|This Week in History
May 16 - 22, 1933
TVA Created by Congress
Congress Passes Legislation Creating the Tennessee Valley Authority
On May 18, 1933, during the famous "Hundred Days" of New Deal legislation to restart the American economy, Congress responded to President Franklin Roosevelt's proposal to create the Tennessee Valley Authority. This was a massive regional infrastructure project dealing with the watershed of the Tennessee River in seven states. At that time, most of the Tennessee Valley was like a third-world country, where a million families lived on cornmeal and salt pork.
The hillsides had been stripped of their timber after the Civil War, creating serious depletion of the soil and a runoff problem that regularly led to disastrous flooding. In some areas, 30% of the population suffered from malaria, and there were also large pockets of tuberculosis, pellagra, and trachoma. Half of the population lived on farms, but 97% of those farms had no electricity. Yet the Tennessee River, which roared past farms lit by kerosene lamps, offered a virtually untapped source of potential power.
During the 1920s, Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, a Republican progressive, had fought for government operation of a large hydroelectric plant which the Federal government had built at Muscle Shoals, Ala., during World War I. His efforts were frustrated by the lobbying of private utility holding companies and by the Coolidge and Hoover Administrations. Concurrently, while Gov. Franklin Roosevelt was attempting to set up public power utilities in New York State, a professor at Antioch College, Arthur E. Morgan, wrote an article on managing unified river systems. Roosevelt determined that it could and should be done.
Writing in 1937, Roosevelt looked back at the beginning of the TVA: "As Governor of New York I had sponsored and brought about a statewide planning movement to be based on a study of the proper use of the 30,000,000 acres of land in the State, in which each ten-acre square would be separately studied and classified. Up to that time although many cities, weary of 'growing up like Topsy,' had begun to plan their future growth and development, little on a very large scale had been done for country areas.
"Before coming to Washington, I had determined to initiate a land-use experiment embracing many States in the watershed of the Tennessee River. It was regional planning on a scale never before attempted in history. In January 1933, I visited Muscle Shoals with a group of officials and experts; and thereafter planned for the development of the entire Tennessee Valley by means of a public authority similar to public authorities created in New York while I was Governor, e.g., the Power Authority.
"This plan, for using the land and waters of these forty-one thousand square miles, fitted in well with the project which had been urged for many years by Senator George W. Norris, for developing power and manufacturing fertilizer at the Wilson Dam properties which the United States had erected during the World War. We proposed to enlarge the project from the Muscle Shoals development which was but a small part of the potential development, to include a multitude of activities and physical developments."
When President Roosevelt travelled to Muscle Shoals in January of 1933, he brought along not only Senator Norris, but also Senators and Representatives from the four corners of the country, and a team of engineers. In his informal remarks, he stated that, "We are here because the Muscle Shoals Development and the Tennessee River Development as a whole are national in their aspect and are going to be treated from a national point of view."
That evening, the President made a speech from the portico of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, the same spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederacy. Although Abraham Lincoln's assassination had prevented the implementation of his development program for the defeated South, Roosevelt was now poised to carry it out. The President said that he was determined to put Muscle Shoals to work, and to make it "a part of an even greater development that will take in all of that magnificent Tennessee River from the mountains of Virginia down to the Ohio and the Gulf."
Roosevelt continued by stating that, "Muscle Shoals is more today than a mere opportunity for the Federal Government to do a kind turn for the people in one small section of a couple of States. Muscle Shoals gives us the opportunity to accomplish a great purpose for the people of many States and, indeed, for the whole Union. Because there, we have an opportunity to set an example of planning, not just for ourselves but for the generations to come, tying in industry and agriculture and forestry and flood prevention, tying them all into a unified whole over a distance of a thousand miles so that we can afford better opportunities and better places for living for millions of yet unborn in the days to come."
On April 10, Roosevelt submitted a request to Congress for legislation, saying that, "I, therefore, suggest to the Congress legislation to create a Tennessee Valley Authority, a corporation clothed with the power of Government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise." When the three board members he appointed to head the enterprise asked him what the TVA was, the President replied that it was a regional agency that didn't merely provide better navigation, flood control and electric powerit reclaimed land and human beings.
The TVA completely transformed the area which it served, bringing to its population the benefits of technology and a sense of hope and self-worth. But such an American System program was vehemently opposed by what Roosevelt dubbed the "Economic Royalists," or Tory faction. The TVA's program of inexpensive electric power, fertilizer, flood control, tree replanting, and mobile libraries was attacked as "socialism."
The Commonwealth & Southern Utility Company, owned by J.P. Morgan, and the American Liberty League brought 57 different legal actions against the TVA to stop its program. But in 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the TVA was constitutional. The young president of Commonwealth and Southern was Wendell Willkie, who would lose to Roosevelt in the 1936 Presidential election, but would later play an unexpectedly positive role.
The most revealing attacks on the TVA were those which admitted that electricity might indeed help the farmers, but since they could not afford it, electric power was just a "luxury." The TVA replied that electricity was a necessity on the farm, and set out to show how it could be provided and used.
The agency's power plants provided electricity at a low rate, and that rate became the yardstick for the private power companies. The power was provided to towns and cities and rural cooperatives, and the farmers used the power to pump, grind, refrigerate, saw, milk, heat, and dozens of other functions which brought their farms up to the standards, and profitability, of modern agriculture. The first town to take electricity from the TVA over its own lines was Tupelo, Miss., and in the first year of service, the domestic consumption in homes and on surrounding farms jumped 126%.
President Roosevelt's long-range purpose of reclaiming not only land, but the lives of America's citizens and their posterity, was echoed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. He stated that, "We are getting ready for the day when a larger and more urgent population will require new acres for food supply and more power for industry. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be to confess that we have lost heart and hope in the future of America.
"To sit back and wait until immediate need forces upon us an ill-advised and hastily contrived scheme, would be a national disgrace. We have seen all too many examples of such criminal folly in dealing with other national assets. It would be trifling with human needs. For in deepening rivers, in erecting power dams, in constructing vast storage pools, in nailing down the land so that it will not blow away with every breeze, in arranging for new acreage as human requirements warrant, we are reclaiming not land alone, but a people"
With the spectacular success of the TVA, Roosevelt hoped to set up similar regional watershed projects across the nation. But there was Congressional opposition from the Economic Royalists, and then World War II intervened to halt any immediate action. By 1944, however, with an approaching Allied victory, Roosevelt began to plan for post-war economic development. In a Presidential campaign speech at Chicago's Soldier Field, Roosevelt called for regional development plans for the Missouri, Arkansas, and Columbia River Basins.
During the New Deal and the war years, both the Republican and Democratic Parties had divided into those who supported development policies and those who did not. Roosevelt planned, after the 1944 election was over, to work with Wendell Willkie, now convinced that large-scale infrastructure planning was a good thing, to bring together the Democratic and Republican pro-development factions, maybe even to realign the membership of the two parties, to implement his post-war plans.
Unfortunately, Willkie died in October of 1944, and Roosevelt himself had only six months more to live. The application of the TVA's proven methods to other large watersheds is still waiting for a generation which will recognize their effectiveness and fight the necessary political battles to use them.