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A Passion for the True and Just

Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal

Alice Beck Kehoe

Publication Year: 2014

Felix Cohen, the lawyer and scholar who wrote The Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1942), was enormously influential in American Indian policy making. Yet histories of the Indian New Deal, a 1934 program of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, neglect Cohen and instead focus on John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs within the Department of the Interior (DOI). Alice Beck Kehoe examines why Cohen, who, as DOI assistant solicitor, wrote the legislation for the Indian Reorganization Act (1934) and Indian Claims Commission Act (1946), has received less attention. Even more neglected was the contribution that Cohen’s wife, Lucy Kramer Cohen, an anthropologist trained by Franz Boas, made to the process.

Kehoe argues that, due to anti-Semitism in 1930s America, Cohen could not speak for his legislation before Congress, and that Collier, an upper-class WASP, became the spokesman as well as the administrator. According to the author, historians of the Indian New Deal have not given due weight to Cohen’s work, nor have they recognized its foundation in his liberal secular Jewish culture. Both Felix and Lucy Cohen shared a belief in the moral duty of mitzvah, creating a commitment to the “true and the just” that was rooted in their Jewish intellectual and moral heritage, and their Social Democrat principles.

A Passion for the True and Just takes a fresh look at the Indian New Deal and the radical reversal of US Indian policies it caused, moving from ethnocide to retention of Indian homelands. Shifting attention to the Jewish tradition of moral obligation that served as a foundation for Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen (and her professor Franz Boas), the book discusses Cohen’s landmark contributions to the principle of sovereignty that so significantly influenced American legal philosophy.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Quote

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-2

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pp. 3-8

A T-shirt sold on Indian reservations is emblazoned “Battling Terrorism Since 1492.” It could as well be sold in synagogues: Columbus sailed out of Palos harbor in the wake of the last of the ships transporting Spain’s Jews into exile, and their confiscated wealth financed his voyage (Roth [1932] 1966:271–72; Uchmany 2001:187). Jews and American Indians share a history of persecution from Christian nations...

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1. The Indian New Deal

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pp. 9-25

The Indian New Deal in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was an extraordinary about-face in US policy, a radical acknowledgment of injustice and historical untruths. Credit for this critical shift is conventionally given to Roosevelt’s commissioner of Indian Affairs, the crusading John Collier. Collier spoke passionately about Indians’ rights to preserve their cultures and practice their religions. As commissioner, he implemented moves...

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2. The Indian Reorganization Act

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pp. 26-43

To give Indians a New Deal, Harold Ickes and John Collier needed to prepare legislation for Congress and to prepare a battle plan to get it through Congress. Ickes’s Solicitor for the Department of the Interior, Nathan Margold, knew a young lawyer, son of the respected City College of New York philosophy professor Morris Cohen, who could draft the legislation. Felix Cohen had no experience with Indians, but Margold was looking for legal skill, a quick mind, and a strong desire to work for social...

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3. “Frankfurter’s Jewish Cabal”

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pp. 44-59

John Collier’s passion, coupled with the glamor of Mabel Luhan’s anti-modern artists’ circle, made him the icon of the Indian New Deal—the selfless radical battling entrenched genocidal policy. Historians generally took him at his own measure, a visionary struggling against both governmental inertia and Indians’ ignorance. That his goal of limited local tribal governance within federal guardianship was far from the emancipation...

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4. Felix and Lucy

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pp. 60-89

Felix was tall, lean, fair. Lucy was petite, dark-haired, vivacious. Canoeing in the Adirondacks, tenting at night, was their idea of paradise (figure 4.1). Hardly your stereotypical New York Jews. At a Halloween party in 1925, eighteen-year- old Felix was boyishly acting up; he noticed bright-eyed “Little One” in a light lavender dress and asked to escort her home, but she properly returned with the young man who had brought her to the...

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5. The Handbook of Federal Indian Law

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pp. 90-104

The Handbook of Federal Indian Law did what the Indian Reorganization Act failed to do: it made untenable the United States’ Indian policy prevailing since Jefferson. Felix Cohen, assisted by his team, constructed the legal case for First Nations’ continuing inherent sovereignty. Harold Ickes supported Cohen’s position. The Handbook has been called “one of the greatest treatises in all of the law” (Wilkinson 2005:60)...

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6. The Indian Claims Commission

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pp. 105-120

Felix Cohen saw the Indian New Deal in three parts: the Indian Reorganization Act restoring Indian land and creating limited self-government through tribal constitutions; the The Handbook of Federal Indian Law arguing for Indian Country and its sovereignties; and the Claims Commission to adjudicate tribes’ claims against the federal government. As a scholar committed to social democratic principles of “revolution through the ballot...

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7. The Consequences of Being Jewish

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pp. 121-132

Felix Cohen was replying to a request from the editor of the magazine Common Ground to recommend a person “without a Jewish name” to write an article counteracting the isolationist ideas that immigration costs jobs and lowers living standards for Americans. He said he had thought the magazine “a staunch opponent of name changing and other concessions to popular prejudices,” since it was published by the liberal Common...

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8. Felix Cohen’s Awakening

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pp. 133-145

On November 8, 1933, barely three weeks after being hired at the Department of the Interior to draft legislation, Felix Cohen wrote to Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party in the United States, assuring him that taking employment in capitalist-dominated government did not lessen his commitment to socialism. Thomas replied quickly, agreeing that the opportunity for “real service” in the here and now could be a step toward...

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9. Of Counsel to Tribes

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pp. 146-162

Felix Cohen resigned from the Department of the Interior on December 15, 1947, two years after John Collier’s resignation, a year after Harold Ickes resigned, and, strangely, the day before Nathan Margold unexpectedly died. Cohen’s Indian Claims Commission Act had been signed by President Truman in August 1946. Half a year later, the president appointed the three commissioners the act required; disregarding the recommendation...

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10. Sovereignty: Not So Simple

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pp. 163-183

The Indian New Deal was the turning point in colonialism. Margold and Cohen’s pronouncement on inherent sovereignty, supported by Felix’s assertion in the The Handbook of Federal Indian Law that treaties with Indian nations remain in force, counteracted the long-standing European position that military conquest overrides diplomatic treaties. Legal opinion does not, in the case of First Nations’ continuing sovereignties, comport...

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11. Jewish Science, Philosophy, and Jurisprudence

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pp. 184-194

Hitler famously damned “Jewish science.” His goal of eliminating Jewish scientists drove out many of Germany’s best, including Einstein. What nonsense. How can theoretical physics be “Jewish”? Or is there something in growing up Jewish that fosters talent in science? Maybe just intellectual talent?
A simple answer is that spending all day every weekday indoors in school, cheder or secular, instead of roughhousing outdoors, fostered intellectualism. The heroes of Jewish boys were the great rabbis of the Talmud...

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12. The White Man, the Jew, and the Indian

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pp. 195-200

Let us picture a small town near the border of a western reservation. A white man, a Jew, and an Indian walk into a bar. . . . The white man settles onto a stool, relaxed; it’s his culture, his country, his solid right to be there. The Jew stands, uncertain—he doesn’t usually go into small-town bars. The bartender too is uncertain—what do Jews drink? The Indian barely steps into the bar. The bartender’s stare makes it clear that Indians aren’t served there. There’s an Indian bar on a back street...


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pp. 201-208

Sources by Chapter

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pp. 209-212

Bibliographic Essay: Sources for This Book

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pp. 213-216


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pp. 217-228


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pp. 229-234

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780816598786
E-ISBN-10: 0816598789
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816530939
Print-ISBN-10: 0816530939

Page Count: 249
Illustrations: 21 photos
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 874965704
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Passion for the True and Just

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Cohen, Lucy Kramer, 1907-2007.
  • Indians of North America -- Legal status, laws, etc.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1933-1945.
  • United States. Indian Reorganization Act.
  • New Deal, 1933-1939.
  • Antisemitism -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Commandments (Judaism).
  • Cohen, Felix S., 1907-1953.
  • Indians of North America -- Government relations -- 1934-.
  • United States. Bureau of Indian Affairs -- Officials and employees -- Biography.
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