Cohen, Benjamin V.

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Benjamin Victor Cohen (September 23, 1894–August 15, 1983) was a well-known lawyer, public servant, author, and New Dealer. Born in Muncie, Indiana, to a wealthy family, Cohen received a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1914, a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Chicago Law School in 1915, and a doctorate in judicial science from the Harvard Law School in 1916. While at Harvard, Cohen met Felix Frankfurter, who became his mentor. Frankfurter, in turn, was the protégé of Louis Brandeis, who was best known for his commitment to the small business ideal. Brandeis's ideas and Frankfurter's influence would have a great impact on Cohen's career.

After graduation from Harvard, Cohen served as Judge Julian Mack's legal secretary in the federal circuit court system. In 1917, Cohen began working for the U.S. Shipping Board and, between 1919 and 1922, he worked for the American Zionists. By 1922, Cohen had decided to enter private practice while continuing to serve gratis for the National Consumers League and helping Frankfurter prepare a minimum-wage bill for women. By 1933, Cohen had achieved the confidence of his mentor, and Frankfurter recommended him to Franklin D. Roosevelt for service in his New Deal.

Working closely with fellow Frankfurter protégé Thomas Corcoran, Cohen helped to draft a number of important New Deal laws in 1933 and 1934, including the Truth-in-Securities Act and the Securities Exchange Act. Cohen also worked as legal counsel for Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Cohen's importance in New Deal legislation continued to grow, especially after he worked on the 1935 Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which regulated large utility corporations. Again working alongside Corcoran, Cohen contributed his legal expertise to such New Deal laws as the Rural Electrification Act (1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938).

Cohen's political reputation was bruised when he became identified with Roosevelt's 1937 court-packing plan. Instead of working behind the scenes, Cohen now became a public figure subject to criticism by New Deal opponents. Also, his association with court packing identified him even more with Tommy Corcoran who was already being labeled as one of Roosevelt's political "hatchet" men.

As World War II erupted, Cohen helped the president implement the Lend-Lease plan, which gave aid to countries fighting the Axis Powers. Cohen also served as legal counsel to America's wartime ambassador to Great Britain, John G. Winant. As the war drew to a close, Cohen participated in the Dumbarton Oaks conference, which set the stage for the formation of the United Nations. Cohen then served from 1948 to 1952 as a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. general assembly. Thereafter, Cohen retired to private life, although he remained active in Washington affairs. A private, humble man, Benjamin Cohen was a brilliant legal expert who used his talents to advance not only the New Deal, but world peace and disarmament.



Lash, Joseph. Dealers and Dreamers: A New Look at the New Deal. 1988.

Lasser, William. Benjamin V. Cohen: Architect of the New Deal. 2002.

Schwartz, Jordan A. The New Dealers: Power Politics in the Age of Roosevelt. 1993.

Michael V. Namorato