- Historic Sites
The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be
What has befallen “the greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America”s since the New Deal
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
For a government agency the act allowed a very flexible program. Other than the general development mandate, the act’s most explicit requirements were that the new authority—in fact, a government corporation—would be ruled by three presidentially appointed directors, one to be designated chairman, who would serve for nine-year terms with the consent of the Senate. The act dictated that the agency locate its headquarters in the region, excluded it from Civil Service laws, and required the three directors to believe in the “feasibility and wisdom of the Act.” The directors would report to the President, consult Congress on appropriations not covered by power revenues, and otherwise be free to develop the “model” that Norris and Roosevelt wanted to spill across the American landscape. Depending on the point of view of the observer, the power of the board of directors of TVA was either the most ideal arrangement ever devised by government for grassroots input, allowing three men to bend to the demands of their constituencies and the wiles of a river; or it was the first Washington-imposed dictatorship that blanketed an entire region. No one at the time of TVA’s creation or since has doubted that the validity of either of these views depends on the caliber and character of the three directors.
For chairman of TVA, Roosevelt chose Arthur E. Morgan, the president of Antioch College in Ohio, who had a national reputation as the hydraulic engineer who had tamed the Miami River after it had visited a disastrous flood on the city of Dayton. From his experience in resisting political appointees to the board of the Miami Conservancy District, Morgan had learned to be suspicious of politicians. Though Roosevelt promised him “there is to be no politics in this,” Morgan came to have doubts, believing that Roosevelt “worked out a philosophy that made ethical considerations secondary to the possession of power.” That statement hinted at the righteousness with which Morgan regarded public service, how he believed human frailties could profit from the discipline of engineering, and how his moralism would eventually conflict with TVA’s directors and Roosevelt in a way that almost wrecked the agency.
The President told Morgan to choose his two colleagues on the board, taking care that one be familiar with power development and the other with Southern agriculture. The chairman first chose Dr. Harcourt A. Morgan (no relation), the president of the University of Tennessee, a Canadianborn entomologist who had advanced rapidly in the hierarchy of the Southern land-grant college system because of his research on the boll weevil. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a friend of Chairman Morgan’s, then suggested a young Wisconsin attorney named David Lilienthal for the third directorship. Brandeis had heard good reports of Lilienthal’s performance on the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
From their first meeting, the three directors were considerably at odds. On that occasion Chairman Morgan presented a letter from Wendell L. Willkie, president of Commonwealth and Southern Corporation, who wanted to know just how TVA would function as a “yardstick.” Morgan was willing to exchange ideas with Willkie in a spirit of honest competition, an attitude that alarmed Lilienthal. Time thereafter quickly proved that personalities and personal philosophies could become—however petty they were—major obstacles in even the most revolutionary of agencies. H. A. Morgan, it turned out, was far more interested in fertilizer programs than in social revolution. Lilienthal, while a reformer at heart, was a practical politician who believed the power program was the major ingredient that would revolutionize the valley. The chairman thought a cautious approach to the power program would allow concentration on uplifting the human resources of the region.
Given this background of discord, which lasted until the chairman was removed by Roosevelt in 1938, the achievements of the first board of directors were remarkable. To build Norris Dam—its first—the board dispensed with private contractors and hired its own construction forces, a policy that still continues. The workers were recruited without the patronage that dominated other New Deal programs, were trained for their jobs, allowed to bargain collectively with the agency, and provided with housing, libraries, and cultural activities. Rates charged by TVA-organized cooperative distributors allowed regional use to attain that of double the national average and forced the competing private companies in the South to lower their rates by nearly one half. Through the extension services of the Agriculture Department the agency enlisted, in five years, more than twenty-three thousand farmers in its demonstration fertilizer programs. Its nurseries turned out sixty-one million seedlings for forestry development. It completed three dams and was working on four more in 1938. Agency efforts all but eliminated malaria, an affliction that had affected up to one third of the population in some areas. But, most importantly, it captured the imagination of the people of the Tennessee Valley, won over many of the doubters in the region’s conservative establishment, and kept its profile high enough to merit regular attention from Roosevelt and such influential newspapers as the New York Times .