By Thomas F. Schwartz
Much of the negativity connecting Herbert Hoover to the Great Depression was a relentless effort on the part of Charles Michelson a publicist hired by the Democratic National Committee in 1930 to attack Hoover’s policies and person. It was Michelson who created a series of disparaging phrases that associate the worst aspects of the depression to Hoover: shanty towns were Hoovervilles; empty pocket turned inside out was a Hoover flag; newspapers used to keep homeless individuals warm were Hoover blankets. Because these phrases are catchy and creative they successfully created an indelible image in the public’s mind that the worst effects of the depression were Hoover’s fault. Scholarship over the past several decades has modified Michelson’s harsh inventive spin on history. Raymond Moley, one of President Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” claimed: “The rescue was done not by Roosevelt—he signed the papers—but by Hoover leftovers in the Administration. They knew what to do.” Several historians have agreed that there was more continuity from Hoover to Roosevelt in the early months. Unemployment figures were at record levels in 1931 and remained high in 1939. Most photographic images from the Great Depression era showing dire poverty were from the mid 1930s with the documentary work of Dorothea Lange Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and others. The “Roosevelt recession,” the period from May 1937 to June 1938, created its own set of hardships. There is a reason we call it the “Great Depression” because it begins in the 1920s and continues until the end of World War II.
Given the long duration of hardship, a less studied aspect are the parodies of the New Deal that surfaced. Most are the work of anonymous writers rather than the pen of a particular individual such as a conservative version of Charles Michelson. Too often the critics of the New Deal are represented by the most visceral and hateful opponents rather than individuals expressing a sense of being hurt by government policy and question a philosophy of government as the ultimate solution. The following two examples, the first dating from 1934 and the second undated, use the 23 Psalm as their format:
Mr. Roosevelt is my shepherd
I am in want
He maketh me to lie down on park benches
He leadeth me beside still factories
He disturbeth my soul
He leadeth me in paths of destruction
For the party’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Depression
I anticipate no recovery for he is with me.
His policies, his diplomacies, they frighten me.
He prepareth a reduction in my salary
And in the presence of mine enemies
He annoyeth my small income with taxes
My expenses runneth over.
Surely unemployment and poverty shall follow me all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in a mortgaged house forever.”
This parody views the New Deal policies from the perspective of an individual. The following is a much larger commentary of a variety of policies affecting different sectors of the economy.
“Owed to Uncle Sam
Uncle Sam is my succor, I shall not want:
He leadeth me into foreign pastures
Beside the still conferences.
He hoardeth my gold;
He controlleth my wage and reduceth my acreage,
And raiseth the cost of my daily bread.
He annointeth my purse with dole,
He restoreth my soil with trees
And the bones of infant swine.
My stein runneth over.
He buildeth roads, ploweth under crops,
Createth codes, banks, bonuses, funds and allotments;
Pryeth into my business from morn till night,
Flirteth with inflation from week to week,
And daily offereth spurious cures for national ills.
Though my taxes forever mount,
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of debt,
I will fear no evil, for he is with me;
His boards and his bureaus they comfort me.
Blessed by the name of Uncle Sam!
But may his Constitution stand the strain,
And his repayment day be postponed forever and ever.”