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About Rexford Guy Tugwell
Rexford Guy Tugwell (July 10, 1891 – July 21, 1979) was an agricultural economist who became part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first "Brain Trust," a group of Columbia academics who helped develop policy recommendations leading up to Roosevelt's 1932 election as President. Tugwell subsequently served in FDR's administration for four years and was one of the chief intellectual contributors to his New Deal. His ideas on urban planning during the Great Depression resulted in the construction of Greenbelt, Maryland and other new suburbs.
Later in his life, Tugwell served as the director of the New York City Planning Commission, the US-appointed Governor of Puerto Rico, and a professor at various universities, with lengthy service at the University of Chicago and the University of Santa Barbara. He wrote twenty books, covering the politics of the New Deal, biographies of major politicians, issues in planning and memoirs of some of his experiences.
Early life and education
Rexford Tugwell was born in Sinclairville, New York. In his youth he gained an appreciation for workers’ rights and liberal politics from the works of Upton Sinclair, James Bryce, and Edward Bellamy. Tugwell began studying economics in graduate work at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University. At university, he was influenced by such professors as Scott Nearing, Simon Patten, Carl Parker, and John Dewey.
After graduation, he served as a professor at the University of Washington, American University in Paris, and Columbia University.
Tugwell's approach to economics was experimentalist, and he viewed the industrial planning of World War I as a successful experiment. He advocated agricultural planning (led by industry) to stop the rural poverty that had become prevalent due to a crop surplus after the First World War. This method of controlling production, prices, and costs was especially relevant as the Great Depression began.
In 1932 Tugwell was invited to join President Franklin Roosevelt's team of advisers known as the Brain Trust. After Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, Tugwell was appointed first as Assistant Secretary and then in 1934 as Undersecretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. He helped create the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and served as its director. The AAA consisted of a domestic allotment program, which paid farmers to voluntarily reduce their production by roughly 30%, funded with a tax on processing companies that used farm commodities. Tugwell's department managed the production of key crops by adjusting the subsidies for non-production.
Tugwell was also instrumental in creating the Soil Conservation Service in 1933, to restrict cultivation and restore poor-quality land. This was especially necessary given the widespread damage of the 1930s' Dust Bowls. He additionally played a key role in crafting the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
In April 1935 Tugwell and Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration (RA), a unit of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Directed by Tugwell, the RA sought to create healthy communities for the rural unemployed with access to urban opportunities. Some of the RA's activities dealt with land conservation and rural aid, but the construction of new suburban satellite cities was the most prominent. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the author Jane Jacobs critically quotes Tugwell on the program: "My idea is to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it. Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them." She believed that he underestimated the strengths of complex urban communities and caused too much social displacement in "tearing down" neighborhoods that might have been renovated.
The RA completed three "Greenbelt" towns before the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit found the program unconstitutional in Franklin Township v. Tugwell. It ruled that housing construction was a state power and the RA was an illegal delegation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration's power.
Tugwell had previously been denounced as "Rex the Red". The RA's suburban resettlement program earned him further condemnation as Communist and Un-American because of its social planning aspects.
American Molasses Co.
In the wake of the opposition to his policies, Tugwell resigned from the Roosevelt administration at the end of 1936. He was appointed as a vice president at the American Molasses Co. At this time he also divorced his first wife and married his former assistant, Grace Falke.
Director of New York City Planning Commission
In 1938 Tugwell was appointed as the first director of the New York City Planning Commission. New York's reformist mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, created the commission as part of a city charter reform aimed at reducing corruption and inefficiency. The Planning Commission had relatively limited powers – all actions needed approval from the legislative Board of Estimate. Rexford Tugwell tried to assert the commission's power. He tried to retroactively enforce nonconforming land uses, despite a lack of public or legal support. His commission sought to establish public housing at moderate densities, yet repeatedly approved FHA requests for greater density. Robert Moses killed Tugwell's proposed fifty-year master plan with a fiery public denouncement of its open space protections.
Governor of Puerto Rico
Tugwell served as the last appointed American Governor of Puerto Rico, from 1941 to 1946. He worked with the legislature to create the Puerto Rico Planning, Urbanization, and Zoning Board in 1942. Tugwell also supported Puerto Rican self-government through the repeal of the Organic Act in 1948, and support for Luis Muñoz Marín’s Popular Democratic Party, the PPD.
As he prepared to retire from the Governorship, he was instrumental in getting the first Puerto Rican appointed to the job, Jesús T. Piñero, then Resident Commissioner. Tugwell also served as Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico.
Return to academia
After his stint as governor, he returned to teaching at a variety of institutions. Tugwell had years of service at the University of Chicago, where he helped develop their planning program. He moved to Greenbelt, Maryland, one of the new suburbs designed and built by the Resettlement Administration under his direction.
After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tugwell believed that global planning was the only sure way to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. He participated in the Committee to Frame a World Constitution from 1945 to 1948. He also thought the national constitution needed to be amended to enable economic planning. Late in life, he drafted a constitution for the Newstates of America. In it, Planning would become a new branch of federal government, alongside the Regulatory and Electoral branches.
During this time, Tugwell wrote several books, including a biography of Grover Cleveland, subtitled: A Biography of the President Whose Uncompromising Honesty and Integrity Failed America in a Time of Crisis (1968). His biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt was entitled FDR: An Architect of an Era. A Stricken Land was his memoir about his years in Puerto Rico. This book was reprinted in 2007 by the Muñoz Marín Foundation.
Representation in other media
The 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick features a novel within a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Tugwell was elected President of the United States in 1940, succeeding Franklin Roosevelt, and received much of the credit for the Allied victory in World War II.
Tugwell is mentioned in the Ernie Pyle book Home Country.