The Brain Trust was a small group who came together in 1932 to help Franklin D Roosevelt find ways out of the Great Depression. The group’s legacy was significant as they were closely involved with the New Deal as well as a very famous speech. Ted Harvey explains all.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

They were mocked by some in the media, but the three men who were known as the “Brain Trust” were influential in helping Franklin Delano Roosevelt craft the policies that would become the New Deal. Technically it was a short-lived group, existing primarily during FDR’s run for the White House in 1932. While other advisors became lumped in with the “Brain Trust”, there were originally three who made up the group: Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf Berle. All were professors at Columbia University, Moley and Berle in law and Tugwell in economics.

The idea for the Trust was suggested by Samuel Rosenman, speechwriter and legal counsel of Roosevelt, whom he knew through his time on the New York State Assembly and as a Justice on the New York Supreme Court. Rosenman thought it would be beneficial for the candidate to have an academic team of advisers. The idea was supposedly based on the Woodrow Wilson’s “The Inquiry”, a large group of academics who advised President Wilson on peace negotiations following World War I. “The Inquiry” would eventually become the Council on Foreign Relations.


The Forgotten Man

The “Brain Trust” came together in 1932 led by Raymond Moley, a strong supporter and close ally of then Governor Roosevelt. The country remained trapped in the Great Depression with no obvious end in sight. Moley brought the Brain Trust together to help Roosevelt craft his message, focusing on how his administration would pull the country out of the worst economic depression the country had or would ever face. In some sense the “Brain Trust” was for show, allowing voters to see Roosevelt had a plan to get out of the Depression, and that he wouldn’t stand idly by to let the country work itself out of the depression.

The group’s influence was evident in Roosevelt’s first major campaign speech, now generally known as the “Forgotten Man” speech. In it Roosevelt laid out his plans for his initial 100 days and how he meant to address the continued Depression. The speech focused on the poor, the “forgotten men” who were not receiving the help they needed. It was Raymond Moley who helped write this speech and include the now-famous “forgotten man.” Moley also wrote much of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. It is also thought that Moley came up with the term “New Deal,” which remains influential to this day. Adolf Berle was also heavily involved with Roosevelt’s speechwriting, helping to write the Commonwealth Club speech, focusing on the importance of government involvement in the economy.

Following the election, the original “Brain Trust” gave way to a more permanent group of advisors. These new Brain-Trusters, people like Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Harold Ickes, as advisors and Cabinet Secretaries, continued to push New Deal policies forward. As far as the original three, they each pursued a different path. Adolf Berle left the administration soon after Roosevelt’s inauguration, although he continued to be an informal advisor of the President. Later, from 1938 to 1944 Berle returned to work for the White House as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Raymond Moley became disenchanted with the New Deal policies and with President Roosevelt. He continued writing speeches for the president until 1936, after which he left the White House becoming an ardent critic of the New Deal and liberalism, at least the kind promoted by FDR. Nothing exemplifies Moley’s shift in position than his awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970 by President Richard Nixon.

Of the three, only Tugwell transitioned directly from the “Brain Trust” to a role in the administration, becoming Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture. Tugwell would have continued influence as Roosevelt implemented the programs of the New Deal, including the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, the Soil Conservation Service, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the Resettlement Administration. He left the administration in 1936 and became vice president of the American Molasses Company. Later he became the first Director of the New York City Planning Commission, where he frequently ran up against the (in)famous Robert Moses. He returned to the Roosevelt administration in 1941 as the last appointed Governor of Puerto Rico.


In perspective

Although the “Brain Trust” was a short-lived loose affiliation, the influence the small group had on Roosevelt and New Deal policies was enormous. While the members of the “Brain Trust” were dismissed by many as advocates of big government and elites, they approached the economic problems of their day through the lens of Progressivism. For example, their goal was not to rely solely on the government or to break-up the large corporations when it came to economic policy, but to have the government regulate businesses. These ideas, supported by President Roosevelt and his Brain Trust, became the backbone of the New Deal economic policies and in many regards remain in place today.


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Kennedy, David. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Brands, H.W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt . New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones