*This post contains affiliated links. I started writing this post at the beginning of the week. It has been eaten and spat back up by digital gremlins more than a couple of times. Then it got unwieldy, and I hacked it back with aggressive deleting. Then it grew again, despite my best efforts. I don’t even know what this is anymore. But here you are, whatever it is:
My understanding of the Great Depression from years of public education was basically thus: the libertine and excessive 1920s led to Black Tuesday which drove the U.S. economy off a cliff. Hoover did nothing, driving the country further into depression until the savior, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected. However, things were so bad that it took all of his efforts and an entire decade to make things better. And then Pearl Harbor.
I was suspect, as I’ve become of most of my education, of this particular retelling. I’ve discovered that, if what I was taught was not always wrong, it was almost invariably incomplete and biased. I’d read short articles and commentary here and there that made me question that standard line but never anything in-depth. But then I read Amity Shlaes excellent biography of Calvin Coolidge, and I thought I’d give The Forgotten Man a shot.
In The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Shlaes looks at not only the policies and economics of the Great Depression but also at the personalities who influenced, drove, and were made heroes or demons during that turbulent decade. I first heard this book described as “an economic history of the Great Depression,” which didn’t sound very exciting. It is primarily about the economics and policies of the era, but it’s also a well-written narrative that highlights the personalities that shaped that era.
The Great Depression and the New Deal policies dramatically altered the very character of the government and the nation. Shlaes writes, “This was the era of democracy; the era of the republic was passing. ‘In fact,’ Roosevelt said, ‘in these last four years, we have made the exercise of all power more democratic; for we have begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government.’”
Throughout the book, I kept thinking of the quote from C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, “Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest – which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of.”
When Roosevelt spoke of “the public’s government,” he was speaking of the government he thought they ought to have. We have a tendency to think that democracy is the more liberal (in the classic sense) type of government than a republic: the power is with the people directly. But what happened in the Depression was not the expansion of power of the people — or rather the individual — but rather the expansion of power of the state, using the people as a tool, shaping it through government resources (for example, the Federal Writers Project and other efforts used to shape public opinion.) If you think of democracy as instilling power in “the people” — meaning the average citizen, then the New Deal wasn’t very democratic at all.
After the GOP regained some power in 1938, they passed the Hatch Act to limit the political activities by government employees, but the horse had already left the barn. The government did and does use its power and tax dollars to benefit certain groups and target others and to advance the political agendas of those currently in power. But it was a nice idea. (The reason the Republicans were able to gain power was a depression within the Depression. It wasn’t a slow steady climb out of a pit so much as a wallowing in misery. Unemployment was an ongoing problem until after WWII started.)
Side note: Dorothea Lange was one of the artists hired by the Roosevelt Administration to promote its policies and point of view, particularly to show the suffering of people in order to build up support for the sweeping programs of the New Deal. Her most famous picture is the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo. She was also assigned to take pictures of the Japanese internment camps, but to show how happy and wonderful they all were in their new “homes.” She captured quite a different perspective, and her pictures were locked away until recently. I’m pretty sure there’s a moral about artistic freedom and lying down with dogs in there somewhere.
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The New Deal expanded not only the powers of the state (particularly the executive) but also various special interests. Roosevelt cultivated ties between various constituencies, farmers, unions, etc., pushing for special laws or subsidies to ensure their loyalties. Likewise, he set apart certain groups for targeting. Shlaes writes, “There was also a new hostility to the enemies Roosevelt had chosen: big companies, employers, the wealthy. . . The skirmishes were over; the class war was out in the open.”
One of the most interesting stories woven into the book is the tale of Andrew Mellon and the establishment of the National Gallery of Art. Mellon was preparing perhaps the greatest gift a private individual has ever given this nation. For over a decade, Mellon collected beautiful works of art. He worked to secure a place on the National Mall for an art gallery. He insisted that the art be grouped by style and date instead of by donor, and he didn’t want his name on the building. He wanted a truly national gallery. Ironically, he was one of Roosevelt’s “special targets” and was fighting IRS prosecution for taking (legal) tax loopholes while simultaneously preparing his magnificent gift. His main concerned seemed to be that the IRS was intent on spoiling his surprise. I shudder to think of what we would have missed had the IRS been successful in their prosecutions.