Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr.

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Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr.

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Adolf Augustus Berle and Mary Augusta Wright

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About Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr.

Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr. (/ˈbɜrli/; January 27, 1895 – February 17, 1971) was a lawyer, educator, author, and U.S. diplomat. He was the author of The Modern Corporation and Private Property, a groundbreaking work on corporate governance, and an important member of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's "Brain Trust".

Childhood and education

Berle was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He entered Harvard College at age 14, earning a bachelor's degree in 1913 and a master's in 1914. He then enrolled in Harvard Law School. In 1916, at age 21, he became the youngest graduate in the school's history.


Early career

Upon graduation Berle joined the military. His first assignment as an intelligence officer was to assist in increasing sugar production in the Dominican Republic by working out property and contractual conflicts among rural landowners. Immediately after World War I Berle became a member of the American Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, advocating for smaller nations' rights of self-determination. In 1919 Berle moved to New York City and became a member of the law firm of Berle, Berle and Brunner.

The Modern Corporation and Private Property

Berle became a professor of corporate law at Columbia Law School in 1927 and remained on the faculty until retiring in 1964. He is best known among economists and corporate law specialists for his groundbreaking work in corporate governance. His book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, which he co-authored with economist Gardiner Means, remains the most quoted text in corporate governance studies. Berle and Means showed that the means of production in the U.S. economy were highly concentrated in the hands of the largest 200 corporations, and that within the large corporations managers controlled firms despite shareholders' formal ownership.

Berle theorized that the facts of economic concentration meant that the effects of competitive-price theory were largely mythical. While some advocated trust busting, breaking up the concentrations of firms into smaller entities in order to restore competitive forces, Berle believed that that would be economically inefficient. Instead, he argued for government regulation and became identified with the school of business statesmanship, which advocated that corporate leadership accept (and theorized that they had to a great extent already accepted) that they must fulfill responsibilities toward society in addition to their traditional responsibilities toward shareholders.[3] Corporate law should reflect this new reality, he wrote in The Modern Corporation: "The law of corporations, accordingly, might well be considered as a potential constitutional law for the new economic state, while business practice is increasingly assuming the aspect of economic statesmanship."

Roosevelt's Brain Trust

Berle was an original member of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Brain Trust," a group of advisers who developed policy recommendations—Berle's focuses ranging from economic recovery to diplomatic strategy—during Roosevelt's 1932 election campaign. Roosevelt's 'Commonwealth Club Address', a speech written by Berle on government involvement in industrial and economic policy, was ranked in 2000 as the second best presidential campaign speech of the 20th century by public address scholars.[6] Berle rented Woodley Mansion, once owned by Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren, from secretary of war Henry Stimson in 1939. On September 1, Whittaker Chambers arrived at Woodley to tell Berle that Alger Hiss, a highly respected member of the State Department, was passing top-secret documents to the Soviets. That accusation would eventually culminate in the trial of Hiss.

While remaining an informal adviser of Roosevelt after the election, Berle returned to New York and became a key consultant in the successful mayoral election campaign of reformer Fiorello LaGuardia. From 1934 to 1938 Berle managed the city's fiscal affairs as its last Chamberlain. Then, from 1938 to 1944, Berle was Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American affairs. Berle's official duties in New York City and as an Assistant Secretary of State did not limit his perception of his real responsibilities or expertise, and in any case Roosevelt appreciated both his speech-writing skills and his advice on a wide range of international and economic concerns. As a result, throughout the Roosevelt administration Berle consulted on important international and industrial New Deal projects, such as creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway, development of the administration's Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America, and establishment of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Outside of Latin America, Berle argued "that control of the incomparable energy reserves of the Middle East would yield 'substantial control of the world.'"

Berle also was a major architect in the development of federal farm and home owners' mortgage programs and in the expansion of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.[9] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1944.

After World War II

After the war Berle served as Ambassador to Brazil from 1945 to 1946, and then returned to his academic career at Columbia. Berle was a founding member of the New York State Liberal Party and for nearly a decade served as its chair. His main goal was to fight off far-left and Communist influences. He also chaired the Twentieth Century Fund for the two decades following World War II.

Berle briefly returned to government service for the first half of 1961, serving under President John F. Kennedy as head of an interdepartmental task force on Latin American affairs. During that time he was primarily involved in forming the U.S. response to a newly communist Cuba, which included both the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the initiation of the Alliance for Progress, an economic development policy aimed at the region.

Berle continued to write academic work related to corporate law. His article on 'Property, Production and Revolution' was a key statement of the theory behind the Great Society programme of President Lyndon B. Johnson.


Adolf Berle married Beatrice Bishop in 1927. They had two daughters, Beatrice Berle Meyerson, and Alice Berle Crawford, and a son, Peter A. A. Berle. In turn, they had 10 grandchildren.

In 1971, Berle died in New York City, aged 76.


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Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr.'s Timeline

Age 66