Congressman. Lever was born near Spring Hill, Lexington County, on January 5, 1875, the son of Asbury Francis Washington Lever, a successful farmer, and Mary Elvira Derrick. After graduating from Newberry College with honors in 1895, Lever taught school for two years before moving to Washington to work for Congressman J. William Stokes. Lever was graduated from Georgetown University Law School in 1899 and was admitted to the South Carolina Bar that same year. In 1911 he married Lucile Scurry Butler, and they eventually had two children. From 1896 to 1900 Lever served as a delegate to state Democratic Party conventions, and in 1900 he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Following the death of Congressman Stokes in July 1901, Lever was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to fill the vacancy. He was subsequently reelected to the next eight Congresses.
Lever rose to become chairman of the powerful House Agriculture Committee. He authored or sponsored several important pieces of law that made him a major figure in pre–New Deal federal agricultural policy and earned him the title “grandfather of American agricultural legislation.” Lever gained the respect and admiration of President Woodrow Wilson for his loyalty and service and was noted among his colleagues in Congress for his skill in handling bills in committee and on the House floor.
In particular, Lever worked to foster a cooperative relationship between state and federal governments. The Cooperative Agricultural Extension Act (1914) directed federal money toward educational opportunities for farmers in the form of grants to agricultural colleges, which were then matched by state, county, and local funds. Coauthored by Georgia senator Hoke Smith and better known as the Smith-Lever Act, the act established the Cooperative Extension Service to disseminate agricultural research information and became a cornerstone of the land-grant university system. The Cotton Futures Act (1914) regulated cotton exchanges and set government standards for price grading that removed the most egregious abuses and speculation. The Federal Warehouse Act (1916) improved agricultural storage facilities by allowing the Department of Agriculture to license bonded warehouses in the states and issue warehouse receipts to farmers as collateral for loans. With this act, Lever sought to instill good relations among bankers, businessmen, and farmers, who would jointly own and operate the warehouses. The Farm Loan Act (1916) created twelve federal land banks and the Farm Credit Administration, which reduced the cost of farm loans, stabilized mortgages, and lowered agriculture-related interest rates.
Lever achieved his greatest success during World War I when he successfully pushed the Food and Fuel Control Act (also called the Lever Food Act) through Congress in 1917. The act gave President Wilson authority to create the Food Administration and the Fuel Administration, which received broad authority to regulate producers and distributors so that vital commodities could be allocated to where they were needed for the war effort. Lever wrote a friend in 1917, “I am laboring under the most tremendous strain I have ever experienced. The president tells me that the legislation which has been placed in my hands must win or lose the war.” Although opposed by many of his fellow southerners, who believed that the bill would give unconstitutional power to the president and discriminate against farmers, Lever nevertheless saw the measure through to final enactment. In the words of one congressman, Lever “demonstrated rare courage born of real patriotism in reporting a bill which gives broad powers to the Federal Government.” Upon the bill’s passage, Lever received a standing ovation.
After an abbreviated run for the U.S. Senate in 1918, Lever resigned from the House on August 1, 1919. He worked as a field representative of the Farm Loan Board and in 1933 became director of public relations with the Farm Credit Administration, Southeast Region. In 1930 Lever sought the Democratic nomination for governor but was sidelined by pneumonia early in the campaign. In his later years, as during his congressional tenure, Lever worked to improve the quality of life for rural Americans and hoped that all South Carolinians would play an important role in the creation of a state “rich in all the things that make for a worthwhile and enduring civilization.” Lever died on April 28, 1940, of coronary thrombosis at his home, Seven Oaks, in Lexington County and was buried at Clemson College.
“Funeral Rites for A. F. Lever Held Tomorrow.” Columbia State, April 29, 1940, pp. 1, 5.
Lever, Asbury F. Papers. Clemson University Library Special Collections, Clemson.