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

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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.”