Rexford Guy Tugwell (1891-1979) made numerous contributions to American intellectual and public life, including service in the Department of Agriculture under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and as governor of Puerto Rico. His scholarly writings stimulated debate on such issues as the role of planning in government and constitutional reform.
Rexford Guy Tugwell was born in Sinclairsville in western New York on July 10, 1891, the only surviving son of Charles H. Tugwell, then a moderately prosperous businessman and farmer, and Dessie Rexford Tugwell. From the age of 11 Tugwell lived in Wilson, New York, a community on Lake Ontario to which his father moved in 1902, and enjoyed his most prosperous years as owner and manager of a cannery. Raised in the Congregationalist tradition, Tugwell was able to participate in most of the outdoor activities available to a small town youth in turn-of-the-century America despite periodic attacks of allergies and asthma. A bright young man, he acquired a love of reading from his mother and from his father, who was a supporter of William Jennings Bryan in an area of the country where Bryan was heavily opposed, a willingness to think independently.
To remedy deficiencies in mathematics and the sciences Tugwell completed his final years of secondary education at Masten Park High School in Buffalo, New York, where he lived in a boarding house, commuting to Wilson on weekends. Living in Buffalo, which, in Tugwell's words, "illustrated the best and worst of industrial America, " was itself an education. Torn between a desire to become a journalist and a desire to pursue a conventional career in business, Tugwell opted initially for the latter and in 1910 applied for admission to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, only to be told he lacked sufficient preparation in mathematics and languages. He therefore undertook one more year of studies at Masten Park and then entered Wharton in 1911.
His experience at Wharton, ironically, awakened Tugwell further to the injustices found in a capitalist society, and though he never became the Communist critics would later accuse him of being—he deplored Communism's "iron logic" and "mechanistic doctrines"—he was influenced to question prevailing orthodoxies by Scott Nearing, an advanced liberal, and Simon Patten, a pioneering economist of the institutional school who inveighed against the classical doctrines of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. Tugwell found himself attracted to the literature of "revolt and reconstruction" and grew interested in an academic career. In 1914 he married Florence Arnold of Buffalo. They had two daughters.
Early Academic Career
Tugwell's first teaching experiences were at Pennsylvania, where he became a quiz section leader under Nearing in 1915 and then an instructor while he worked toward his master's degree, which he received in 1916. Dismayed by the encroachments on academic freedom recently imposed upon Wharton faculty, Tugwell left Pennsylvania in 1917 for a year at the University of Washington. While he found the teaching of marketing "dreary, " he also found stimulating intellectual companionship among the faculty, particularly in William Fielding Ogburn, a sociologist who would articulate the new concept of cultural lag and who, along with psychologist Carlton Parker, helped develop Tugwell's interest in applying the insights of psychology to economics and the other social sciences. He also learned by visits to the lumber camps of the area some of the more glaring labor and environmental abuses then practiced by American industrialists.
Distressed for a variety of reasons with conditions in Seattle, and probably wishing to make some contribution to the war effort, Tugwell gratefully accepted an opportunity arranged by Felix Frankfurter to live in Paris in 1918 and manage the American University Union, a leave center run by a consortium of a dozen universities for American officers serving in France. After the war Tugwell did enter his father's business in Wilson, but he soon returned to academia. In 1920 Tugwell secured a position at Columbia University teaching economics and also serving on the staff of the new contemporary civilization program. Finding it more tolerant of innovation, he liked Columbia much more than Pennsylvania, from which he received his doctorate in 1922.
Although he never got to teach as many of the prestigious graduate seminars in economics as he would have preferred, he won respect as a teacher, scholar, and administrator, climbing the academic ladder to full professor in 1931. He published often, developing special interests in agricultural economics and in industrial planning, for Tugwell considered himself a disciple of Frederick W. Taylor's studies in efficiency and believed that planning would cut down on the wastefulness of capitalism. He disliked equally the misallocation of resources that prevailed under capitalism and the laissez-faire attitude that promoted it. On the other hand, the iconoclastic Tugwell was just as disillusioned with some of the popular responses to capitalism's abuses—trust-busting, in particular.
By the late 1920s his reputation had spread sufficiently so that he began to be sought out as a consultant by politicians, first by the Republican governor of Illinois, Frank Lowden, then by Al Smith, and finally in 1932 by Democratic presidential aspirant Franklin D. Roosevelt. A Columbia colleague, Raymond Moley, recruited Tugwell along with Adolph Berle, Jr., also of Columbia, as campaign advisers and speechwriters for FDR. Their work with Roosevelt soon became known and publicized, and they became tagged the "Brain Trust."
Brain Trust for the New Deal
Following Roosevelt's election Tugwell was invited to serve in the Agriculture Department as assistant secretary, and then as undersecretary from 1934 to 1936. He was consulted on many matters—a staff in the White House had not yet become institutionalized—making his most memorable contributions to the New Deal in conservation, in urging reform of the food and drug laws, and in helping to plan the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. He also administered the Resettlement Administration, a new agency created in 1935 by an amalgamation of several existing programs. Its purpose was to employ planning to cut down on rural poverty, and while it created a handful of greenbelt towns and succeeded in resettling some 4, 000 farm families from worn out land to better land where they might have a chance to prosper, it never had the political support and/or funding to accomplish much.
In some respects conservative, for he opposed welfare and believed in a balanced budget, Tugwell was intensely disliked by many opponents of the New Deal, in large measure because of his advocacy of planning, which in the 1930s was facilely associated with the type of planning carried on in the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin. A suave, somewhat arrogant personality, Tugwell was readily caricatured and attracted considerable attention in the more conservative segment of the popular press as "Rex the Red, " an appellation which was not only inaccurate but painful to Tugwell. Although he was not entirely satisfied with the New Deal, regarding it as too much of a patchwork, Tugwell was willing to remain in Washington as long as he considered himself useful to the administration.
By Roosevelt's second election in 1936 Tugwell had become eager to leave. He not only had come to believe that his presence was obstructing the accomplishments of the Resettlement Administration, which carried on for several years after his departure as the Farm Security Administration, but Tugwell was planning to seek a divorce from his wife and preferred to do so out of the glare of Washington publicity. In 1938, his divorce finalized, he married Grace Falke, his administrative assistant. They had two sons. The previous year he had accepted a position as vice president of the American Molasses Company, owned by a longtime friend.
Always Planning for the Future
Tugwell soon returned to public life, however, when in 1938 he became chairman of New York City's newly created Planning Commission. Hopeful that rational longterm planning could be more readily introduced on the city level than on the national level, Tugwell optimistically referred to planning as "The Fourth Power of Government" in an address before a convention of planners in 1939. But Tugwell again found his efforts at planning thwarted by political realities: planners did not hold the purse strings of government, and he engaged in conflict with Park Commissioner Robert Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
From 1942 to 1946 Tugwell served as the last appointive governor of Puerto Rico. Although he was again frustrated in some of his aspirations, he had reason to be proud of his accomplishments as governor in improving the civil service, establishing auditing procedures, gaining more capital for economic development, and securing the establishment of the Agricultural Company to diversify Puerto Rican agriculture and lessen its blighting dependence on sugar.
Tugwell left Puerto Rico in 1946 and joined the University of Chicago at the invitation of Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins. As a professor of political science he taught courses on planning at the graduate level and endeavored to develop improved techniques of planning. Between 1957 when he retired from Chicago and 1966 when he became senior fellow in political science at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, he held several positions in and out of academia, serving from 1961 to 1964 as Puerto Rican development counselor.
His years at Santa Barbara were among the most fruitful of his scholarly career. Perhaps his most ambitious project was the preparation of a series of drafts setting forth a proposed new constitution for the United States. Tugwell believed that as the nation approached its third century some serious questions about the adequacy of the present constitution needed to be asked. His study, published in 1970, was if nothing else provocative, as he proposed to replace the 50 states with a maximum of 20 regional republics, to give the president one nine-year term, and to establish planning and regulatory branches of government while drastically redefining both presidential and senatorial functions.
In 1979 Tugwell died, the author of numerous articles and 20 books, one of which, The Brain Trust, had won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in History in 1968. Tugwell made numerous contributions to American intellectual and public life over a 60-year period. Best remembered for his contributions to the New Deal and FDR's 1932 campaign, he also spent many years of worthwhile public service in Puerto Rico and in his scholarly writings stimulated debate over many issues. In particular, his longtime advocacies of planning and, later, of constitutional reform brought forth the type of dialogue that sustains a democratic society.
Further Reading on Rexford Guy Tugwell
Anyone wishing to do serious research on Tugwell should start with the large collection of his papers deposited at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York. Published materials are also available. Tugwell wrote two autobiographical fragments, The Light of Other Days (1962), a nostalgic look at his upbringing in western New York, and To the Lesser Heights of Morningside: A Memoir (1982), an engagingly written look at his years at the Wharton School and at Columbia University. Several others of the 20 books he wrote contain autobiographical materials. Among them are The Democratic Roosevelt (1957) and The Brain Trust (1968), both of course focusing on his relationship with Franklin Roosevelt; The Stricken Land: The Story of Puerto Rico (1946), telling of his work as governor of Puerto Rico; and A Chronical of Jeopardy (1955), relating his public role during the Truman years, particularly his concerns about the nuclear threat. For Tugwell's ideas on the Constitution and his model of a new one, the September-October 1970 issue of The Center Magazine is indispensable. The same issue also contains Harry S. Ashmore's "Rexford Guy Tugwell: Man of Action, " a perceptive sketch of Tugwell. Industry's Coming of Age (1927) was Tugwell's first important book and deals with a much earlier concern of his, industrial efficiency. As yet no biography of Tugwell has been published, but Bernard Sternsher, Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal (1964) covers admirably the most remembered of Tugwell's many contributions to the American polity. An obituary is in the New York Times (July 24, 1979).
Additional Biography Sources
Namorato, Michael V., Rexford G. Tugwell: a biography, New York: Praeger, 1988.
Tugwell, Rexford G. (Rexford Guy), To the lesser heights of Morningside: a memoir, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.