Williams, Harrison A., Jr., 1919-2001

Alternative names
Birth 1919-12-10
Death 2001-11-17

Biographical notes:

Harrison Arlington Williams, Jr. (1919 - 2001) represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate from 1959 until 1982. He also served in the House of Representatives as Congressman from New Jersey's Sixth Congressional District (Union County) from 1953 through 1956. Known since infancy by the nickname "Pete," Williams was a member of the Democratic Party during a period when Democrats held a majority in the Senate. Consequently, until a Republican majority took office in 1981 toward the end of his career, Williams held the Chairmanships of a number of committees and subcommittees over the years. Further, Williams played important roles as a leader within the Democratic Party, notably as a member of the Democratic Senate Steering Committee, the group responsible for committee assignments.

Williams was born in Plainfield, NJ, on December 10, 1919, son of Harrison A. Williams, Sr. and Isabel Lamson Williams. He attended the Plainfield public schools, then studied economics and political science at Oberlin College, graduating in 1941. After a short stint as a reporter with the Washington Post and beginning graduate work at Georgetown University Foreign Service School, Williams, a Naval reservist, was called to active duty when the U.S. entered WWII. He served on a minesweeper for a year and as a Navy pilot for three years. After his discharge, Williams worked in an Ohio steel mill for a year before attending Columbia University Law School, from which he graduated in 1948. Williams practiced law in New Hampshire for one year before returning to New Jersey to join the firm of Cox and Walburg in Newark and, in the early 1950s, the Elizabeth firm that became Pollis and Williams.

Williams began his political career with unsuccessful runs for the New Jersey Assembly in 1951 and for Plainfield city councilman in 1952. His first victory came against George F. Hetfield in a special election held on November 3, 1953, to fill the Sixth Congressional District vacancy that opened when Clifford Case resigned his seat in the House of Representatives. Williams was re-elected to the House in 1954, defeating Fred Shepard, but lost in 1956 to Florence P. Dwyer. Remaining active in politics, Williams played a leading role in Robert Meyner's 1957 successful gubernatorial bid, earning Meyner's support for Williams's successful 1958 Senate campaign. Williams would win four consecutive Senate races—unprecedented for a Democrat in New Jersey—defeating Robert W. Kean (1958), Bernard M. Shanley (1964), Nelson Gross (1970), and David F. Norcross (1976).

In his short House tenure, Williams was involved principally with oversight of American overseas diplomatic operations. He served on the Committee of Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs and on the Committee on Government Operations' Subcommittee on International Operations. As a member of these subcommittees, Williams traveled to Europe and to Central America.

Throughout his Senate career, Williams was a member of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources. (This was the name of the Committee beginning in 1978.The Committee was called the Committee on Human Resources in 1977 and, prior to 1977, the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.) One of Williams's first achievements as a Senator was gaining the approval in 1959 of then-Chairman Lister Hill to create a Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, which HAW chaired until 1968. Williams was successful at publicizing the poor living and working conditions of agricultural laborers and their families, leading to legislative advances, especially for the improvement of migrant health (1962) and education (1964). Williams's concern with working conditions led to at least two other major legislative initiatives in the 1960s: the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). Connecting his interest in labor with his longtime advocacy of civil rights, Williams sponsored the Equal Employment Opportunity Act Amendments of 1972, which provided the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with the enforcement powers to pursue discrimination cases.

Ascending to the Chairmanship of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources for the entire decade of the 1970s, Williams continued at the forefront of legislative reforms in the areas of occupational safety, pension protection, access to education, equal employment opportunity, women's rights, health initiatives, minimum wage, and much more. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act of 1977, and the Home Energy Assistance Act (1980) are just a few of the significant pieces of legislation sponsored by Chairman Williams and reported by his Committee. Himself a victim of alcoholism, as he informed the public in 1970, Williams was also a supporter of legislation aimed at the prevention and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse; his initiative created the Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics in 1971 to focus on the issue.

Williams also spent his entire Senate career on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs (known as the Committee on Banking and Currency before 1971). As Chairman of the Securities Subcommittee throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s, Williams sought to increase the regulatory oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to improve disclosure in securities offerings and in corporate takeover attempts, to enforce equitable lending practices, and to implement other market reforms. The reporting requirements of the so-called Williams Act of 1968 remain important features of equity market regulation. As a member of the Select Committee on Small Business for over a decade, Williams sought ways to strengthen the effectiveness of the Small Business Administration, and much of his constituent project work centered on connecting small firms with SBA opportunities. Williams's appreciation of commercial interests—including those of New Jersey's agricultural, pharmaceutical, and other industries—often involved Williams in matters of royalty and patent protection, import/export restrictions, and other matters of importance to business.

Additionally, Williams's place on the Banking Committee and his interest in housing was part of a broader vision of a Federal role in managing the natural and built environment of the U.S., particularly with respect to urban centers and their greater metropolitan areas. Mass transportation was an essential part of Williams's vision. Beginning with his Mass Transportation Act of 1961 and continuing throughout his career, Williams sponsored legislation aimed at reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, while increasing the availability and efficiency of commuting options. Similarly, Williams sought to protect open space (or at least find a well-planned balance between conservation and development) within these metropolitan areas, leading him to pursue conservation initiatives at Sandy Hook, the Delaware Water Gap, the Great Swamp, and other New Jersey areas. Williams's legislation designating the Pinelands a "national reserve" was an innovative approach to finding a means of achieving this conservation/development balance where competing interests where at stake. Williams's legislative efforts to regulate ocean dumping, to eliminate inhumane animal trapping, to preserve endangered species, to identify alternative energy sources, and so forth linked into his efforts to create a sustainable economy and a pleasurable, socially-responsible way of life.

Williams's overall efforts on the housing front dovetailed with his participation on the Special Committee on Aging. Here, Williams was principally concerned with housing and health care (including his Preventicare program) for senior citizens. Additionally, Williams was concerned about the extent to which the elderly were often victims of fraud. For example, he pressed for legislation over several Congresses to regulate the disclosures required for interstate land sales, culminating in the passage of such a law in 1968.

Despite the domestic orientation of Williams's Committee assignments, foreign affairs—including the Vietnam War and the Cold War—were issues that he retained interest in. In the 1950s, Williams was an ardent anti-Communist. Nevertheless, while he recognized the importance of military defense, he perceived the United State's confrontation with the Soviet Union as principally one of ideology, which could be won by building allies through diplomacy, cultural engagement, and economic development. As a Congressman, his committee assignments involved him in foreign operations administration, and through this work Williams pressed for enhancements in foreign aid, trade activities, and support for foreign service personnel. By the 1960s, Williams's view of the Cold War translated into his initial support for the Vietnam War, though he eventually came to oppose it, supporting or sponsoring various legislative efforts pressing for a resolution. Williams was also a strong supporter of Israel, at least in part because of his perception of that country as a democratic ally and bulwark against Communist influence in the Middle East. Williams's sponsored legislation included efforts to break the Arab embargo on companies doing business with Israel.

With an appreciation for intellectual activity as a national resource, Williams pursued funding for a wide range of initiatives in the sciences, arts, and humanities. He lent his name to a number of institutions; at various times he was, for example, a director for the New York Lyric Ensemble, a member of the Steering Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, and a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center. Perhaps most notable in this connection was Williams's sponsorship of legislation in the early 1960s forming a Woodrow Wilson Memorial Commission with the objective of creating an appropriate memorial to the former President. Williams's involvement as a leader of the Commission led to the founding of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1971.

Williams's career began to close in February 1980 when the press reported that he was a target of a FBI undercover operation, known as Abscam. The Abscam operation had snared several businessmen and politicians, but Williams was the most prominent and highest-ranking official involved. In October 1980, a nine count indictment against Williams was announced which included bribery, receipt of an unlawful gratuity, conflict of interest, and conspiracy to defraud the United States, among other charges. Williams's trial started on March 30, 1981 and, on May 9, Williams was found guilty on all counts. The Senate Committee on Ethics then opened its own hearings into the matter, which led to a recommendation in September 1981 that Williams be expelled from the Senate. As the Senate neared the end of its deliberations on this recommendation, Williams resigned in March 1982. Though continuing to pursue various avenues for fighting the charges in court, Williams was sentenced, and he entered the penitentiary at Allenwood, Pa. in January 1984. Throughout the ordeal, Williams argued that he was innocent and that the FBI had abused its power. Williams's contentions were important ones that resulted in fierce debate in the news media and in Congress where hearings were held on the FBI's investigative tactics.

After his release from prison in 1986, Williams returned home to retirement in Bedminster, NJ, where he had lived since 1974 with his wife, Jeanette. Williams died of heart disease on November 17, 2001.

(An overview of Williams's committee and subcommittee assignments is included as Appendix D. A list of personnel from HAW's Senate office is included as Appendix E. Below is a link to a more comprehensive biographical sketch of Harrison Williams' Senate career, written by Anthony Manganaro, a Rutgers University public history intern, in December 2007.)

Harrison Williams Senate Career Biographical Sketch

From the guide to the Harrison A. Williams, Jr. Papers (01): Introduction, 1862-2001 (bulk 1953-1982), (Rutgers University. Special Collections and University Archives.)


Loading Relationships


Ark ID:


  • Urban Renewal
  • Legislative bodies--United States
  • Economic assistance, American
  • Social security beneficiaries--New Jersey
  • Trucking--Law and legislation
  • Import quotas--United States
  • Open spaces--Law and legislation--United States
  • Deregulation--United States
  • Public housing--Resident satisfaction
  • Animal traps--Law and legislation
  • Older people--Housing
  • Urban policy
  • Communication policy
  • Water--Pollution
  • Labor laws and legislation--United States
  • Exports
  • Community development, Urban
  • Environmental law
  • Local transit
  • Education, higher
  • Abortion--Government policy--Citizen participation
  • Defense contracts
  • Energy conservation--Law and legislation
  • Federal aid to water resources development
  • Social security--United States
  • Older people--Medical care--United States
  • Energy development--Law and legislation
  • Federal aid to drug abuse treatment programs
  • Federal aid to alcoholism programs
  • Occupational training--Law and legislation
  • Economic conversion--United States
  • Military pensions--United States
  • Economic development projects--New Jersey
  • Federal aid to small business
  • Federal aid to community development
  • Right to labor--United States
  • Drug addicts--Rehabilitation
  • Veterans' hospitals--New Jersey
  • Railroads--Commuting traffic
  • Conservation of natural resources--Law and legislation
  • Military assistance
  • Railroads--Employees--Pensions
  • Environmental policy
  • Military bases--New Jersey
  • Mine safety--Law and legislation--United States
  • Educational law and legislation
  • Mental health laws--United States
  • Federal aid to services for people with disabilities
  • Airports--Planning
  • Discrimination--United States
  • Sewerage--New Jersey
  • Tocks Island Reservoir Project
  • Professional education
  • Federal aid to law enforcement agencies
  • City planning
  • Federal aid to the arts
  • Gun control
  • Transportation--United States
  • Industrial hygiene--Law and legislation--United States
  • Housing authorities--New Jersey
  • Abscam Bribery Scandal, 1980
  • Labor unions--United States
  • Community colleges--New Jersey
  • Federal aid to health facilities
  • Sewer districts--New Jersey
  • Consumer protection--Law and legislation
  • Roads--New Jersey
  • Conservation of natural resources--Citizen participation
  • Job creation--Law and legislation
  • Draft--United States
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements
  • Civil rights--United States
  • Manpower policy--United States
  • Vocational education
  • Medicare--Law and legislation
  • Tariff--United States
  • Housing policy
  • Wildlife conservation--Law and legislation
  • Arms transfers
  • Animal welfare--Law and legislation
  • Consumer complaints
  • Urban transportation
  • Pensions--Law and legislation--United States
  • Migrant labor--United States
  • Medicare beneficiaries
  • Laboratory animals--Law and legislation
  • Environmental protection--Citizen participation
  • Foreign trade regulation
  • Armed Forces--Procurement
  • Grants-in-aid
  • Natural resources conservation areas--Law and legislation
  • Federal aid to youth services
  • Public housing--New Jersey
  • Agricultural credit
  • Veterans--Medical care--New Jersey
  • Energy consumption--Law and legislation
  • Public works--New Jersey
  • Taxation--Public opinion
  • Flood control
  • Education--Finance


not available for this record


  • United States—Foreign relations—Panama (as recorded)
  • Panama—Foreign relations—United States (as recorded)
  • Hunterdon County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Commerce (as recorded)
  • Gloucester County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Delaware River (N.Y.-Del. and N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Ellis Island (N.J. and N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Foreign relations—Vietnam (as recorded)
  • Hackensack Meadowlands (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Moral conditions (as recorded)
  • Cape May County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Passaic River (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Vineland (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Burlington County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Cumberland County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Politics and government—1961-1963 (as recorded)
  • Toms River (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Delaware Bay (Del. and N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Newark Bay (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Trenton (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Officials and employees—Pensions (as recorded)
  • Plainfield (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Saudi Arabia—Foreign relations—United States (as recorded)
  • Union County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Morris County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Mercer County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Panama Canal (Panama) (as recorded)
  • Essex County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Monmouth County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • New Brunswick (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Newark (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Salem County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • East Orange (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Vietnam—Foreign relations—United States (as recorded)
  • Elizabeth (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Raritan River (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Somerset County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Naval Air Station (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Emigration and immigration (as recorded)
  • Camden (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Princeton (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Passaic County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Bergen County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Bayonne (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Fort Monmouth (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Foreign relations—Middle East (as recorded)
  • Middlesex County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Pine Barrens (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Social conditions—1960-1980—Public opinion (as recorded)
  • Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (N.J. and Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Paterson (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Politics and government—1974-1977 (as recorded)
  • Asbury Park (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Foreign relations—Saudi Arabia (as recorded)
  • Hudson County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Politics and government—1969-1974 (as recorded)
  • United States—Officials and employees—Salaries, etc (as recorded)
  • Ocean County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Fort Dix (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Atlantic City (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Israel—Foreign relations—United States (as recorded)
  • United States—Politics and government—1963-1969 (as recorded)
  • Hackensack River (N.Y. and N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Economic conditions—1971-1981 (as recorded)
  • Atlantic County (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • United States—Foreign relations—Israel (as recorded)
  • United States—Politics and government—1977-1981 (as recorded)
  • Jersey City (N.J.) (as recorded)
  • Middle East—Foreign relations—United States (as recorded)