Many of Texas’ depression-era politicians were leery of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal paternalism, but the statewide need was too great not to accept federal funds.
The introduction of the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had an immediate impact on the fight against the ravages of the Great Depression nationwide and particularly in Texas. The influence of Texas politicians John Nance Garner, Sam Rayburn and Jesse Jones, insured that New Deal funds were readily available in Texas through state grants and federal work relief projects. Unfortunately, many Texans, especially minorities, remained unemployed, homeless, and hungry. Even though some Texas politicians had their reservations about Roosevelt’s paternalistic expansion of the government, they eventually embraced New Deal programs to relieve the immense hardships of the 1930s.
Texas’ 1930s Economy
In Texas, many believed that government assistance undermined the principle of hard work, or what historians termed, “rugged individualism.” Still, those most affected by the depression (i.e. the unskilled, the inexperienced, and minorities) welcomed the New Deal paternalism. Even so, the Great Depression was particularly devastating in Texas’ minority communities as they were often the “last ones hired, but first fired.”
Additionally, black unemployment was double that of whites while the percentages of unemployed Mexican Americans outnumbered that of all other groups. Because of the declining economy, many construction projects were shelved before they even began while others were left uncompleted. The prices of oil and cotton, two of the state’s important staples, also plummeted.
Depression-Era Politics in Texas
Texas governors Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, James Allred, and W. Lee O’Daniel controlled depression-era politics. Interestingly, their reaction to the depression and Roosevelt’s national policies defined how Texans would confront their own hardships.
Ma Ferguson used federal funds to create the Texas Relief Commission with authority to distribute relief money throughout the state. The Relief Commission also provided coordination between the activities of private and public relief agencies. However, Ma Ferguson and her husband Jim, a former governor of Texas, were accused of using relief funds to create a patronage machine to reward supporters and punish opponents.
Eventually, the Texas Relief Commission and the Ferguson administration came under scrutiny when allegations of fiscal mismanagement of federal funds were made. Regardless of fiscal irregularities, the first Federal grant of $808,429 arrived on June 27, 1933, and by the end of Roosevelt’s first term approximately $1.5 billion were “pumped into the state’s economy.”
James Allred, former state attorney general and professed New Dealer was elected governor in 1935. Allred spent his first term “tidying up after the Fergusons – revamping the Texas Rangers from hundreds of Ma’s ‘special’ commissions, and creating an independent board to govern pardons and paroles from the prison system.” Allred also introduced Lyndon B. Johnson to Franklin Roosevelt when the President was on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. Johnson eventually became the state director of the WPA’s National Youth Administration and remained a New Dealer for the remainder of his political career, modeling the future Great Society on the principles of the New Deal.
Three years later, W. Lee O’Daniel replaced Allred as governor and continued his predecessor’s policy of seeking increased federal funding for work relief, even if he too had reservations about Roosevelt’s policies and federal funding schemes. Still, even with those reservations O’Daniel remarked, “I’m gonna grab all I can for the State of Texas.”
The 1930s depression certainly redefined the powers of the presidency through the paternalism of the New Deal. In Texas, federal paternalism was not readily accepted, but the needs of most Texans were too great not to accept federal monetary support.
- Rupert Richardson, et al, Texas: The Lone Star State, (8th edition, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001).
- Lionel Patenaude, Texans, Politics, and the New Deal, (New York: Garland, 1983).
- Mike Kingston, A Concise of History of Texas, (Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, 1991).
- James Haley, From Spindletop Through World War II, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).