Roosevelt at the president’s Oyster Bay home, he successfully urged Roosevelt to dispatch what became his famous correspondence to the Russian government condemning the atrocities. At the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Straus negotiated with the Russians to ease the appalling situation of the Jews under Russian control.
When Roosevelt advised Straus that he would appoint him to a cabinet position, the president famously wrote: I have a very high estimate of your judgment and your ability and I want you for personal reasons. There is still a further reason: I want to show Russia and some other countries what we think of the Jews in this country.
Straus’ appointment received wide and favorable comment in the nation’s press, and many newspapers used the occasion to praise generally Jewish contributions to the United States. As Secretary of Commerce and Labor, he was also in charge of the U.S. Board of Immigration, in which capacity he devoted efforts toward improving the status of newcomers to the United States, including Jewish immigrants.
Always on the lookout for the welfare of Jews, he threatened to resign from his cabinet position unless the government rescinded or amended an issued circular which seemed to countenance discrimination against Jews.
After WWI, Straus worked to assist Jewish refugees and, later in his life, he actively studied Jewish history. For one particular research project, he visited Spain and investigated evidence establishing that Columbus was a Spanish Jew. He is buried at Beth El Cemetery in Ridgewood, New York.
In 1929, the Jewish Tribune conducted a poll to determine the American Jew most deserving of a memorial in Washington, and Straus proved to be the favorite by far. The Oscar S. Straus Memorial Fountain, dedicated October 26, 1947, is inscribed “Statesman, Author, Diplomat.”