The Brains Trust

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was Governor of New York, he employed Samuel Rosenman as his speechwriter and political adviser. Rosenman suggested that Roosevelt should recruit help from the universities: "You have been having good experiences with college professors. If we can get a small group together willing to give us some time, they can prepare memoranda for you. You'll want to talk with them yourself, and maybe out of all the talk some concrete ideas will come." In March 1932, Roosevelt agreed to the proposal. (1)

Rosenman asked Raymond Moley, a professor of public law at Columbia University, "to pull together some intellectuals who might help Roosevelt's bid for the presidency". Moley recruited two of his university colleagues, Rexford G. Tugwell and Adolf Berle. Others who joined the group, later known as the Brains Trust, included Roosevelt's law-partner, Basil O'Connor and his main speech writer, Samuel Rosenman. Others who attended these meetings included Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis (who introduced the group to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes) and Benjamin Cohen. (2)

The Brains Trust in 1932

It has been argued by Patrick Renshaw, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt (2004): "Politically, Tugwell was on the left with Berle on the right. Moley chaired regular meetings of the brains trust, which Samuel Rosenman and Basil O'Connor also attended. FDR was not an intellectual, but enjoyed their company and was in his element at the free-wheeling discussions which hammered out the New Deal." (3)

However, all the men shared the philosophy advocated by John Dewey that "organized social intelligence should shape society". They were all impressed by the work of women such as Jane Addams, Ellen Starr, Florence Kelley, Alzina Stevens, Julia Lathrop, Mary Kenney, Mary McDowell, Mary Ovington, Alice Hamilton, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Mary Heaton Vorse, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Crystal Eastman and Sophonisba Breckinridge, that had been so involved in the social reform movement. (4)

Adolf Berle, Rexford G. Tugwell, Raymond Moley and Louis Howe in the White House (March, 1933)
Adolf Berle, Rexford G. Tugwell, Raymond Moley and Louis Howe in the White House (March, 1933)

Rexford G. Tugwell and Adolf Berle argued the free market of Adam Smith had vanished forever. They concluded that the market no longer performed its classic function of maintaining an equilibrium between supply and that the two thousand men who controlled American economic life, manipulated prices and production. Tugwell wrote: "The cat is out of the bag. There is no invisible hand. There never was... We must now supply a real and visible guiding hand to do the task which that mythical, nonexistent, invisible agency was supposed to perform, but never did." (5)

In a speech jointly written by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Raymond Moley and Samuel Rosenman, he gave a speech on 7th April 1932 where he attacked the administration of President Herbert Hoover for attacking the symptoms of the Great Depression, not the cause. "It has sought temporary relief from the top down rather than permanent relief from the bottom up. These unhappy times call for the building of plans that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." (6)

1932 Presidential Election

This group became an important factor of the 1932 Presidential Election. It has been argued by William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963): "They argued economic doctrine through long spring evenings at the Governor's fireside in Albany, held audiences for economists in a hotel suite in New York City, and wrangled over drafts of campaign speeches... After the election... Moley continued to serve as minister without portfolio in the months before the inauguration; he interviewed experts, assigned men to draft bills, and hammered out the legislation of the Hundred Days." (7)

Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter both urged President Roosevelt to bring in progressive legislation that would challenge the power of big business. However, they did not always get the full support of the Brains Trust. Brandis wrote: "I am still troubled about Big Finance... And sooner or later, F.D.R. will have to deal with heavier taxes on the right. My respectable wise ones here seem as much afraid of putting an end to the super-rich as they are to putting an end to super-big corporations." (8)

The New Deal

President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office on 4th March, 1933. His first act as president was to deal with the country's banking crisis. Since the beginning of the depression, a fifth of all banks had been forced to close. Already 389 banks had shut their doors since the beginning of the year. As a consequence, around 15% of people's life-savings had been lost. Banking was at the point of collapse. In 47 of the 48 states banks were either closed or working under tight restrictions. To buy time to seek a solution Roosevelt declared a four-day bank holiday. It has been claimed that the term "bank holiday" was used to seem festive and liberating. "The real point - the account holders could not use their money or get credit - was obscured." (9)

Cliff Berryman, Washington Evening Star (1938)
Oakland Tribune (4th March, 1933)

Roosevelt's advisers, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and Rexford G. Tugwell agreed with progressives who wanted to use this opportunity to establish a truly national banking system. Heads of great financial institutions opposed this idea. Louis Howe supported conservatives on the Brains Trust such as Raymond Moley and Adolf Berle, who feared such a measure would create very dangerous enemies. Roosevelt was worried that such action "might accentuate the national sense of panic and bewilderment". (10)

Roosevelt summoned Congress into special session and presented it with Emergency Banking Relief Act that permitted the government to reopen the banks it ascertained to be sound, and other such banks as rapidly, as possible." The statue passed the House of Representatives by acclamation in a voice vote in forty minutes. In the Senate there was some debate and seven progressives, Robert LaFollette Jr, Huey P. Long, Gerald Nye, Edward Costigan, Henrik Shipstead, Porter Dale and Robert Davis Carey, voted against as they believed that it did not go far enough in asserting federal control. (11)

Blanche Wiesen Cook, the author of Eleanor Roosevelt The Defining Years (1999) has argued that although no women were officially members of the Brains Trust, Eleanor Roosevelt, made sure that the views of women such as Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Florence Kelley, and Alice Hamilton, were taken into consideration. Eleanor "mobilized the women's network to demand a New Deal for women". (12)

The health of Louis Howe gradually deteriorated and radicals in the administration and the Brains Trust could no longer rely on him to protect them. Felix Frankfurter wrote to President Roosevelt suggesting that a young lawyer, Thomas Corcoran, should be appointed in the role that Howe had been performing. He told Roosevelt that Concoran had the requisite qualities of discretion, analytical ability, a stylist, a shrewd judge of personalities, and a very good lawyer." (13)

Roosevelt also agreed to recruit another liberal lawyer, Benjamin Cohen: Frankfurter had brought in two lawyers who have been described as "perhaps the best legal team in the annals of American government. One reporter claimed that Corcoran and Cohen together wielded "more influence at the White House and throughout the White House, and are more of a force through the entire reaches of the government than any pair of statesmen in Washington." (14)

According to John Gunther, the author of Roosevelt in Retrospect (1950), points out that over the next few years other young radicals such as Jerome Frank, Donald R. Richberg, William Douglas, Alger Hiss, Mordecai Ezekiel were brought in to give support to other progressives in the administration: Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, and Robert Wagner. Gunther goes on to say that "the New Dealers were, in fact, an actual minority in the official family." (15)

Primary Sources

(1) Joseph P. Lash, Dealers and Dreamers (1988)

The chief member of the original Brains Trust, the oldest of the trio, was Raymond Moley, forty-five, a pipe-smoking professor who emerged as the dominant intellectual influence during Roosevelt's bid for the presidency and in the first years of his administration. He was well built, handsome, self-assured. His earliest political hero had been William Jennings Bryan whose 1896 campaign against McKinley was the first in which, although only ten years old, Moley was "intensely interested." At sixteen he became a follower of Henry George and Tom Johnson, the reform mayor of Cleveland. Later Woodrow Wilson was his hero and he decided to try to follow Wilson's professorial route into politics and did graduate work at Columbia under Charles A. Beard. After spells as a teacher in an Ohio high school and Western Reserve University, he became director of the Cleveland Foundation. He then went to Columbia University where he specialized in studies of the police, prosecution, and the courts. That brought him in touch with Louis Howe and after helping Roosevelt's gubernatorial campaign in 1928 he served on Roosevelt's Commission of the Administration of Justice in New York State.

In 1932 Roosevelt turned to him to assemble the Brains Trust and on April 25, when Roosevelt was packing at 49 East Sixty-fifth Street for Warm Springs, Georgia, he told Moley to have the Brains Trust go ahead in his absence and send the stuff down to him. "And you put in whatever you want to and pull the whole thing together so it makes sense politically. Which makes you chairman, I guess, of my privy council."

In the Roosevelt presidential candidacy. "Yes, there is a chance of translating a good many of our hopes and dreams into reality," Frankfurter wrote him on January 4, 1932. "Circumstances, the pressure of necessity, combined with the eager outlook towards a more humane society on the part of the new leader, give the promise for the effective promotion of our common aims."

In one of the first sessions of the Brains Trust at the Governor's Mansion in Albany, Tugwell picked up the news that Frankfurter had visited the governor. It was considered a significant item by Moley and Berle as well as himself. None of them liked it. All three were to write extensively about the Brains Trust period and all were to place their resistance to Frankfurter's influence on the grounds of principle. That was to be expected from academics, and principle certainly entered into their hostility, but beneath it darker forces lurked; there was also the traditional rivalry of the courtiers for the ear of the prince.

Two schools of progressive thought competed for Roosevelt's soul, according to Tugwell, who has advanced this thesis most strongly. There was the old Wilsonian-Brandeis tradition which believed that the only antidote to the power of the corporations was to break them up. Its hallmark was the phrase made famous by Brandeis, "the curse of bigness" and competition and the marketplace were the ways to assure economic vigor. The other school, Tugwell's own, to a lesser extent Berle's and least of all Moley's, accepted concentration as a fact of industrial life and that bigness,, had to be controlled by planning and direction in the public interest that was represented by government. That was the way to cope with the waste, the suffering and instability which had come to a head in the Great Depression and were among the results of an uncontrolled free market.

The clash between these two schools of thought, Frankfurter contended in his later years, had been exaggerated and mythologized. All of them had confronted the brutal facts of massive unemployment, widespread bankruptcy, farm foreclosures, the paralysis of the normal mechanisms of credit, the list was endless, and all of them had searched for the key to recovery and reform, but none of them had had a coherent and systematic program, Frankfurter maintained.

The portrayal of opposed schools of progressive thought contending for Roosevelt's soul, moreover, slighted Roosevelt's own part and role. When John Kieran, the reporter for the New York Times, labeled the group that assembled at the Mansion as the "Brains Trust," Roosevelt, who knew that under certain conditions voters have little use either for "trusts" or "brains," quipped, according to Berle, "He had no Brains Trust, but trusted in brains."

(2) Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt The Defining Years (1999)

In the 1930s, with fifteen million Americans in a state of desperation and gloom, the women's social reform network received a new respect. While communists and fascists threatened revolution, the woman's network had proposed only to humanize, democratize, socialize the capitalist economy.

While FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) resurrected the economy, ER (Eleanor Roosevelt) mobilized the women's network to demand a New Deal for women. In 1933, that was revolutionary. Every woman appointed to a position of responsibility required a fight; every achievement for women involved a battle. ER confronted the task before her in a combative mood. She and her mentors, most notably Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, had been in this fight for a very long time.

Dismissed for decades as socialists, meddlers, misfits, the indefatigable women of social reform remained eager to offer their expertise and services to the government. They hoped that with capitalism on the verge of collapse, their progressive and internationalist themes would at last be given space on the national agenda.

Although FDR's Brains Trust failed to credit their work, the New Deal reflected their pioneering vision. Since the 1880s the great settlement house leaders had called for changes that would have guaranteed jobs and health care; housing, recreation, compulsory free education; decency in the workplace, security at home.

While Columbia University professor Rex Tugwell and other Brains Trusters were still schoolboys, ER's colleagues-Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Lillian Wald, Mary Elizabeth Dreier - championed industrial codes, safety and health standards, fair work practices, trade unionism, minimum wage, an end to child labor, consumer labels.

They introduced public playgrounds, neighborhood houses, free night classes, public health programs, and the Visiting Home Nurse Service. For a brief political moment, Progressive Party politicians sought their support, In ! 1912, both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson courted endorsements from Jane Addams and Lillian Wald.

In 1924, ER chaired the first presidential women's platform committee which presented the Democratic Party with the progressive women's agenda. Published on the front page of The New York Times on 25 June 1924, it established goals for economic security that predated the work of FDR's Brains Trusters by a decade: the right to bargain collectively; an eight-hour day; a federal employment agency to encourage full employment; abolition of child labor; equal pay for equal work for women and men; federal aid for maternal and child health; sex education and venereal disease prevention; public education for all; health care for all; an end to vigilante violence and the Ku Klux Klan.
The Red Scare and then the Depression unraveled their initial state and local successes, and by 1933 many of their achievements were undone. Sweatshop conditions reappeared. Eight and ten-hour work laws passed state by state were scuttled. State and municipal industrial codes passed in dozens of progressive communities were ignored. Humanitarian programs were defunded.

(3) William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963)

They argued economic doctrine through long spring evenings at the Governor's fireside in Albany, held audiences for economists in a hotel suite in New York City, and wrangled over drafts of campaign speeches... After the election... Moley continued to serve as minister without portfolio in the months before the inauguration; he interviewed experts, assigned men to draft bills, and hammered out the legislation of the Hundred Days.

(4) John Gunther, Roosevelt in Retrospect (1950)

Roosevelt had his Cabinet picked before the inauguration; the two men he chose first, and whom he never had any doubt about, were Farley for Postmaster General, and George H. Dern of Utah, whom he had met and liked at various governors' conferences, for Secretary of War. State went to Hull, the Treasury to Will Woodin, Agriculture to Wallace, Labour to Perkins, Commerce to Daniel C. Roper of South Carolina (a gesture of appeasement to McAdoo), Navy to Swanson of Virginia, and Interior to Ickes. Homer Cummings of Connecticut became Attorney-General, when Walsh of Montana died two days before he was to be sworn in. Of these no fewer than three - Wallace, Woodin, and Ickes - were, or had been, Republicans. Two were senators; FDR had a close eye for Congress. Of the whole group only two, by conventional definition, could be called true New Dealers, Ickes and Frances Perkins.

The leading New Dealers came out of the Brain Trust, though this ceased meeting as a regular body after the inauguration. Moley became Assistant Secretary of State, Tugwell Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, and Johnson head of the NRA. Others conspicuous were Jerome Frank, Donald Richberg, Mordecai Ezekiel, Hopkins of course, and two lively and attractive young lawyers, Thomas G. Corcoran and Benjamin V. Cohen. Later came Leon Henderson, Thurman Arnold, William O. Douglas, and a host of others. Senator Wagner of New York was always a close influence. At the beginning FDR kept good relations with several advisers much more orthodox and conservative, like Lewis Douglas who was the first Director of the Budget, and Dean Acheson whose abrupt departure from the Treasury we have already recorded. Sumner Welles and William Phillips were pillars of the State Department. The New Dealers were, in fact, an actual minority in the official family. Men who could not be called New Dealish by any stretch of the imagination Jesse Jones, Leo Crowley, Joe Robinson, Hull, Garner, Farley, and a dozen more-often overshadowed them.

Of those men who had heretofore influenced Roosevelt and whom we have mentioned in the course of this book, several began to drop out. Howe became ill, had to keep to his bed, and lost much of his usefulness. But he died happy; he had made a President. FDR's two other secretaries, Early and McIntyre, rose correspondingly in importance, though neither was ever much of a New Dealer, and Missy LeHand's influence grew. One powerful sustained force was Felix Frankfurter, who served as a kind of recruiting officer for the whole Administration, particularly in finding young lawyers for the mushrooming net of new Government agencies. Among Frankfurter `men', at this time and later, were Stimson, Acheson, Biddle, MacLeish, Jerome Frank, Ben Cohen, Lloyd Garrison, who became head of the National Labour Relations Board, and James M. Landis, who filled usefully a variety of important posts.

Student Activities

Economic Prosperity in the United States: 1919-1929 (Answer Commentary)

Women in the United States in the 1920s (Answer Commentary)

Volstead Act and Prohibition (Answer Commentary)

The Ku Klux Klan (Answer Commentary)

Classroom Activities by Subject

The Middle Ages

The Normans

The Tudors

The English Civil War

Industrial Revolution

First World War

Russian Revolution

Nazi Germany


(1) William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) page 32

(2) Joseph P. Lash, Dealers and Dreamers (1988) pages 76-88

(3) Patrick Renshaw, Franklin D. Roosevelt (2004) page 71

(4) William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) page 33

(5) Rexford Tugwell, The Battle for Democracy (1935) page 213

(6) Franklin D. Roosevelt, speech on NBC's Lucky Strike Hour radio programme (7th April, 1932)

(7) William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) page 33

(8) Louis Brandeis, letter to Felix Frankfurter (3rd March, 1933)

(9) Patrick Renshaw, Franklin D. Roosevelt (2004) page 85

(10) Joseph P. Lash, Dealers and Dreamers (1988) page 107

(11) Jean Edward Smith, FDR (2007) page 312

(12) Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt The Defining Years (1999) page 61

(13) Felix Frankfurter, letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19th March, 1935)

(14) David McKean, Peddling Influence (2004) page 35

(15) John Gunther, Roosevelt in Retrospect (1950) page 291