Glenn Uminowicz - December 2008
Better Days Are Coming
The fact that millions of people now think better days have come or are coming, is one of the strongest assurances that come they will.
Easton Star-Democrat (December 29, 1933)
In 1932, something unusual occurred in Talbot County politics—the majority of voters cast their ballots for the Democratic presidential candidate. They joined millions of Americans who felt that the approach to dealing with the Great Depression needed to change. They endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt as the man to bring back better days.
Even in the wake of the stock market crash in 1929, Eastern Shore residents remained hopeful about their economic future. Three days after the market’s collapse on “Black Tuesday,” the Denton Journal ran an editorial that admonished, “We are in the midst of a financial panic based entirely on unreasoning mob psychology and not in any way related to the present condition of America’s fundamental industries.” The opinion echoed that of President Herbert Hoover, who insisted, “The fundamental business of this country is on a sound and prosperous basis.”
One year later, however, the economic situation had worsened. In December of 1929, the Easton newspaper reported that local business leaders looked forward to prosperity in 1930. Just before Thanksgiving, however, the newspaper ran an editorial cartoon entitled “Just the Boost That Is Needed.” Santa Claus was pictured coming to the rescue of a truck labeled “BUSINESS” driven by “Old Jake Confidence” that had become bogged down in a “DEPRESSION” mud hole. His reindeer bears a sign urging people to start doing their Christmas shopping. This stimulus would boost “Employment,” who was sitting next to Jake in the passenger’s seat.
In dealing with the Depression, Hoover also trusted in business and consumer demand, and stood firmly against the “dole”—direct welfare payments to individuals. In fairness, however, he also was the first president to bring the power of the federal government to bear in facing a major economic downturn. He authorized $423 million in public works projects and Home Loan Banks offered federal cash to banks in exchange for canceling foreclosures. In 1932, the newly established Reconstruction Finance Corporation provided $2 billion in loans to banks, insurance companies, and railroads in an effort to aid in job creation.
Even before the stock market crash, Eastern Shore farmers understood that Hoover would consider dealing with economic problems at the federal level. The agricultural sector showed weakness even before the onset of the Depression. In a review of economic activity in 1929, the Easton newspaper reported, “The farmers and the canners have been the worst sufferers and consequently their losses have been reflected in nearly all lines in industry and business in the county.” Going into the year, wheat and corn prices were unstable. A surplus of tomatoes in 1928 meant that canneries had a significant back stock of canned goods and offered lower prices for the fruit the next year. Drought conditions in 1930 only made matters worse.
In April of 1929, the Hoover administration hoped to deal with problems on the farm with passage of the Agricultural Marketing Act. A Farm Board was authorized to provide loans and purchase farm surpluses, thereby raising prices. As with many of Hoover’s efforts at recovery, however, this program was under-funded and had no real powers of enforcement.
Late in 1930, in addition to farmers facing a drought, Eastern Shore watermen suffered from a significant drop in consumer demand for oysters and the Easton Furniture Company suspended operations. Local efforts to raise relief funds for the unemployed included donation baskets in local stores and a theatrical production by the Easton Players.
Despite such self-help efforts, the Depression wore on. In the spring of 1933, a speaker at the Easton Rotary Club declared, “Economic conditions in the state are appalling.” Locally, a barter economy supplemented cash transactions. A newspaper reporter observed, “It is pitiful to see some of the local farmers bringing in a few eggs to the storekeeper and taking back home a loaf of bread and a small piece of cheese.”
When he took the oath of office in March of 1933, these were the type of economic conditions that Franklin Roosevelt inherited. In his inaugural address, FDR promised Americans a “New Deal” that would restore prosperity.
Roosevelt both took short-term actions to stimulate the economy, as well as looked at long term regulatory reforms. New Dealers were not bent on creating a social welfare state. Many Democrats shared with Republicans a belief in free market capitalism. In 1932, for example, the Democratic Denton Journal editorialized, “Industry’s great future problems will be mainly those arising from governmental policies toward business. There is a strong politically-backed trend toward socialism in this country. Men in high official positions – some sincerely, some for the political capital it makes for them – wish to put the government into various lines of business and pass unnecessarily restrictive laws.”
After taking office, one of FDR’s important initiatives seemingly had little to do with the economy – the first step in repealing Prohibition by legalizing the sale of beer. On the Eastern Shore, this proved no small issue. Both Talbot and Caroline Counties, for example, had histories of passing local option laws banning the sale of alcohol. The editor of the Denton Journal insisted that the legalization beer sales would result in a return to the politics of the 1880s that he described as follows:
Bribery, corruption and debauchery were then so rampant that ladies dare not venture out of their homes after dark without escorts. On election days, the effects of liquor were so widespread that all schools were closed because it was considered unsafe to allow children to walk the street. Drunken gang-fighting around the polling places was general and it was not unusual for respectable citizens, attempting to vote, to be clubbed by these gangs.
The citizens of Caroline County apparently failed to share this apocalyptic vision, since they voted for beer.
Talbot County provided evidence of the impact of early New Deal legislation. In 1933, over 300 men were employed on federally funded Civil Works Projects, digging ditches, paving streets and painting the county children’s home. This was work relief, not the dole. The editor of the Easton newspaper observed that this program reinstated these men as “self-supporting individuals of the community.” It also pumped needed dollars into the local economy.
Also in 1933, the first $20,000 in checks arrived for farmers who had agreed to curtail wheat production. Grocers and other businesses committed to wage and price controls under the National Recovery Act (NRA). Housewives were urged to patronize those businesses that displayed the NRA’s symbol – the Blue Eagle.
In 1935, Roosevelt himself arrived on the Shore, sailing his yacht below the new Choptank River Bridge at its opening. Business groups reported that the economy had improved. In 1936, 63 homes in Easton were saved from foreclosure through a federal program.
Even as FDR won a second term in 1936 and carried Eastern Shore counties again, early New Deal initiatives, like the NRA and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Other programs, such as work relief, were terminated by the Roosevelt Administration, since they had been regarded as temporary emergency measures. In 1935, Talbot County officials estimated that $10,000 in local funding would be needed to continue relief.
The legacy of the New Deal remains a hotly debated topic. Some historians observe that World War II, not the New Deal, yanked the American economy out of the Depression. On the other hand, the federal government exercised extraordinary control over the economy during the war, including rationing, wage and price controls, and a massive labor program in the form of staffing the armed services. At war, the country approved levels of regulation and spending beyond which neither Hoover nor FDR ever displayed a commitment.
Historian Paul Johnson links Hoover and Roosevelt, insisting that their “meddlesome activism” actually prolonged the Depression by impeding a “natural recovery brought about by deflation.” Hoover made his fortune as a mining engineer, and Johnson condemns his social engineering. By contrast, FDR was a “social psychologist,” convincing Americans that better days would soon arrive.
Regarding our current economic crisis, Andrew B. Wilson has already revived the above argument in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, insisting that we should not repeat the mistakes that made the Great Depression so long-lasting and devastating. In August of 1933, the editorial writer for the Easton Star-Democrat observed that the “ordinary man” understood that some realignment of the relationship between business and government was necessary, although there was no general agreement on what was to be done. He warned, however, against members of any “radical fringe eager to move along paths which might be theoretically admirable but were pretty likely to be disastrous in practice.” By 1933, along Main Street, Eastern Shore people had endured four years of economic disaster. They demanded a new deal from their government and remained willing to believe in better days. In 2008, along Main Street, that demand and that willingness again need to be on display.