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Ralph Owen Brewster

In office
January 7, 1925 – January 2, 1929
Preceded by Percival P. Baxter
Succeeded by William T. Gardiner

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 3rd district
In office
January 3, 1935 – January 3, 1941
Preceded by John G. Utterback
Succeeded by Frank Fellows

In office
January 3, 1941 – December 31, 1952
Preceded by Frederick Hale
Succeeded by Frederick G. Payne

Born February 22, 1888
Dexter, Maine
Died December 25, 1961
Brookline, Massachusetts
Political party Republican
Alma mater Bowdoin College
Harvard Law School
Military service
Service/branch United States National Guard
Rank Captain
Unit Maine

Ralph Owen Brewster (February 22, 1888 – December 25, 1961) was an American politician from Maine. Brewster, a Republican, was solidly conservative. Brewster was a close confidant of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and an antagonist of Howard Hughes.


Early years

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 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.

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 Sen. 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 1925, his Democratic opponent William Robinson Pattangall, made Brewster's Klan support 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 J. Gould won anyway after an anti-Klan campaign, which signalled the limits of the Klan's power in Maine politics.

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. 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 multi-billion dollar tidal power development planned for Passamaquoddy Bay. Supported by President Roosevelt, whose summer home on Campobello was within site 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 reigning 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 Lubuc, 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".[1]

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

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. Brewster was chairman of a special Senate committee investigating defense procurement during World War II. He claimed concern that Hughes had received $40 million from the Defense Department without actually delivering the aircraft he had contracted to provide, but Brewster may have had an ulterior motive. Incidentally, Hughes stated that the H-4 Hercules cost far more, with the balance coming from his own funds.

Hughes aggressively combated the inquirer, alleging corruption. Memoirs by Hughes 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. Paradoxically, Hughes, for all his wealth, came across as what Dietrich described as the "little guy" who "fought City Hall and won."[2]

In 1952, Hughes worked hard to ensure Brewster's political demise, persuading the then Governor of Maine, Frederick G. Payne, to challenge him for the Republican Senate nomination. 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; Payne would only last one term, being defeated by Ed Muskie in 1958.

Retirement and later years

In his retirement Brewster continued active involvement in many conservative organizations. Brewster was a Christian Scientist. He was a member of the American Bar Association, Grange, the American Legion, the Freemasons, the Elks, the Odd Fellows, and Delta Kappa Epsilon. He denied being a member of the Ku Klux Klan, although he received their support.

Brewster died unexpectedly of cancer in 1961 in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Dexter, Maine where his home was converted to the Brewster Inn, a bed and breakfast.

Popular culture

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 lost to Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby.

Footage of Brewster as a senator was included in the documentary 'Atomic Cafe" Brewster is giving a portion of a McCarthyite speech about communism.




  1. ^ Lewiston Evening Journal, July 15, 1935
  2. ^ 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.


External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Percival P. Baxter
Governor of Maine
1925 – 1929
Succeeded by
William Tudor Gardiner
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
John G. Utterback
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 3rd congressional district

1935 – 1941
Succeeded by
Frank Fellows
United States Senate
Preceded by
Frederick Hale
United States Senator (Class 1) from Maine
1941 – 1953
Served alongside: Wallace H. White, Jr., Margaret Chase Smith
Succeeded by
Frederick G. Payne


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