J. Douglas Brown

J. Douglas Brown

By Will Noel

When Charissa Jefferson joined Princeton University Library as economics Librarian in 2020, she noticed the portrait of J. Douglas Brown on the walls of the Industrial Relations Section, housed in the Louis A. Simpson Building, and decided to find out more.

Portrait of J. Douglas Brown
Portrait of J. Douglas Brown, 1969, by Robert Oliver Skemp. Photo by Will Noel.

Brown, it turns out, joined the Princeton faculty in 1921. He was Dean of the Faculty from 1946 to 1966, and served as the University’s first Provost in the year before he retired in 1967. He was dearly beloved and deeply respected by faculty and students alike. As Charissa found out, he was also instrumental as an economic advisor to the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal, and she created a marvelous exhibition for the Industrial relations section based on her research. 

Charissa Jefferson
Charissa Jefferson with her exhibit. Photo by Will Noel.

The materials came from the Public Policy Papers in Mudd Library that Charissa has explored extensively.  Among the items on view is this letter, in which Edwin Witte demonstrates a startling lack of ceremony in his haste to secure Brown’s expertise for the Cabinet-level Committee on Economic Security.

Dear Professor Brown: 

You no doubt know of the creation of the Committee on Economic Security which is to assist the President in formulating a comprehensive social insurance program for presentation to the next Congress. The time element is so short that the committee can not undertake any extensive research; instead it believes that its work must be confined to the formulation and drafting of a legislative program.

To this end, the committee needs the services of specialists in the respective fields of social insurance. You have a given a great deal of thought and study to the proglem of retirement annuities and old age pensions. The commitee would very much like to draw you into this phase of its work. This might necessittate a leave of absence from your duties at Princeton for a semester but this could no doubt be arranged, as this work is vital to the future program of the national administration.

I tried to reach you by telephone this morning, but was not successful in doing so. What I wish to suggest is that you come to Washington early next week to confer with us on this matter. Kindly telephone me, collect, as soon as you get this letter, whether it will be possible for you to run over to Washington for a conference, and when you can come.

Hope that it will be possible for you to come to Washington and also that you can do work fur us in this field, I am

Very truly yours,
(signed) Edwin E. Witte
Executive Director
Letter from Edwin E. Witte to J. Douglas Brown, August 4, 1934. Industrial Relations Section Records (MC231), Box 51.

Brown of course answered his country’s call, and In 1934 he joined a panel of four advising the Committee on Economic Security for the Aged. The Committee drafted legislation for Social Security which was passed by Congress in 1935 and has subsequently benefited tens of millions of people.

All the items that were on view in the exhibition have been digitized, and Charissa has created a wonderful digital version for those of you who were not able to see it in person.