Why the Tennessee Valley Authority was the New Deal’s Most Ambitious—and Controversial—Program

Why the Tennessee Valley Authority was the New Deal’s Most Ambitious—and Controversial—Program

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On May 18, 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, he took what he saw as a vital step toward fulfilling his promise of a “New Deal” for the American people. The Great Depression had dragged on for more than three years by that point, with no end in sight.

The newly created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) would serve as a federally owned and operated electric utility company and a regional economic development agency for the Tennessee Valley. Running through seven states in the Southeast—Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee—the region was one of the poorest in the country and one of the hardest-hit by the Depression.

Spring rains swelled the Tennessee River each year, causing flooding that stripped away the vital topsoil needed to grow crops. But the mighty river held tremendous potential, if it could be controlled. The TVA aimed to do just that—and a lot more.

“It’s a multi-state regional economic development authority with all of the powers that implies,” says Eric Rauchway, professor of history at the University of California, Davis and author of Why the New Deal Matters. “[The TVA] is authorized to build dams both to improve navigation and to generate hydroelectricity, to create networks to distribute that electricity as public power...as well as to deal with basically every aspect of common life in the region.”

READ MORE: 9 New Deal Infrastructure Projects That Changed America

Origins of the TVA: Muscle Shoals

Congress had authorized the U.S. government to begin construction of Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1916. The site had been named for the rapids or “shoals” produced by a steep drop in elevation in the Tennessee River at that point. Though the dam was originally intended to provide hydroelectric power for two factories tasked with producing nitrates for explosives, World War I ended before the facilities were completed.

Throughout the 1920s, politicians debated what should be done with the site. Senator George Norris, a progressive Republican, believed the government should take greater control over energy production. Norris tried repeatedly to introduce bills providing for federal development of the Muscle Shoals site—only to see them shot down by Republican presidential administrations.

WATCH: The Tennessee Valley Authority episode of 'Modern Marvels' on HISTORY Vault.

Progress and Controversy

But with Roosevelt now in the White House, the tide had turned toward Norris’s ideas. The TVA’s ambitious slate of objectives included improving navigation of the river, controlling flooding, reforestation, providing a reliable supply of water, modernizing farming techniques and providing affordable electricity for the people of the region. Its efforts made a difference almost immediately: Dam construction and other agency activities created thousands of jobs, and by 1935 the cost of electric power across the Tennessee Valley had dropped to 30 percent below the national average.

While it brought electricity and modern conveniences to many rural families who had never had them before, the TVA had negative impacts as well. Construction of the Norris Dam in Tennessee, which began in October 1933, forced nearly 3,000 people from their homes, but the government offered compensation only for the relocation of some 5,200 graves.

READ MORE: Did New Deal Programs Help End the Great Depression?

Legal Battles Over the TVA

Government-owned power plants, Roosevelt had argued in his 1932 presidential campaign, should serve as a “yardstick to prevent extortion” by private power companies. “They would know the labor costs, they would know the production cost, they would know the distribution costs, and they could then say—well, this is a reasonable amount to charge,” Rauchway says of the publicly owned plants. “That of course threatened...private monopolies, who wanted the authority to decide what was reasonable to charge for themselves.”

Wendell Wilkie, president of a large power utility company called the Commonwealth and Southern Company, led the fight against the TVA. He and other power company representatives brought numerous lawsuits and injunctions in the 1930s, blocking the TVA from providing power to many cities across the South in the interim.

But in February 1936, the Supreme Court ruled in Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, a case brought by the Alabama Power Company, that Congress did not exceed its constitutional powers by creating the TVA to build Wilson Dam and sell and distribute the electricity generated there. In the 1939 case, Tennessee Electric Power Company v. TVA, the Court again upheld the TVA’s constitutionality.

How the TVA Succeeded—and Fell Short

During World War II, the TVA would play a critical role in U.S. war production. The region churned out everything from munitions to fertilizer for food production to aluminum for airplane machinery. Electricity from the TVA also powered Oak Ridge in the hills of Tennessee, one of the top-secret sites built to produce uranium for the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project.

The TVA brought higher incomes and greater comforts to much of the region’s population, slowed erosion of the land from the river’s flooding and improved the use of the land. But the agency fell short of the idealized vision of its creators in other ways.

“It didn't keep people on the land in the way they originally envisioned would happen,” Rauchway explains. Instead of encouraging local and regional farming, and fostering a kind of cooperative “slow food” movement, he says the TVA “accelerated the integration of the region into the modern economy.” Also, many factories in the region shifted from hydroelectric to coal-fired power after World War II, a change that would have long-term environmental impacts.

Despite its shortcomings, the TVA would serve as a model for both rural electrification programs in the United States and government-led regional development programs around the world, particularly in poorer countries. One of a handful of public works programs created during the New Deal that still exists, it remains the nation’s largest publicly owned power provider, sending electricity from a combination of hydroelectric, coal-fired, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy facilities to some 10 million people across the Tennessee Valley.

Tennessee House of Representatives

The Tennessee House of Representatives is the lower house of the Tennessee General Assembly, the state legislature of the U.S. state of Tennessee.

According to the state constitution of 1870, this body is to consist of 99 members elected for two-year terms. In every even-numbered year, elections for state representative are conducted simultaneously with the elections for U.S. Representative and other offices the primary election being held on the first Thursday in August. Seats which become vacant through death or resignation are filled by the county commission (or metropolitan county council) of the home county of the member vacating the seat if more than a year remains in the term a special election is held for the balance of the term.

Members are elected from single-member districts. The districts are traditionally numbered consecutively from east to west and north to south across the state however, in recent redistricting this convention has not always been strictly adhered to, despite a constitutional provision requiring districts to be numbered consecutively.

Districts are required to be reapportioned every ten years following the federal census in order to be of substantially equal population. However, from 1902 until 1962, the General Assembly ignored this provision. It was estimated that by that point that some districts in the Memphis area had approximately ten times the population of some in rural areas. In 1962 this issue was taken to court. Despite U.S. courts having traditionally declined to rule on such issues, the US Supreme Court opted to hear this case and ruled that the legislature had to comply with the state constitution, as its failure to do so was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see Baker v. Carr). Subsequent litigation has further refined the rules regarding this in the late 1990s a majority-black district in rural West Tennessee was required to be created.

The 1960s redistricting was credited by some observers with creating the first Republican majority in the Tennessee House since Reconstruction in 1968 this situation lasted only until the next election in 1970. 1970 also marked the first election of a Republican governor in a half century and saw both houses of the legislature begin to assert themselves as a counterbalance to executive authority prior to this time legislators had not had their own staffs or even their own offices and were largely at the mercy of what the governor’s staff chose to tell them and in many ways were often something of a “rubber stamp.”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the presiding officer of the House. The Speaker is elected to a two-year term at the beginning of the 1st half of each session of the Tennessee General Assembly. Additionally, the Speaker is second in line for succession to the governorship, after the Speaker of the Senate, in the event of such need. The Speaker appoints members to all committees as well. Even though the Speaker does not have to make committee assignments proportional to the party composition, usually that discretion is used when determining such. Usually, consideration of the abilities, preferences, party representation, and seniority of the members are taken into account. The chairperson, vice chairperson, and secretary of each committee also are chosen by the Speaker and must be given the same considerations in their selection. The Speaker is a voting member of all standing committees of the House, as is the Speaker pro Tempore. The Speaker also serves as co-chairperson of the Joint Legislative Services Committee and must approve, in concurrence with the Speaker of the Senate, the directors of the offices of Legislative Information Services, Legal Services, Legislative Administration, and Legislative Budget Analysis. Additionally, the Speaker is in charge of all facilities, professional and clerical staff, and custodians and security personnel of the House. [2]

Learn more about the Tennessee House of Representatives here:

Tennessee House of Representatives News

June 26, 2021
Black activists travel the South to push for voting protections, honor Freedom Riders USA TODAY

The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era

Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal offers a unique, journalistic view on the opening act of the Obama administration, comparing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to the legacy of the original New Deal. Authored by Time magazine senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald, this book offers a glimpse of the inner-workings of the Obama administration, arguing that Obama’s Recovery Act offers ambitious and far-reaching initiatives as bold as those of FDR’s New Deal.

Grunwald is clear in his argument that while the stimulus package and, in fact, the entire first term of the Obama administration carries with it shades of New Deal Progressivism, Obama and FDR are as often divergent in their characters and approach to political problems as they are similar. Even calling the stimulus a “New New Deal,” concedes Grunwald, is a bit of a stretch – though large in terms of actual dollar amount, the stimulus did not result in the creation of new government programs and did not do much for the millions of unemployed in the Great Recession. While the stimulus was successful in updating some of our decaying infrastructure and keeping the economy from falling off a cliff, governors receiving aid for stimulus projects were not required to post signs acknowledging the source of the funding. Furthermore, Obama’s programs failed to include the kind of direct job-creation programs included in the first New Deal.

The lack of a jobs program might explain, in part, a theme that Grunwald articulates throughout the book — the Obama administration’s constant struggle with articulating the need for a major initiative to help stabilize an economy in freefall. Unemployment sailed into double digits — we are reminded — just as the stimulus started to take effect. It is as though Obama woke up in the oval office in the midst of a nightmare mirroring that described by John Maynard Keynes. Credit was frozen. The private sector was holding onto dollars. The economic death cycle of stalled investment would soon lead, predictably, to job layoffs and deepening anxieties. Certain lessons of the Great Depression were clear, while others were still hotly contested by economists and historians, and some were entirely forgotten – much to the regret of liberals.

In many respects, the coming of the Second World War, credited with bringing back the American economy, was also the great ratification of Keynesian ideas. The rapid growth of the military industrial complex during the war proved to be the ultimate investment and job creator to stimulate the economy, but the war also worked to obscure the effects of infrastructure development that took place during the original New Deal — in all likelihood helping to drive both the rapid pre-war and massive post-war growth of the US economy. While the administration sought to find certain lessons from the Great Depression, it was clear that the Great Recession was a new crisis in many respects – based on new kinds of flimsy investments and worsened by new forms of debt.

Grunwald details the many questions facing the new administration in 2008: how should the administration respond to the deepening crisis? What political deals were actually possible at that moment? Where was the administration most effective in its earliest efforts and what battles were lost? Based on his careful reading of published accounts and his own interviews – Grunwald’s offers answers to these and other questions embedded within his rich narration surrounding the stimulus.

The first step in the original New Deal was to fix the banks this appears in the context of the Obama administration as well. Grunwald portrays Obama’s efforts to fix the banking, mortgage, and housing crisis as bearing some success. He concedes, however, that Obama was unable to fully reform the financial sector in an effort to avoid catastrophes similar to 2008. Following bank reforms, the original New Deal launched a series of experiments–some, historians agree, less successful than others. The Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, declared other New Deal experiments to be unconstitutional. Ultimately, while the New Deal ran on two legs — reform and stimulus, on the one hand, and direct jobs programs, on the other — Obama’s program is mainly relied on the stimulus.

While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act mirrored some of the longer term projects emerging from the PWA (1933-1943) and projects requiring the expertise of skilled laborers, it has yet to produce a more comprehensive series of jobs programs. Original New Deal programs like the he Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), National Youth Administration (NYA) and Civil Works Administration (CWA) are missing from the political landscape today. Programs like those hired laborers with fewer skills for shorter term projects, from reforestation in Yosemite to part-time jobs for youth in libraries.

Arguably the most successful aspects of the New Deal were the investments in human and built infrastructure. This argument might even be considered sympathetically by one of the major characters in Grunwald’s story, former Berkeley professor, super-nerd, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who is said to boldly call for his team to be comprised of “game changers only.” Grunwald argues that bold new efforts for clean and renewable energy as a major and necessary component of the New New Deal –perhaps a modern day equivalent to the electrification projects of the 1930s, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.

This book walks the reader through many of the less obvious developments that unfolded in the first years of the Obama administration, taking a closer look at what has been repeatedly and aggressively labeled by critics the “Failed Stimulus.” Grunwald even notes that Obama himself stopped referencing “the stimulus” as such because the program had become so unpopular.

A former congressional correspondent for the Washington Post, Grunwald brings an insider’s view to the opening months of the Obama presidency. In an entertaining anecdote offered in the opening pages of the book, Grunwald offers as background that while the president himself proved an elusive interview, the long-winded and affable Vice President Joe Biden proved more than happy to speak to the author on several occasions, touting the accomplishments of the president.

Grunwald concludes that while disappointing to a great many, Obama’s willingness “to take the ham sandwich when he couldn’t get the whole hog,” has potentially resulted in a mixed legislative result. “2012,” Grunwald concludes, “won’t just be about litigating the new New Deal. It will also be about relitigating the old New Deal.” He adds, “The New Deal established the principle that Americans ought to take care of each other in hard times. Yet here we are, four years after the genius of an unconstrained free market brought the global economy to its knees, still unsure whether government ought to try to reshape our direction or just get out of the way.” Through a readable and insightful narrative, this book reminds us of some of our most hard fought accomplishments and — in outlining what is still missing — may provide some inspiration moving forward.


Roosevelt appealed to Congress for help in establishing "a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise." On May 18, 1933, Congress passed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. The TVA Act covered parts of seven states—Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—an area that extended the geographic limits of the Tennessee Valley, but shared many of the same economic woes. The historic act sought not only to alleviate some of the economic effects of the Depression, but, in its unprecedented Section 23, provided a mandate to improve the "social well-being of the people living in [the] river basin." Thus, the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, was one of the most ambitious components of Roosevelt's New Deal.

From the beginning, TVA pioneered an integrated approach to resource management. The mission of TVA was comprehensive—whether it was power production, rural poverty, flood and erosion control, navigation, agricultural reform, disease prevention, reforestation, or cultural resource management—and each project was studied to determine all attendant conditions. Special attention was paid to concerns of long-term impact upon man and the environment.

The TVA began its first project the summer after the TVA Act was signed. Norris Dam, named after Senator George Norris of Nebraska—dubbed "the father of TVA," was built along the Clinch River. The project was one of the most ambitious and controversial of the TVA's early years. Norris Dam was constructed to flood the entire Norris Basin area, one of the poorest in all of the TVA region. The thousands of residents who lived in the basin were forced to move. Those who owned their property outright were compensated financially, but many basin residents were sharecroppers and tenant farmers and thus received nothing. The TVA, with the assistance of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), constructed model communities with modern amenities, schools, and stores, to which they hoped the basin residents would move. However, the construction of the dam required the influx of a great number of workers these workers moved into the planned communities, which then became in effect "company towns." Citizens displaced by TVA dam and reservoir projects often found themselves relocating to areas that had faced the same endemic problems as the places they had left.

By June 1934 the TVA employed 9,173 workers. Several thousand more were employed by the WPA to assist with the construction of TVA projects. Sixteen dams were built between 1933 and 1944. In regions previously prone to catastrophic flooding, the construction of a series of dams enabled better control of excess water and almost eliminated the threat of serious floods on the stretch of river between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The dams also provided reservoirs, hydroelectric power, and locks that eased shipping difficulties on the Tennessee River. The construction of the Wheeler and Wilson dams near Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama, improved the navigability of the river so greatly that the tonnage of river trade increased from 32 million ton-miles in 1933 to 161 million ton-miles in 1942. This ease of shipping meant that local farmers had greater access to markets and also made the region more attractive to industrial interests.

The TVA was also charged with helping the Valley's farmers become more productive and cause less damage to already fragile farmlands. Outdated farm practices, over fertilization of land with chemicals, deforestation, and the need to produce more and more crops in order to meet rising costs took its toll on much of the region's arable land. Erosion, flooding, and poor harvests were endemic problems. The TVA established model farms to teach Valley farmers about crop rotation, responsible fertilization, and counter-erosion techniques. The organization worked closely with local land grant colleges in an effort to further educate farmers and aid them in becoming more productive and to raise their standard of living.

The main component of the social and economic plan for the region was the generation and distribution of electricity. Working through direct commissions and private distributors, the TVA quickly began the process of electrification in rural areas and provided a greater quantity of power, at a lower cost, to the Valley's larger cities. Tupelo, Mississippi, became the first city to purchase its power wholesale from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Unlike the majority of residents in the Tennessee River Valley, most private power companies in the region were critical of the government's intervention. Utility companies saw the TVA as a threat to competitive business and regarded the government as not being capable of adequately generating, selling, and distributing electricity. The TVA was challenged in court several times during the 1930s almost all of the cases were brought forth by private power companies. In 1939 the constitutionality of the TVA Act was upheld in the Supreme Court. By 1941, just eight years after its inception, TVA had become the largest producer of electrical power in the United States.

Striving to implement some of the ideas of the TVA program across the nation, the Roosevelt administration created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935. The main goal of the REA was to provide electricity to all rural areas, most especially family farms. Private power companies in many regions did give farmers the opportunity to purchase electricity, but in order to run rural lines, most demanded all or a majority of the construction costs up front. Furthermore, many companies proposed to charge higher rates for the power they supplied the countryside. These factors made electricity a prohibitive cost to many farmers and rural citizens.

The head of the REA, John Carmody (1881-1963), visited areas adjacent to the TVA region in order to assess the people's reaction to the projects that the government was undertaking nearby. Unlike that of the private utility companies, the response from citizens was overwhelmingly positive. In areas that had been denied electricity based upon claims by power companies that rural lines were too expensive to construct and that the residents could not afford to pay for power, the residents were generally in favor of government intervention in the region. During his visit, Carmody spotted a sign in north Georgia that read: "Mr. Carmody, we want lights!" The plea of the region's residents to be included in New Deal programs was heard, and Georgia became one of the pilot regions for REA sponsored rural electric cooperatives. Five years later, under REA guidance, Georgia was one of the most widely electrified states.

By 1939 the percent of rural households nationwide that had electricity had risen from just under 10% to 25%. The REA aided in the establishment of over 400 electric cooperatives that served 288,000 individual households. While the push for rural electrification was largely completed during the New Deal and immediately after the end of World War II, the Tennessee Valley Authority remained active. In the postwar era, TVA shifted from its New Deal broad economic and social mission to a more streamlined organization focusing on the production and sale of power and the maintenance of its dams and reservoirs along the Tennessee River and its tributaries.

In 1959 the TVA petitioned for the authority to issue bonds, and later that year Congress enacted legislation that made the TVA power system self-financing. Over the course of the next three decades, the TVA continued to develop its innovative approach to regional planning. In the 1960s TVA began using nuclear power in some areas in the 1970s the organization was one of the first to implement pollutant emission standards. Though TVA has followed a general trend toward becoming more similar to other power companies, in the last decade of the twentieth century TVA began to reincorporate updated versions of their New Deal initiatives. The TVA is one of the chief moderators in the ongoing social dialogue between various business, cultural resource management, environmental, and industrial groups in the region.

WHO warns of 2 million deaths due to epidemic / corona

Worldwide Corona Caused by a virus DeathThe figure can cross 20 lakhs. The World Health Organization has said this. According to the WHO, the number of deaths from corona could reach 2 million before a successful vaccine is given and widely administered.

The WHO says the death toll could rise to more than 2 million if no action is taken to stop the epidemic. So far, there have been more than 32.7 million cases of coronary heart disease in the world.

Mike Ryan says we haven’t been able to get out of the tragedy yet. He said young people should not be blamed for new cases. “Hopefully we don’t point fingers at each other,” he said. Mike Ryan said the epidemic is growing from home parties. Which includes people of all ages.

The Corona virus has killed more than 280,000 people in the United States, more than 93,000 in India, more than 140,000 in Brazil and more than 20,000 in Russia. The United States has the highest transition rate. Where the total cases have crossed 72 lakh. India is second with 59 lakh cases so far.

According to a report, Mike Ryan, President of the WHO’s Emergency Program, said that the 2 million deaths are not just an estimate. But if that is likely to happen. A total of 9.93 lakh people have died in the last nine months since the outbreak of the corona virus.

Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a federally owned corporation in the United States created by congressional charter on May 18, 1933, to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly affected by the Great Depression. Senator George W. Norris (R-Nebraska) was a strong sponsor of this project. TVA was envisioned not only as a provider, but also as a regional economic development agency that would use federal experts and rural electrification to help modernize the rural region's economy and society. [3]

TVA's service area covers all of Tennessee, portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small areas of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. It was the first large regional planning agency of the federal government and remains the largest. Under the leadership of David E. Lilienthal ("Mr. TVA"), the TVA became the global model for the United States' later efforts to help modernize agrarian societies in the developing world. [4] [5] In later decades, hydropower's share fell to 10% of TVA's power production (2018).

7.2 Last Hired, First Fired: Women and Minorities in the Great Depression

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the challenges women faced during the Depression and the way that the New Deal affected women.
  2. Analyze the extent to which the Roosevelt administration provided a “new deal” for nonwhites. Identify the challenges for African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics during the 1930s.
  3. Describe the way Native Americans were affected by the New Deal and the programs of the New Deal. Explain why some Native Americans might support the efforts of John Collier while others opposed him.

Kelly Miller, an African American sociologist at Howard University labeled the black worker during the Depression as “the surplus man.” African Americans were the first to be fired from jobs when the economy slowed, Miller argued, and they were the last to be hired once the economy recovered. Miller’s description was accurate not only for black Americans but also for women, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics. For the first time, each of these groups had a voice in the White House. However, that voice was not the president. While Franklin Roosevelt focused his efforts on securing the electoral support of white Southerners and the cooperation of conservative Southern Democrats in Congress, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke for the “surplus” men and women.

Eleanor Roosevelt demonstrated her commitment to unpopular causes at the 1938 Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama. The conference was an interracial coalition of Southern progressives founded the previous year. The group was dedicated to finding ways to provide greater economic opportunities for Southerners. Although they were not necessarily civil rights activists, for the first two days of the conference, members refused to abide by Birmingham law, which forbade interracial seating. When notified of the violation, police chief Bull Connor arrived and notified the participants that they would be arrested if they did not separate themselves into “white” and “colored” sections.

No woman has ever so comforted the distressed or so distressed the comfortable.

—Connecticut Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce describing Eleanor Roosevelt.

Bull Connor would become notorious during the 1960s for his use of police dogs and other violent methods of attacking those who defied the city’s segregation ordinances. When Connor ordered the segregation of the 1938 meeting, the predominantly male audience rushed to comply. At that moment, Eleanor Roosevelt picked up her chair and sat in the aisle between the two sections, defying the segregationist police chief to arrest the First Lady of the United States. For this and dozens of other small acts of wit and courage, Eleanor Roosevelt was daily maligned by journalists who assaulted her character and integrity in gendered terms. Later interpretations of history would offer a different perspective on her character and integrity. While Eleanor Roosevelt adopted many of the conservative ideas about race and gender that typified those of her racial and economic background, she also challenged ideas about race, social class, and gender in ways that made her one of the most courageous and important Americans of her time.

The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be

In recent years, as the energy crisis has developed, and bureaucracies in Washington have wrestled with little success to solve it, and Congress has moved slower than a West Virginia coal train even to agree on a battle strategy, some Americans have proposed that a public agency based in Knoxville, Tennessee, become the model for coping with the problem.

On first impression Knoxville seems an unlikely site for providing a solution to an internationally baffling crisis. For three decades the civic fathers of that eastern Tennessee center have smarted over John Gunther’s pronouncement that it was probably rthe ugliest city he had seen inside America. Whatever the demerits of the Knoxville skyline, its two Jest and newest structures in 1976 were the headquarters for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Deal-era agency that once made the city the Ie for any discussion of public ownership, resource management, or the success of F.D.R.’s deperssion-recovery program. No fewer than sixty-five of state, most of them from developing nations, have made a visit to TVA a necessary part of surveying America, and many have returned home to imitate the workings of the agency that TVA supporters now propose extending to a larger area of the United States to take on the energy crisis.

Though TVA’s national profile receded after it won the last of its major political survival battles in the 1950’s, its continuing work in the seven-state Tennessee River Valley area transformed it into the nation’s largest utility, the near single source of new ideas for chemical fertilizer development, and a growing fountain of suggestions on how to manage the nation’s resources without dragging the afterbirth of bureaucracy into all dealings with people as an accompaniment. At a time when electric bills nationally exceeded mortgage payments in some cases for the middle class, and welfare payments for some of the poor, TVA’s ability to produce power at rates 45 per cent below the national average made its virtues even more appealing.

Senator Adlai E. Stevenson of’Illinois introduced a bill in Congress to create a Federal Oil and Gas Corporation, based on the TVA organizational model, to compete with the oil industry in drilling on federal lands, inland and offshore, and selling oil and gas to refineries. Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and George McGovern of South Dakota, Lee White, a former chairman of the Federal Power Commission, Leonard Woodcock, president of the United Auto Workers, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, among others, supported the measure. Former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris suggested using TVA as a model in reforming private utilities. Seconding him were groups like the National Coalition for Land Reform, and consumer organizations in various parts of the country who were seeking relief from power prices.

Ironically, however, while national leaders were rediscovering TVA, grassroots elements across TVA’s 8o,ooo-square-mile area were revolting against it. Farmers, ratepayers, strip-mined land owners, coal suppliers, unions, and politicians in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, loaded down visiting reporters with reams of TVA critiques full of quotes honed for printing. The agency seemed almost under siege by this new brand of opposition, and so mystified by its volume that its historic proficiency at persuasion was replaced by dump loads of defensive press releases issued from its Knoxville headquarters. TVA is accustomed to battling. What was different in the mid-1970’s was that it was dueling not with outside power interests, but with its own people. TVA’s chief information officer, who commanded a public relations and technical information budget of $1.3 million, called the criticism “healthy,” and then sighed, “I hope.”

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt leaned back in his chair on May 18, 1933, and handed Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska the pen with which he had just signed the TVA act, he could not have guessed that he had just launched the most enduringly controversial program of the New Deal. It was true that the bill the President signed was the 138th that had been introduced in Congress since 1921 relating to the disposition of the Tennessee Valley. The new act resembled bills vetoed in 1928 by President Calvin Coolidge and in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, but Roosevelt hoped that he had laid to rest national socialism and regional favoritism debates with the promise that TVA would be “a corporation clothed with the power of Government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise,” and concerned with the Tennessee River Valley but working “for the general social and economic welfare of the Nation.”

For all the comfort those words gave the private power interests, Roosevelt might as well have said that he was creating a socialist river-damming project that would be used to barge children to integrated schools and supply electric power to the Kremlin. Words like a “yardstick” by which true power costs could be judged, and multipurpose “planning,” were signals to the program’s opponents that what the liberal New York Democrat and Norris, the progressive Nebraska Republican, had in mind was more than another public relief program for the eroded hills and pocketbooks of the Southern mountaineer and his flatland neighbors who lived farther down the flood-prone Tennessee River.

While the New Deal “Brain Trust” was frequently given credit for the TVA idea, proposals to uplift the Tennessee River Valley went all the way back to John Calhoun’s proposal to President James Monroe in 1824 to appropriate funds to remove the river blockage at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Other proponents of national development took up similar proposals in later generations, but not until the end of the nineteenth century were the basic theoretical premises of TVA formulated. It was Giffbrd Pinchot, chief forestry adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt and a leading spokesman for the conservation movement, who first elaborated what was to become the major theme of TVA-style regional development. “A river,” said Pinchot, “is essentially a unit from its source to the sea” and should be harnessed for “all the uses ‘of the waters and the benefits to be derived from their control.”

Pinchot’s definition of conservation as “the use of the earth for the good of man”—with emphasis on how a young nation was squandering its vast resources—built the consciousness that eventually created TVA and sustained its first officials. On its twentieth anniversary TVA used Pinchot’s definition as an epigraph for its annual report to the President and Congress, and cited TVA’s achievements as a tribute to the soundness of his ideas. The TVA founders believed that they had created a unique government agency which met President Theodore Roosevelt’s criticism of our national development policy as “the piece-meal execution of projects,” without a planned responsibility that is “definitely laid on one man or group of men who can be held accountable.”

Not until 1917 were any facilities other than marginally useful canals built at Muscle Shoals. That year the government announced that it had chosen the Shoals area as a site for the wartime production of nitrates for munitions so that the U.S. could reduce its dependence on Chile for its supply. The nitrate plant was not completed until January, 1919. and the dam—named Wilson Dam, after the President—that was to supply its power was delayed in final construction until 1925. In 1921 the Secretary of War had asked for bids on the Muscle Shoals facilities in accordance with the routine disposal of government “surplus property.” One of the bidders, in what became one of the most talked-about stories of the early igao’s, was Henry Ford. The auto magnate magnanimously offered $5 million for the government’s $90 million investment. He promised a Ruhr Valley in the American southland that sent real estate speculators scurrying to the area. Fate was against Ford, however, whose bid was not accepted even after he made a highly publicized trip to Muscle Shoals in the company of Thomas Edison.

Somehow, the bills to dispose of Muscle Shoals landed in the Senate’s Agriculture Committee chaired by Senator Norris rather than in the Military Affairs Committee, where they might have been expected to be sent. “I never have known how it came to be dumped upon my lap,” Norris wrote in his autobiography, Fighting Liberal . But “after beating back efforts of private interests to get Muscle Shoals,” he launched an intensive battle to create TVA, only to have his bills vetoed twice. Behind Norris’ motivation was his well-known antipathy for the “well-intrenched, enormously rich, and powerful forces” he felt controlled the nation. In TVA he saw, “not daring to express it publicly … a model by which this country could see the happiness, material progress, and prosperity to be attained if the American people act promptly and properly in the preservation of God-given natural resources of the country.”

Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had fought high utility rates as governor of New York, endorsed the Norris bill, and as President-elect demonstrated his interest in TVA by visiting Muscle Shoals. On April 10, 1933—during the famous first hundred days of his administration—he sent the Congress a message asking for the creation of TVA, promising that the new authority would be a “return to the spirit and vision of the pioneer. If we are successful here,” he said, “we can march on, step by step, in the like development of other great national territorial units within our borders.” By May 18, 1933, he had signed the bill “for the especial purpose of bringing about in said Tennessee drainage basin and adjoining territory … the maximum amount of flood control the maximum development… for navigation purposes the maximum generation of electric power consistent with flood control and navigation the proper use of marginal lands the proper method of reforestation … and the economic and social well-being of the people living in said river basin and to provide for the national defense.”

For a government agency the act allowed a very flexible program. Other than the general development mandate, the act’s most explicit requirements were that the new authority—in fact, a government corporation—would be ruled by three presidentially appointed directors, one to be designated chairman, who would serve for nine-year terms with the consent of the Senate. The act dictated that the agency locate its headquarters in the region, excluded it from Civil Service laws, and required the three directors to believe in the “feasibility and wisdom of the Act.” The directors would report to the President, consult Congress on appropriations not covered by power revenues, and otherwise be free to develop the “model” that Norris and Roosevelt wanted to spill across the American landscape. Depending on the point of view of the observer, the power of the board of directors of TVA was either the most ideal arrangement ever devised by government for grassroots input, allowing three men to bend to the demands of their constituencies and the wiles of a river or it was the first Washington-imposed dictatorship that blanketed an entire region. No one at the time of TVA’s creation or since has doubted that the validity of either of these views depends on the caliber and character of the three directors.

For chairman of TVA, Roosevelt chose Arthur E. Morgan, the president of Antioch College in Ohio, who had a national reputation as the hydraulic engineer who had tamed the Miami River after it had visited a disastrous flood on the city of Dayton. From his experience in resisting political appointees to the board of the Miami Conservancy District, Morgan had learned to be suspicious of politicians. Though Roosevelt promised him “there is to be no politics in this,” Morgan came to have doubts, believing that Roosevelt “worked out a philosophy that made ethical considerations secondary to the possession of power.” That statement hinted at the righteousness with which Morgan regarded public service, how he believed human frailties could profit from the discipline of engineering, and how his moralism would eventually conflict with TVA’s directors and Roosevelt in a way that almost wrecked the agency.

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The New Deal

In early 1933 nation needed immediate relief, recovery from economic collapse, and reform to avoid future depressions, so relief, recovery and reform became Franklin D. Roosevelt`s goals when he took the helm as president. At his side stood a Democratic Congress, prepared to enact the measures carved out by a group of his closest advisors — dubbed the “Brain Trust” by reporters. One recurring theme in the recovery plan was Roosevelt’s pledge to help the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Birth of the “New Deal” The concepts that became the New Deal had been discussed in earlier years but without effect. The statement by National Catholic War Council in 1919, drafted by Father John A. Ryan, contained recommendations that would later be regarded as precursors of the New Deal. The term "New Deal" was coined during Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech, when he said, "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." Roosevelt summarized the New Deal as a "use of the authority of government as an organized form of self-help for all classes and groups and sections of our country." The exact nature of Roosevelt`s intentions was not clear during the campaign, although his philosophy was set out in an address that he gave at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on September 23:

At his inauguration in March 1933, Roosevelt declared in his lilting style, "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is, fear itself — needless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." In his first 99 days, he proposed, and Congress swiftly enacted, an ambitious "New Deal" to deliver relief to the unemployed and those in danger of losing farms and homes, recovery to agriculture and business, and reform, notably through the inception of the vast Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The New Deal effects would take time some 13,000,000 people were out of work by March 1933, and virtually every bank was shuttered. The New Deal programs were born in Brain Trust meetings prior to Roosevelt’s inauguration, and also were a grateful nod to Theodore Roosevelt`s "square deal" of 30 years earlier. Members of the group included Raymond Moley, an American journalist and public figure Rexford Tugwell, Adolf Berle of Columbia University, attorney Basil O`Connor, and later, Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law School. Many of Roosevelt`s presidential campaign advisors continued to counsel him after he was elected, among them Berle, Moley, Tugwell, Harry Hopkins, and Samuel I. Rosenman but they never met again as a group after his inauguration. Herbert Hoover Opening the way for the New Deal, President Herbert Hoover was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Election of 1932. Hoover, who had been blamed for the stock market crash and the Depression, strongly opposed Roosevelt`s New Deal legislation, in which the federal government assumed responsibility for the welfare of the nation by maintaining a high level of economic activity. According to Hoover, Roosevelt had been slow to reveal his New Deal programs during the presidential campaign and worried that the new president would sink the nation into deficit spending to pay for the New Deal. Roosevelt never consulted Hoover, nor did he involve him in government in any way during his presidential term. The "Hundred Days" The president called a special session of Congress on March 9. Immediately he began to submit reform and recovery measures for congressional validation. Virtually all the important bills he proposed were enacted by Congress. The 99-day (March 9-June 16) session came to be known as the "Hundred Days." On March 12, 1933, Roosevelt broadcast the first of 30 "fireside chats" over the radio to the American people. The opening topic was the Bank Crisis. Primarily, he spoke on a variety of topics to inform Americans and exhort them to support his domestic agenda, and later, the war effort. During Roosevelt`s first year as president, Congress passed laws to protect stock and bond investors. Among the measures enacted during the first Hundred Days were the following:

Through the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 the National Recovery Administration (NRA) came into being. The NRA attempted to revive industry by raising wages, reducing work hours and reining in unbridled competition. Portions of the NRA were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 however, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was the second part of the NRA, was allowed to stand. The majority of its collective bargaining stipulations survived in two subsequent bills. The NRA — a product of meetings among such “Brain Trust” advisors as Raymond Moley, big business leaders, and labor unionists — illustrated Roosevelt`s willingness to work with, rather than against, business interests.


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