A WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY HAPPY ANNIVERSARY SHOUT OUT TO THE TVA! To Vend at Auction?

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was the brain-child of George William Norris (1861-1944), the eleventh child of a poor farming family who earned a law degree, moved to Nebraska, and entered politics as a progressive liberal Republican. Yes, there were such creatures in the early twentieth century! But while Norris helped found the National Progressive Republican League in 1911 and threw his support behind Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgent Progressive Party candidacy in 1912, he still refused to bolt the convention or switch his party affiliation, maintaining his standing as a leading Progressive Republican in the Senate. In the 1920s, Norris assumed chairmanship of the Agriculture and Forestry committees and he became a leading advocate for the Farm Bloc and the labor movement. A true Republican “maverick,” Norris publicly challenged and opposed many of the measures promoted by the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover Administrations, going so far as to publicly support Democratic presidential candidates in 1928 and 1932.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

When Franklin D. Roosevelt soundly defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 elections at the height of the Great Depression, Norris saw his opportunity to work with a fellow progressive on issues that would greatly affect the future of poor farming folk like his own family. Only two months after FDR’s inauguration, Norris sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 and became the prime mover in the U.S. Senate behind the Rural Electrification Act (REA).

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA

 In May 1933, (eighty years ago this week), the TVA was established by Congressional charter with the aim of building a series of publicly funded and government controlled regional dams along the Tennessee River Valley.

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The dam projects were intended to provide flood control and navigation, to counter soil erosion, to generate inexpensive hydro-electric power for rural communities ignored by private power utility companies, and to foster economic development in the region.

Even as Norris promoted the TVA and the idea of “public power,” FDR embraced the program as a means of putting hundreds of thousands of unemployed engineers, architects, and construction workers “Back to work” on projects that would better the lives of millions of citizens.

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GIFTS OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON

FDR also saw the TVA as a model of what could be accomplished with progressive government action and centralized planning.

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It seems only fitting, of course, that one of the dams would bear the name of the TVA’s chief architect and promoter.

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The Wolfsonian-FIU library holds a number of black & white photograph postcards and at least one color view book celebrating the Norris Dam in particular.

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POSTCARDS GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

On the fifth floor galleries of the Wolfsonian museum, a bas-relief titled Electricity depicts a male nude—his hair pulled up by a static charge—surrounded by elements such as fire and water, industrial smoke stacks, glass insulators, and light bulbs. Carved out of alabaster, and probably backlit to make it glow, the piece was exhibited at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago 1933-1934, and seems to have been an artistic promotion of public power at the very time that Congress was voting to authorize the TVA.

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Another of FDR’s “New Deal” programs, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), more deliberately attempted to generate public enthusiasm for the TVA. In February 1937, as the Supreme Court made ready to rule on the controversies surrounding the TVA and its private (some might say monopolistic) utility companies, the New York “living newspaper” unit opened its production of Power.

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IMAGE COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

After dramatizing the creation of the TVA at the end of the play’s first act, the second opened with farmers and workers standing in front of a projection of waterfalls and hydro-dams, singing:

All up and down the valley

They heard the glad alarm

The Government means business—

It’s working like a charm

Oh, see them boys a-comin’

Their Government they trust.

FDR’s Administrator for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Harry Hopkins (1890-1946) congratulated the cast backstage, telling them that “I want this play and plays like it done from one end of the country to the other.”

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PROMISED GIFT OF MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.

He warned them, though that they could expect to:

…take a lot of criticism on this play. People will say it’s propaganda. Well, I say what of it? It’s propaganda to educate the consumer who’s paying for power. It’s about time someone had some propaganda for him. The big power companies have spent millions on propaganda for the utilities. It’s about time that the consumer had a mouthpiece. I say more plays like Power and more power to you.

Of course, not everyone was as enthusiastic towards the play’s perspective or by the idea of government intervention in and competition with the power-generation industry—least of all those with a direct stake in the private utility businesses. In 1929, Wendell Willkie (1892-1944) had become a lawyer for the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation which provided electrical power to consumers in eleven states and became the company’s president four years later. As early as April 1933, Willkie was testifying against the TVA before a committee in the House of Representatives, convincing that legislative body to limit the TVA’s ability to build transmission lines that might compete with those of existing private companies. FDR, however, persuaded the Senate to remove the restrictions and grant the TVA unlimited funds and such broad powers that Willkie’s Commonwealth & Southern Corp. proved unable to compete, selling its property in the Tennessee Valley to the TVA in 1939. The following year, Willkie officially switched his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican and became that party’s standard-bearer in the presidential election campaign of 1940.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

All of these issues came to mind when I heard a news item on National Public Radio this morning. It would seem that the Obama administration, in its 2014 budget, has indicated that it is reviewing options for “addressing TVA’s financial situation, including the possible divestiture of TVA, in part or as a whole.” The administration tried to justify its budget proposal by claiming that “reducing or eliminating the Federal Government’s role in programs such as TVA, which have achieved their original objectives and no longer require Federal participation, can help put the Nation on a sustainable fiscal path.” The idea that the Democratic president was seriously considering selling off TVA drew a fiery response from Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Senator Alexander condemned the possible sale by calling it “one more bad idea in a budget full of bad ideas,” and by countering that there was “no federal taxpayer subsidy for TVA,” “no federal taxpayer liability for TVA debt.” He further argued that “selling TVA would probably cost taxpayers money” and “could lead to higher electricity rates.” And so, we see, the battles between public and private power, and Democrats and Republicans endure.

For anyone interested in seeing an amazing film about the TVA, I would recommend Elia Kazan’s Wild River, released in 1960. Here is a clip from Youtube about the making of a documentary about that ground-breaking film.

~ by "The Chief" on May 22, 2013.

One Response to “A WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY HAPPY ANNIVERSARY SHOUT OUT TO THE TVA! To Vend at Auction?”

  1. WOW! Most impressive- especially your & your wife’s participation!! Micky

    Sent from my iPhone

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