The Brains Trust

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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."

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.

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... 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.

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.

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

(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. 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. 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

Roosevelt and the Trusts

Roosevelt believed that when a business grew big it was not necessarily bad. Bigness might mean simply that a firm had bested its rivals through superior efficiencies, prices, and service. Having superior efficiencies, prices, and service might well require bigness, as in the case of a railroad providing service through an extensive system across a wide territory.

The point for Roosevelt was that the government should enforce a "rule of reason" on business. If a firm grew through reasonable means, then the government should not attack it. However, if a firm grew through unfair practices, then government should enforce its power in order to protect the innocent. The Democrats accused Roosevelt of sparing the trusts to win campaign funds from big business. These attitudes came to play during Roosevelt's administration, first in establishing the Bureau of Corporations and then in the Northern Securities case.

Railroad regulation was an example of the sort of regulation that Roosevelt believed was required for business in general. In 1886 Congress had created the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate the railroads, but had not granted the ICC much power. Under Roosevelt's leadership, Congress enlarged the power of the Commission.

  1. In 1903, the Elkins Anti-Rebate Act forbade the carriers from giving large and powerful shippers rebates from the published freight tariffs. This law allowed the railroads, in effect, to administer their rates. The ICC enforced this statute.
  2. In 1906, the Hepburn Act granted the ICC the power to set maximum rates. No longer could the railroads simply enforce rates without challenge. Now shippers could challenge rates before the Interstate Commerce Commission and hope that, after careful investigation, they might be lowered.

Both these statutes proved popular. They also were something of a model for what Roosevelt thought was appropriate for all businesses. He intended the Bureau of Corporations to provide a similar function for regulating all firms doing business across state lines.


Reagan, Patrick D. Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890–1943. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

Rosenof, Theodore. Economics in the Long Run: New Deal Theorists and Their Legacies, 1933–1993. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Erik McKinleyEriksson/a. e.

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@Izzy78 - I think I could agree with you on the reptile idea. After the mass extinction, there were obviously some reptiles left as well as whatever other things were on Earth at that time. Since they didn't have to compete against such large animals, I guess there wasn't really any reason to keep growing so big. I'm not positive on this, but I think most of the reptiles that survived were aquatic, so maybe that had something to do with it, too.

More to the idea of the brain differences between mammals and reptiles, though, I would be very interested to see what would happen if you could have a reptilian brain in humans. Clearly, this could never happen, both from physical and ethical standpoints, but what would be the hypothetical outcome if a mammal could be born with a reptile-type brain?

What instincts would take over? Would the mammal just be concerned with finding food and shelter? Another good question is, since part of being a mammal is being raised by a parent, would it be able to learn anything from the parent? Izzy78 December 24, 2011

How does the amphibian brain fit into all this? I know they are one step below the reptiles in terms of development, but what is their brain like? If the reptiles just have the ability to protect their territory and things like that, how could the amphibians be any less developed, because wouldn't territory just be a basic animal instinct? Even insects protect their territory, and they don't have any sort of a brain, just nerves.

I was also curious if scientists had, through the discovery of dinosaurs, any idea about how the reptile brains had developed over the past several million years. Are the reptiles now smarter than the dinosaurs? In what ways? They are definitely smaller, so my guess would be less about them getting smarter per se, and more about them protecting themselves against new threats. TreeMan December 24, 2011

@jcraig - I think that is where the real discussion comes into play. It is widely know that the spinal cord controls movement and the frontal lobe is in charge of different reasoning skills. Obviously, if one of those two areas is injured, its skills will be diminished. What I think isn't fully known, though, is whether the mammal brain would have been able to develop without the reptile brain that came before it.

Also, I think another part of the question is,does every animal that can have reasoning skills need a frontal lobe similar to humans? Birds obviously have some sort of ability to do things like that, but how did they end up with it?

I am not very familiar with the evolutionary tree, but I would assume that a lot of the answers could be found there for someone who knew how to efficiently utilize it. jcraig December 23, 2011

Interesting. I had never heard of the triune brain system before. I think it sounds like a worthwhile concept even if it doesn't always hold true. That being said, though, if scientists have found that birds can do certain actions without a neocortex, then what is the real source of those instincts?

Although the article doesn't directly mention it, there is still proof that certain areas of the brain are responsible for different skills. Even if the parts discovered by MacLean aren't the perfect solution, it still seems like he was on the right track to really discovering the basic functions of the brain. For example, people can get brain injuries from things like car wrecks, and depending on the part of the brain that was injured, they might lose movement, or they might instead lose different reasoning skills.

A group of intellectuals and planners who act as advisers, especially to a government. The phrase is particularly associated with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A group of experts who serve as unofficial but vital advisers. For example, Each town manager seemed to have his or her own brain trust, which of course changed with every election . This term, closely associated with President Franklin Roosevelt's advisers on domestic and foreign policy in the early 1930s, was first recorded in 1910.

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I ask Lipska if it’s easier to discuss what happened to her because she knew that cancer and medications could explain why her brain had changed, ultimately leading to her strange and uncontrollable behavior. But she dismisses the idea that the cancer or medication provide her with a unique excuse: “It’s all physical illness.”

This is her recurring theme. The false distinction between physical and mental illness is fueling the crisis, costing lives and money. Serious mental illness costs the US $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year, NAMI reports. The World Health Organization says that globally, depression is the third leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents, and that suicide is the third leading cause of death in teenagers between 15 and 19. “We should do more research,” Lipska says. “It needs to be better funded. And mental illness needs to be covered by insurance. There’s a taboo about it and we’re afraid to make a big stink. If we understand it as we understand cancer, we can come up with a mechanism to deal with disorders and a cure.”

Lipska is far from the only doctor to have experienced mental illness. Back in the 12th century, for example, the medieval physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides (pdf), doctor to the Egyptian sultans, spent a whole year in bed after his brother’s death, utterly depressed and feverish. His writing evidences his understanding of body and mind as one unified whole, to be treated in totality.

Nine hundred years later, Western medicine is still struggling with this concept. Lipska is impatient with the slow progress, though she deeply believes that at some point, we will be able to see that any mental manifestation can be traced to a change in the brain. She concludes, “We are the brain. There’s nothing besides it. If something is wrong, it’s physical.”

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