The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Dickinson, Lester Jesse
(October 29, 1873–June 4, 1968)

–lawyer, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator—was born on a farm in Lucas County in southern Iowa. His family moved to Danbury, Woodbury County, Iowa, when he was five, and he graduated from Danbury High School in 1892. He attended Cornell College in Mount Vernon, graduating with a B.S. in 1898. One year later he received a law degree from the State University of Iowa.

    Dickinson established a law practice in Algona, Iowa, in partnership with college friend Tim P. Harrington. On August 21, 1901, he married Myrtle Call, whose sister Florence was married to Gardner Cowles Sr. of Algona, who became publisher of the Des Moines Register two years later. The Dickinsons had a son, Levi Call Dickinson, and a daughter, Ruth Alice Dickinson.

    Dickinson was very active in community affairs. He joined the Iowa National Guard and rose to the rank of second lieutenant of the 52nd Iowa Infantry. He also actively supported the Republican Party in local political activities and campaigns, was elected Kossuth County Attorney, and served two terms (1909-1913). Thereafter he became a member of the Republican State Central Committee and ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Iowa General Assembly.

    In 1918 he successfully challenged incumbent Republican U.S. Representative Frank P. Woods for nomination for the Iowa's 10th District seat representing 14 counties in central and northern Iowa. He ran as an all-out prowar candidate while Woods had been moderate in his support of the war. Dickinson easily won the election in the fall and began an 18-year congressional career.

    Dickinson was assigned to the House Appropriations Committee but established his reputation in the 1920s as a leading spokesman for agriculture. He eventually became chairman of a subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee that handled federal funds for agriculture. He also became one of the most recognized leaders of what was known at that time as the Farm Bloc. His rise in influence in Congress was relatively rapid. He never had serious opposition for renomination within the party, and had no Democratic opponent in the general elections in 1926 and 1928. By 1924 speculation about nominating Dickinson for vice president began to rise. It came mostly from Iowa newspapers but did spread to other newspapers in several other states. In March 1924 Iowa's state Republican convention endorsed Dickinson as a running mate for Calvin Coolidge, who eventually chose Charles G. Dawes.

    Dickinson became one of the strongest supporters of the McNary—Haugen Bill, which was designed to aid American farmers. While in Congress, Dickinson also voted for a number of other farm aid bills, the Soldier Bonus Bill, and immigration restriction in 1924; tax reduction bills in 1926, 1928, and 1930; the Jones Law (for heavier Prohibition penalties) in 1929; and radio control in 1928.

    In 1930 Dickinson chose to run for the U.S. Senate. He proved his popularity in Iowa by defeating Governor John Hammill in the primary by 82,000 votes and then defeating incumbent Democratic Senator Daniel Steck in the general election by 72,000 votes. He delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in 1932, and when President Herbert Hoover was defeated for reelection in November, Dickinson went into open and uncompromising opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

    During his years in the Senate, Dickinson authored numerous articles in magazines such as Review of Reviews and American Mercury on both agricultural and political issues. By 1936 he was being considered widely as a possible dark horse Republican candidate to oppose Roosevelt. Instead he ran for reelection to the Senate. However, the effect of the Depression and the popularity of the New Deal changed Dickinson's political fortunes drastically, and he was defeated for reelection by Democratic Governor Clyde Herring by 35,000 votes. He ran for the Senate again in 1938, but was narrowly defeated by incumbent Democrat Guy Gillette by only 5,000 votes. After that second defeat, Dickinson moved to Des Moines and joined a law firm that had been started by his son, which is known today as Dickinson, Mackaman, Tyler and Hagen. He was still active in the firm past the age of 90 and died in 1968 at the age of 94.
Sources The Lester Jesse Dickinson Papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. They include his speeches, correspondence, magazine articles, campaign memorabilia, and scrapbooks kept by Myrtle Dickinson, with thousands of newspaper clippings and photos. There are also numerous references to Dickinson in Leland Sage, A History of Iowa (1974), and a lengthy article by Richard Barry, "Dark-Horse Dickinson," in Review of Reviews Des Moines Register had a feature article on Dickinson, his family, and his law firm on the occasion of his 90th birthday on 10/27/1963, and an obituary on 6/5/1968.
Contributor: David Holmgren