May 6, 2010
Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. gave the 41st Annual Herbert H. Lehman Memorial Lecture in March 2010. He spoke about the importance of religious tolerance.
19 Minutes 33 Seconds
"Inspiring Talks" features faculty, guest speakers, and experts discussing their own stories of adversity and success, as well as hopeful new developments, in a variety of fields.
This is Nathaniel Gasque, a student at Lehman College.
Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. gave the 41st Annual Herbert H. Lehman Memorial Lecture in March 2010. He spoke about the importance of religious tolerance.
Ambassador Loeb was the U.S. representative to Denmark from 1981 to 1983 and is the grand-nephew of Governor Lehman. He is the first descendant of Governor Lehman to deliver this lecture.
In addition to founding the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, Ambassador Loeb is chairman of the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States. He also is chairman of John L. Loeb, Jr. Associates, Inc., Investment Counselors.
JOHN L. LOEB JR.:
As a child, I didn't realize how important he was. Uncle Herbert, however, towered in my mind because Shirley Temple visited his home in 1939 where I met her. One of my favorite Lehman stories comes from a Lehman cousin, June Bingham, by the way, whose husband, Jonathan Bingham, for years, was a congressman from the Bronx. And as a little girl, my cousin June was a frequent visitor at the home of Herbert's brother, Irving Lehman, who was then-- while his brother was governor, he was Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals.
A frequent visitor also was Albert Einstein. And June was always cautioned to be very, very, very quiet on the occasions when the famed scientist was visiting there because, she was told, "Mr. Einstein is thinking." (LAUGHTER) That story is in Lots of Lehmans. It is anecdotal, not serious, great fun for anyone interested in Lehman stories.
Now I've been asked to tell you a little of the background of the three original Lehman brothers, Mayer, my great-grandfather, and his brothers, Henry and Emanuel. These three founded Lehman Brothers in the mid-1800s. They came from a modest, middle-class German family who lived in the little village called Rimpar, now a bedroom community of Wurzburg in Germany. Now Rimpar and Wurzburg are in Bavaria, one of the larger German states. But when they were born, it was a separate country ruled by a king. And his kingdom was very, very Catholic. In fact, no Protestants were allowed to live in Wurzburg or Rimpar. Jews, however, were allowed to live in Rimpar, but only with an extraordinary number of legal restrictions.
No more than one person born into a Jewish family was granted a license to marry, live, and work in Rimpar. My great-great grandfather, Abraham Lehman, had nine children. Only his eldest son received a license to work and live in Rimpar. Those were the days when the eldest son got everything. Things have unfortunately changed. I'm the eldest son, so-- (LAUGHTER)
All of Abraham Lehman's eight other children, including five girls, had to leave Rimpar and live and work in other places. The girls had to find husbands in other villages. No easy challenge, since the men in other villages often had to leave their homes because of this incredibly, very strict quota system.
Henry, the second eldest Lehman son, headed for America in 1844 to begin life as a peddler at the age of 21. He ended up in Mobile, Alabama, probably because a distant cousin lived there. The cousin's business was selling peddler's packs. Henry had no doubt earned a little money working for his father, a cattle broker in Rimpar. He must have earned at least enough to pay his passage to America and buy his peddler's pack.
From Mobile, Henry started his peddling in various places around Alabama. Then he heard about Montgomery. Montgomery, the largest city in the state, was in the midst of a fast-growing boom. The boom was cotton. Cotton, as they said, was king. Henry arrived in Montgomery in 1845 and soon opened a little dry goods store, which he called simply "H. Lehman and Company." Two years later, his next younger brother, Emanuel, arrived, and the store name changed from "H. Lehman" to "H. Lehman and Bro." for "brother." When my great-grandfather arrived in 1850, the name became "Lehman Brothers."
Often the cotton farmers couldn't pay cash for the goods they bought, so the Lehman brothers started to accept cotton as payment. Now, by 1900, only about 55 years later, the little dry goods store, "Lehman Brothers," had become one of the biggest cotton dealers and brokers in the world. Most people do not know that the Lehman fortune was not made in finance, but was made in cotton.
In the early 1900s, their friends, the Goldmans and the Sachses, who had also come from Bavaria, were entering a new business called "investment banking," but they had very little money. The Lehmans by then were very rich. So the Lehmans backed the Goldmans and the Sachses in this new business. Around the time of the First World War, the Lehmans themselves, having seen what a great business it was, started into investment banking. Over the next 70 years, Lehman Brothers gradually reduced their interest in cotton and other commodities and built one of the greatest investment banking firms in the world.
Now the recent media, print, TV, radio, blogs, has gotten the Lehman Brothers story all wrong. In 1984, for the Lehman Brothers company I have been talking about, and I'll call them "MY" Lehman Brothers, merged with the American Express Company. That was the end of "MY" Lehman Brothers, and at that time, it was a profitable and successful firm. Ten years later, in 1994, the American Express Company created a bond-trading business, headed by Richard Fuld. This bond-trading business was put into a brand new company. The shares of this newly formed bond-trading company were then distributed to the shareholders of the American Express Company.
As the American Express Company at that time controlled the name "Lehman Brothers," they let this new bond-trading business use the name "Lehman Brothers." Fourteen years later, in 2008, this new company, not "MY" Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt. In short, the Lehman Brothers you've been reading about in the news for the last two years has nothing to do, I repeat, nothing to do with "MY" Lehman Brothers, except for the new company's use of my family's name.
The college, as you know, is named for my great-grandfather's, Mayer's, youngest son, Herbert. Of all that my great-uncle achieved, success at Lehman Brothers, service in New York both as a governor and a U.S. Senator, as you've heard, and later as the first director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which actually fed refugees from our allies all over Europe. Many people's lives were saved. But what I am most proud of occurred when he served in the Senate, by the way, two terms. It was his early, lonely, courageous opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy and all the intolerance of McCarthyism in the 1950s. It was one of our country's, for those of you who can remember, least admirable and most intolerant periods of recent history.
Now I have another story for you. It takes place in the fall of 1945 toward the end of World War II. The story is about a boy who was sent to boarding school in 1939 when he was only nine. He is now fourteen. The boarding school is large, and has an all- American, white-male student body whose families are well-to-do and well-educated. There are few minorities in this school, only five foreigners, refugees from Europe at the time, and two American Jews, one of whom was this boy.
Saturday night is movie night, which the whole student body attends. The first newsreel shows pictures of the German concentration camps that appear on the screen. Horrible, disturbing images of the dead and the emaciated near-dead men, women, and children in degrading striped uniforms. The pictures take that boy's breath away.
What happens next completely knocks the wind out of him. The entire student body cheers and hoots. And afterwards a group of the boys approach him and say, "Well, we don't like Hitler, but at least he's killed the Jews."
That boy was me. I was stunned. I had always thought we were all Americans and religion didn't matter as long as you were a good American. After all, my Grandmother Adeline Moses had colonial ancestors going all the way back to the Revolutionary War, in fact back to 1697.
That terrible night when my school showed the Holocaust newsreel has been the inspiration that fired my lifelong motive to find the basis for such hatred of Jews, to find peace in my own heart, and to teach young people about living with others with more than tolerance. I call it, "beyond tolerance."
I'd like to stop here for a moment and talk about the words "tolerance" and "toleration." We usually think of tolerance as something positive. However, some people see tolerance as a negative. Thomas Paine, for example, who wrote Common Sense and The Rights of Man around the time of the Revolution, said, "Toleration is not the opposite of intoleration, but the counterfeit of it. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other, of granting it." Some forward-thinking Americans at the same Revolutionary time along with Thomas Paine also believed that the word "tolerance" carried the taint of condescension, as if it was a benefit bestowed by the powerful on the barely worthy.
Not so long ago, as part of my research into what our founding fathers thought about God and religion, I came upon an extraordinary letter that President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, in Rhode Island, in 1790 on the subject of tolerance. George Washington is not usually thought of as a political philosopher, but his words in this letter express the moral understanding that the vast majority of Americans today hold to be our shared religious rights.
This letter had a powerful impact on my thinking and my life. In this memorable letter, Washington states, "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."
By moving beyond the idea of religious toleration to defining religious observance as an "inherent natural right," Washington distilled the essence of American religious freedom itself, the right of everyone to worship according to his or her conscience.
Now, there is quite a story behind this remarkable letter, and as you can tell, I like to tell stories. It was written one year before the Bill of Rights became law.
In 1790, President Washington paid a good-will visit to Rhode Island, actually to thank Rhode Island who had been very slow to ratify the Constitution, and they finally ratified it. He sailed from New York City, then the American capital, in a little packet boat to Newport, and spent the night there on August 17, 1790. The next morning, various civic groups jockeyed for the honor of giving the president letters of welcome. Among them was the leader of Newport's little, very little, Hebrew congregation, a man called Moses Seixas. His letter was among those presented to the president.
Moses Seixas's letter poured out his gratitude to George Washington for his personal accomplishments and for the establishment of a new government. His eloquent letter expressed the hope that this new country would accord all of its citizens, respect and tolerance, whatever their background and religious beliefs. The Seixas letter moved the president, who responded to that Seixas letter four days later on August 21, 1790.
When you hear the words of George Washington's letter read aloud, you realize that it is a clarion call, which is echoed down the centuries. Let me quote a few more phrases from that letter:
"The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
George Washington's promise was not just tolerance, but full liberty of conscience no matter what one's religious beliefs might be. Thus the president was paving the way for the First Amendment, which was adopted by the thirteen states a little more than a year after his magnificent statement to the Hebrew congregation. It seems appropriate to quote that inspired addition to our Constitution right now:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances."
To me, our first president's letter is as important as any document in the history of the United States. Though it contains only 300 words, its key phrases epitomize succinctly and with incredible eloquence the concepts of America's freedoms. I credit this letter as my inspiration for founding the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. The mission of the Institute is to focus the attention of this country's teachers on educating America's high school students to understand and appreciate our American freedoms, especially the critical importance of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, the very bedrock of our democracy.
The first project of the George Washington Institute was completed last summer, the building of a Visitors Center on the campus of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, to whose colonial congregation George Washington had written the letter I just quoted.
Little did I know that awful night in 1945 that a devastatingly anti-Semitic experience would set my feet on a life journey leading to the founding of this George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, and promoting the ideas of Roger Williams, and the historic George Washington Letter to the Hebrew congregation, and the building of the Visitors Center.
Tolerance is not built into our DNA. It must be acquired. We have to educate, or re-educate every new generation. The key to fulfilling the mission of the George Washington Institute is to excite and inspire teachers and through them to excite and inspire students.
Perhaps many of you saw the extraordinary cover picture of the New York Times magazine just last February 14th. The entire front page of the magazine was a replica of the famous painting of General George Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas Eve, 1776. Superimposed on this picture was an image of Jesus Christ sitting right next to the general. The headline on the magazine cover was in the form of a question: "How Christian Were the Founders?" With the subhead which reads, "History Wars: Inside America's Textbook Battles."
The headline for the article itself reads, "Conservative activists on the Texas Board of Education say the authors of the Constitution intended the United States to be a Christian Nation. And they want America's history textbooks to say so, too." My response to the article that appeared in the New York Times on February 28 is a letter to the editor. I simply quoted the George Washington letter.
In conclusion, I can think of no better way to summarize the stories I've brought you today than to quote the words that my Uncle Herbert Lehman often said to me and others, "I must respect the opinion of others, even if I disagree with them." Thank you.
Visit us at www.lehman.edu. This is a production of the Lehman College Media Relations Office.
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