Samuel Irving Rosenman, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most trusted speech-writers and advisers, was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1896 to Russian-Jewish immigrants. When he was eight years old, his family moved to New York City, where he attended Manhattan public schools and Columbia College. After graduating in 1915, Rosenman studied at Columbia Law School for two years before enlisting in the army in 1917, and then returned in 1919 to finish his LL.B at Columbia. He was admitted to the New York Bar in 1920.
Rosenman’s political career began soon after his admission to the Bar when he ran for the New York State Assembly. He defeated the Republican incumbent and won successive annual reelections through 1925. His work on the Assembly attracted the attention of New York’s Democratic leadership and he was appointed as the Democratic member of the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission.
During this period, Rosenman worked closely with New York Governor Al Smith. In 1928, after the Governor decided to run for president and had convinced an unwilling Franklin Roosevelt to enter the gubernatorial race, two leading New York Democrats recommended Rosenman as an adviser who would familiarize Roosevelt with New York’s legislative and political history before the election. Roosevelt asked the young legislator to accompany him on the campaign, and was immediately impressed by Rosenman’s ability to process and present large amounts of information, as well as his remarkably consistent and sound judgement. As the campaign progressed, Roosevelt encouraged Rosenman to draft a number of speeches, and, despite his lack of experience, he soon became one of the leading speech-writers working for the candidate. Roosevelt won the governorship by a small margin of 25,000 votes, while Governor Smith lost the state by more than 100,000 votes. Once elected, Roosevelt wanted to appoint Rosenman as his counsel, but Rosenman was reluctant to leave his position at the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission. He was also aware that previous gubernatorial counsels had done little to assist previous administrations. A few days after Roosevelt had approached him, Rosenman read in the news that he had already been appointed Counsel to the Governor. When he called Roosevelt to find out who had made the erroneous announcement, Roosevelt told him, “I made up your mind for you.”
After four years serving as Counsel to the Governor, Roosevelt appointed Rosenman to the Supreme Court bench of the State of New York in 1932, later referring to the appointment as “cutting off my right hand”. Rosenman continued to work for the governor in his spare time, however, helping him with the Jimmy Walker hearings and actively working on his gubernatorial speeches. Rosenman again accompanied him when he entered the ’32 presidential campaign, and then proposed and organized the “Brain Trust”, a group of scholars brought together to help formulate the policies that would later constitute the New Deal. When Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination at the Chicago convention, he delivered a speech prepared largely be Rosenman; neither he nor Rosenman had paid special attention to the section of the speech that pledged “to a new deal for the American people”, but historians would later credit Rosenman for coining one of the most prophetic and important phrases in the history of the United States.
During the first four years of Roosevelt’s presidency, Rosenman continued to serve on New York’s Supreme Court, but frequently visited the president and continued in his capacity as speech-writer and adviser. As Roosevelt began to prepare for the 1936 campaign he again asked Rosenman to accompany him to the convention, and Rosenman’s work once more proved to be invaluable to the President. However, up until this point, Rosenman had no official title and he was still dividing his time between his Supreme Court and Washington duties. He offered to resign from the bench after the war began, but Roosevelt didn’t want to ask him to relinquish his judicial duties unless it was absolutely necessary. Rosenman maintained this hectic schedule until he was so overworked that he lost sight in his left eye from optic nerve exhaustion. After six weeks of rest he completely recovered, and he decided to resign from the Supreme Court in order to further and fully devote himself to the President. As he and Roosevelt discussed his responsibilities and his title, Roosevelt suggested that he be called “Counsel to the President”, just as he had been “Counsel to the Governor”, and later changed the name to “Special Counsel to the President”. Rosenman was sworn in in the fall of 1943. It was the creation of a new position, and Rosenman stayed in that position through the end of the war and two years into the Truman administration.
As Special Counsel, Rosenman helped reorganize various governmental departments and prepared extensive presentations for the President as they conferred about every dimension of the President’s policies and decisions. Rosenman worked on Roosevelt’s fireside chats, as well as his campaign speeches, acceptance speeches, inaugural speeches, war-time speeches, and commemorative speeches. Even if he hadn’t contributed to one of Roosevelt’s speeches, the President often requested that Rosenman discuss the speech and its delivery shortly after the event. As the war progressed, however, Roosevelt assigned Rosenman a number of responsibilities that extended beyond his speech-writing and his general duties. He was part of the president’s postwar economic planning committee and also a leading figure in the discussion surrounding the Nazi war criminal trials. Early in 1945, Rosenman went to Europe to discuss both matters with Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His first mission was to convince Churchill that food needed to be distributed more quickly to civilians in the countries liberated by the Allies, and his second was to discuss with the Prime Minister the manner in which to try Nazi war criminals. Many European leaders, including Churchill, favored a more political execution-style approach; Roosevelt disagreed. He sent Rosenman to convey to Churchill his determination that the Nazi leaders be put on trial in an effort not only to record the details and evidence of their atrocities but to set a precedent for an international judicial process should such widespread and carefully calculated violence occur in the future. Rosenman was in London when he received news of the President’s death at Warm Springs.
After Roosevelt died, Rosenman continued to serve President Harry Truman for two more years as Counsel to the President, and also played an important role as one of the judges who advised the organizers of the Nuremberg trials. In 1945, President Truman sent Rosenman to approach Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson about serving as chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, and Rosenman also brought Chaim Weizmann news that President Truman would recognize an independent Jewish state. Before leaving the White House, the President awarded Rosenman the Medal of Merit “for exceptional meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the President of the United States and his country.”
Rosenman soon returned from Washington to New York in order to practice law and later was elected president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He also served on fact-finding boards during the Truman and Kennedy Administrations, on the Mayor’s judicial committee in New York, and served as a director of the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Perhaps the proudest effort of the later part of his career, however, was his organization of the 1970 national opposition movement against President Richard Nixon’s nomination of Judge G. Harrold Carswell to the United States Supreme Court.
Rosenman lived in New York until his death in 1973. At the time of his death he was partially finished with his study of five American presidents, Presidential Style: Some Giants and a Pygmy in the White House. His wife Dorothy, with whom he had collaborated on the project, finished the book as a tribute to her husband. He also published Working With Roosevelt in 1952, an intimate portrait of his experiences with Roosevelt between 1928-1945, and edited the comprehensive thirteen-volume compilation of Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1928-1945.
When President Roosevelt died, the only picture in his bedroom at Warm Springs was a photo of Rosenman. Rosenman’s calm and deliberate judgement, as well as his superb speech-writing skills and unwavering loyalty, inspired great confidence on the part of Roosevelt, who often said that Rosenman “was the only one who kept (my) head”. Rosenman was also the only counselor to stay with Roosevelt from the beginning of his governorship through the end of his presidency, and he wrote that Roosevelt “did not seek to impose respect toward himself on visitors, friends, or sevants; like all natural born leaders, he seemed to command respect and affection unconsciously.”
Rosenman was later recognized by historians as the man who, according to James MacGregor Burns in his Introduction to Presidential Style, “brought to the White House an understanding of the American legal and constitutional background, compassion for the needs of a depression-ridden people, an ear for the right words to help his chief talk to the nation, and an eye for the play of power among the master politicians of his time.”
Upon Rosenman’s death, The New York Times published this editorial on June 29, 1973:
Through thirteen of the most fateful years in American history, Samuel I. Rosenman served as an influential White House adviser. He did more than coin the name for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and help draft scores of memorable speeches for both FDR and Harry S. Truman. His sound counsel contributed significantly to shaping the policies that steered the United States through the Great Depression and led to victory in World War II.
After leaving the White House in 1946, Judge Rosenman took as his guidepost a message of hope that Roosevelt had penned as his death neared a few weeks before V-E Day: ’Let us move forward with strong and active faith.’ Through his own intense pressure for high standard of probity and competence on the bench, for social progress and for public protection against excesses of private power, Judge Rosenman helped America move forward with faith.”
Facing History and Ourselves Website http://www.facing.org/facing/fhao2.nsf/scholars/Telford+Taylor?opendocument
Jurist Legal Intelligence Website. http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/trials12.htm
Museum of Tolerance Multimedia Learning Center http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/pages/t066/t06622.html
The New York Times. Obituary. June 25, 1973. Pp. 1, 36.
The New York Times. Editorial. June 29, 1973. Pp. 38.
Rosenman, Samuel and Dorothy. Presidential Style: Some Giants and a Pygmy in the White House. Introduction. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers Inc, 1976.
Rosenman, Samuel. Working With Roosevelt. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952.
Transcription of Interview with Hess.