Ralph Owen Brewster (February 22, 1888 – December 25, 1961) was an American politician from Maine. Brewster, a Republican, served as the 54th Governor of Maine from 1925 to 1929, in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1935 to 1941 and in the U.S. Senate from 1941 to 1952. Brewster was a close confidant of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and an antagonist of Howard Hughes.
Owen (he preferred to be known by his middle name) Brewster was born in Dexter, Maine, the son of William Edmund Brewster, a member of the Maine House of Representatives, and Carrie S. Bridges. He was a direct lineal descendant of Love Brewster, a passenger aboard the Mayflower and a founder of the town of Bridgewater, Massachusetts; and of his father Elder William Brewster, the Pilgrim colonist leader and spiritual elder of the Plymouth Colony, and passenger aboard the Mayflower and one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact.
He graduated summa cum laude from Bowdoin College in 1909, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and Delta Kappa Epsilon. From 1909 to 1910, Brewster was the principal of Castine High School, and then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1913.
In 1915, he married Dorothy Foss; from 1915 to 1923, he was a member of the Portland School Committee. From 1914 to 1925, Brewster was a lawyer for the Chapman and Brewster law firm in Portland. He also served as secretary of the Chamber of Commerce-affiliated "Committee of 100" which, in 1923, instituted a significant overhaul of Portland city government.
Early political career and Klan support
Brewster was elected to a two-year term as a member of the Maine House of Representatives (1917–18), but resigned to enlist in the U.S. Army (Third Infantry unit of the Maine National Guard) when the nation entered World War I. He served successively as private, second lieutenant, captain, and regimental adjutant, and returned to the State House after the war ended. He continued to be a State House member from 1921 to 1922, when he was elected to the Maine Senate.
Brewster served in the State Senate until 1925 where he clashed with Senator Clyde Smith, an ardent opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members openly campaigned for Brewster although he denied any involvement with them. Brewster was a proponent of a bill that would disallow any state funding for parochial schools, a measure considered to be aimed at Maine's growing Catholic School system. When he ran for Governor of Maine in 1924, his Democratic opponent William Robinson Pattangall, made Klan support for Brewster the centerpiece of his campaign. Pattangall lost, but Brewster was also accused of Klan sympathies from within his own party, most notably by former Maine governor Percival Baxter. His governorship would so split the Maine Republican Party that Brewster denounced his own party's candidate in a U.S. Senatorial election in 1926. Arthur R. Gould won anyway after an anti-Klan campaign, which signalled the limits of the Klan's power in Maine politics (see Ku Klux Klan in Maine)
Brewster entered the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Senator Frederick Hale in 1928, but Hale won. This was the last time that the Maine Ku Klux Klan openly campaigned for Brewster, and his loss led to the resignation of Grand Dragon DeForest H. Perkins.
Contested election of 1932
Brewster served two terms as governor, leaving office in 1929 after he lost the Republican nomination for a third term. In 1932, he was defeated for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, after a bitterly fought campaign against Democrat John G. Utterback from Bangor where Brewster also had a law office. Although Bangor was the largest city in Brewster's congressional district, his support came mainly from smaller towns. As one Maine newspaper put it in 1923, "the rank and file (of Republicans in Bangor) are decidedly, positively, and all-the-time anti-Brewster". Brewster accused Utterback and the Democratic Party of throwing the vote in certain predominantly Franco-American (i.e. Catholic-majority) towns in Aroostook County, and took that accusation first to state authorities and then to the U.S. Congress itself, where he tried to prevent Utterback from being seated. Although unsuccessful, Utterback was kept so much on the defensive that Brewster managed to defeat him in the 1934 election. Brewster served in the House until 1941, when he went on to the U.S. Senate. Brewster was re-elected to the Senate in 1946.
Congressional career, opposition to New Deal, and post-war McCarthyism
During his time in Congress, Brewster worked on legislation to provide old-age pensions (the forerunner of Social Security) although he was a prominent opponent of welfare and spending programs in President Roosevelt's New Deal. As Senator, Brewster sat on several committees, notably the Special Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (the Truman Committee), and the Joint Committee to Investigate the Pearl Harbor attack. At the time these were very high profile and Brewster's work on those committees did much to raise his profile in Washington.
Brewster played a role in defeating the signature New Deal project in his own district of Maine, a multibillion-dollar tidal power development planned for Passamaquoddy Bay. Supported by President Roosevelt, whose summer home on Campobello was within sight of the project area, Brewster initially seemed to be an ally. In 1935, however, he publicly accused a New Deal attorney, Thomas Corcoran, of threatening to kill the project unless Brewster favored the administration on a related vote reining in private utilities. Corcoran denied the charge in the public hearing that followed, Brewster shouting out "liar" at one point in the proceedings. While Brewster's accusation made it appear that he was still supportive, and that the Roosevelt administration was placing the development in jeopardy, the project's supporters believed he was playing a double game. In the town of Lubec, adjacent to the development site, a crowd of over 200 hung Brewster in effigy with a sign around his neck reading "our double-crossing Congressman".
In the post-war Senate, Brewster became good friends with Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. His association with McCarthyism eroded Brewster's political support as McCarthy's anti-communist excesses became increasingly unpopular. His earlier association with the Ku Klux Klan had already cost him support in liberal Republican circles. One of McCarthy's major opponents was another Republican member of Maine's congressional delegation, Margaret Chase Smith, whose late husband Clyde Smith had been a foe of Brewster and the Klan in the Maine State Legislature of the 1920s.
Opposition to Howard Hughes
Brewster came to national attention due to his opposition to the commercial interests of Howard Hughes, America's wealthiest person at the time. In 1947 Brewster was chairman of the special Senate committee investigating defense procurement during World War II. He claimed concern that Hughes had received $40 million from the War Department without actually delivering the aircraft he had contracted to provide, but Brewster may have had an ulterior motive.
Hughes aggressively combatted the inquiring Brewster, alleging that the senator was corrupt. Memoirs by Hughes's right-hand man Noah Dietrich and syndicated newspaper columnist Jack Anderson each sketched Brewster as, in Dietrich's words, "an errand boy for Juan Trippe and Pan American World Airways," who pushed for legislation that would give Pan Am the single-carrier international air monopoly for the U.S. The Martin Scorsese movie The Aviator portrays Brewster (played by Alan Alda) similarly, as corrupt and in the pocket of Pan Am, the rival of Hughes' TWA. Hughes spread rumors about Brewster's close association with Pan Am, alleging that he received free flights and hospitality in return for legislation such as his bill to withdraw government approval for TWA flights across the Atlantic.
In a Senate hearing that electrified the nation, Hughes repeated his accusations that Brewster had promised an end to the Senate inquiry if Hughes would agree to merging TWA with Pan Am. (Dietrich wrote that Hughes, in a bid to stall for time before the hearing, went so far as to launch negotiations with Trippe about such a merger.) In response, Brewster, stung by the allegations, stood aside from chairing the inquiry and became instead a witness before the committee – which also allowed Hughes to question Brewster directly. Brewster denied Hughes' allegations and made several counter-claims, but by the time the hearing ended Brewster's reputation had suffered greatly. Ironically, Hughes, for all his wealth, came across as what Dietrich described as the "little guy" who "fought City Hall and won."
In 1952, Hughes worked hard to ensure Brewster's political demise, persuading the then-Governor of Maine, Frederick G. Payne, to challenge him in the Republican primary. Armed with practically unlimited campaign funds from Hughes, Payne challenged Brewster's connection with McCarthyism and racist groups and also took up Hughes' claims that Brewster was corrupt. This led to the unusual defeat of an incumbent Senator in his own primary. Brewster resigned his seat in December 1952 and was succeeded by Payne, who would only last one term, being defeated by Edmund Muskie in 1958.
Retirement and later years
In his retirement Brewster continued active involvement in many conservative organizations. Brewster was a Christian Scientist and served a one-year term in the largely honorary role as President of The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston for 1932-1933. He was a member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Portland, Maine for many years, and later helped establish a Christian Science Society in Dexter, Maine. Brewster was a member of the American Bar Association, Grange, the American Legion, the Freemasons, the Elks, the Odd Fellows, and Delta Kappa Epsilon.
Brewster died unexpectedly of cancer on Christmas Day, 1961 in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Dexter, Maine where his home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was converted to the Brewster Inn, a bed and breakfast.
In 2004, Brewster was portrayed by Alan Alda in The Aviator. Alda was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but he lost to Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby.
- Jones 1908, p. 143.
- Jones 1908, p. 144.
- Jones 1908, p. 280.
- Ralph Owen Brewster, William Edmund Brewster, Abiatha, Morgan, William, Icabod, William, William, Love, William, of the Mayflower.
- Lewiston Evening Journal, June 12, 1926, p. 2.
- Lewiston Evening Journal, July 15, 1935.
- The Great Aviator: Howard Hughes, His Life, Loves & Films – A Documentary. Los Angeles: Delta Entertainment Corporation, 2004. Note: Testimony by Brewster and Hughes during the Senate Hearings is now in the public domain.
- Christian Science Sentinel, June 18, 1932 issue