Rexford Tugwell (1891-1979)

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Rexford Tugwell was one of the five original members of President Roosevelt’s “Brains Trust,” a group that heavily influenced the development of the New Deal (the others were Raymond Moley, Adolf Berle, Jr., Samuel Rosenman, and D. Basil O’Connor) [1]. He served the nation in many other capacities during the New Deal era, as Undersecretary of Agriculture, adviser to the Public Works of Art Project, administrator of the Resettlement Administration, and governor of Puerto Rico.

Rexford Guy Tugwell was born on July 10, 1891, in Sinclairsville, New York, to Charles Tugwell and Dessie Rexford. Charles was a successful farmer and business owner and helped his son go to college, where he received several degrees culminating with a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. It was at Penn’s Wharton School of Finance and Commerce that Tugwell became interested in central planning by government: “[He] became a passionate believer in what he termed the ‘magnificence of planning,’ which he thought could eliminate most economic ills, particularly in agriculture, which had always been plagued by cycles of scarcity and glut” [2].

Out of college, Tugwell taught economics at several schools, ultimately ending up at Columbia University in 1922. In 1927 he visited the Soviet Union and admired what he termed the “power of the collective will.” The trip, along with his views on central planning and his New Deal work, motivated his critics to nickname him “Rex the Red” [3]. In fact, Tugwell did not advocate communism for America, but simply a greater control over the negative aspects of capitalism and individualism (e.g., extreme inequalities in power and wealth). In describing the New Deal shortly after its commencement, he said: “we were confronted with a choice between an orderly revolution—a peaceful and rapid departure from past concepts—and a violent and disorderly overthrow of the whole capitalistic structure… the [New Deal] effort is not to destroy our institutions, but to save them from the poison of unlimited greed, and to turn the results of common effort toward more general benefits. Enlarged incomes for common people, greater leisure, security from risk – these are the items of the present program” [4].

After helping to shape the direction the New Deal as part of the Brains Trust, Tugwell’s greatest impact was through the Resettlement Administration. As administrator of this agency, he facilitated loans and grants to farmers who were having difficulty obtaining credit; built rural resettlement projects and planned communities for distressed families and those of modest or low income; restructured and lowered debt owed by farmers; purchased millions of acres of land no longer suitable for farming and converted it to other use (e.g., public parks, wildlife refuges, and additions to American Indian reservations); and more [5]. Unfortunately, persistent criticisms of the RA’s aid to tenant farmers and farm workers, as well as conservatives’ fierce disapproval of his planned communities, cut short his tenure (1935-1936) and led to termination of the RA and its transformation into the less radical Farm Security Administration in 1937.

After leaving the Resettlement Administration, Tugwell served on the New York City Planning Commission, taught at several universities, and wrote a number of books. He took his ideas about planned modernization to Puerto Rico, where he served as governor from 1941 to 1946 [6].

Tugwell died on July 21, 1979, at the age of 88. He was survived by two daughters, Tanis and Marcia, from his first marriage to Florence Arnold; and two sons, Tyler and Franklin, from his second marriage to Grace Foulke [7]. Of his devotion to government planning, the New York Times wrote, “during the Depression, the Tugwell principle brought hope to millions who felt themselves foundering in a society that seemed to have lost momentum and direction… Mr. Tugwell never abandoned his belief that the absence of central planning kept people poorer than they had to be” [8].

Sources: (1) Rexford Tugwell, The Brains Trust, New York: Viking Press, 1968, pp. xi-xii. (2) “Rexford Tugwell, Roosevelt Aide, Dies,” New York Times, July 24, 1979. (3) See, e.g., previous note. (4) Rexford Tugwell, “The Ideas Behind the New Deal,” New York Times, July 16, 1933. (5) For a comprehensive list of the Resettlement Administration’s achievements see, “What the Resettlement Administration Has Done,” Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1936, available at;view=1up;seq=1. (6) For a critical analysis of early New Deal efforts in Puerto Rico see, Manuel R. Rodriguez, A New Deal for the Tropics: Puerto Rico During the Depression Era, 1932-1935, Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2010. (7) See note 2. (8) “The Faith of a Planner,” New York Times, July 25, 1979.

Tugwell Rexford
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