He asked whether he could live, whether he could face life's misery. Finally he decided that he must. Speed recorded the dramatic exchange that began when he came to Lincoln and told him he would die unless he rallied. Lincoln replied that he could kill himself, that he was not afraid to die. Yet, he said, he had an "irrepressible desire" to accomplish something while he lived. He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and "so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.
In his middle years Lincoln turned from the question of whether he could live to how he would live. Building bridges out from his tortured self, he engaged with the psychological culture of his time, investigating who he was, how he might change, and what he must endure. Having seen what he wished to live for, Lincoln suffered at the prospect that he might never achieve it. Even so, he worked diligently to improve himself, developing self-understanding, discipline, and strategies for succor that would become the foundation of his character. The melancholy did not go away during this period but, rather, took a new form.
Beginning in his mid-thirties Lincoln began to fall into what a law clerk called his "blue spells. In his memoirs the Illinois lawyer Henry C. Stuart"—Lincoln's first law partner—"while a case was being tried, and our conversation was, at the moment, about Lincoln, when Stuart remarked that he was a hopeless victim of melancholy. I expressed surprise, to which Stuart replied; 'Look at him, now. In one sense these spells indicate Lincoln's melancholy. But they may also represent a response to it—the visible end of Lincoln's effort to contain his dark feelings and thoughts, to wrestle privately with his moods until they passed or lightened.
Cohen, "recovery may be a matter of shifting from protest to more effective ways of mastering helplessness. He worked well and consistently at his law practice, always rousing himself from gloom for work. He and Mary Lincoln whom he had wed in had four boys. He was elected to a term in the United States Congress. Yet his reaction to this honor—he wrote, "Though I am very grateful to our friends, for having done it, [it] has not pleased me as much as I expected"—suggested that through booms and busts, Lincoln continued to see life as hard.
Indeed, he developed a philosophical melancholy. Lincoln took the book and wrote,. At a time when newspapers were stuffed with ads for substances to cure all manner of ailments, it wouldn't have been unusual for Lincoln to seek help at a pharmacy. He had a charge account at the Corneau and Diller drugstore, at South Sixth Street in Springfield, where he bought a number of medications, including opiates, camphor, and sarsaparilla. On one occasion he bought fifty cents' worth of cocaine, and he sometimes took the "blue mass"—a mercury pill that was believed to clear the body of black bile.
To whatever extent Lincoln used medicines, his essential view of melancholy discounted the possibility of transformation by an external agent. He believed that his suffering proceeded inexorably from his constitution—that, in a phrase he used in connection with a friend, he was "naturally of a nervous temperament. Some strategies in response were apparent. As noted, work was a first refuge; he advised a friend, "I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle. He told stories and jokes, studiously gathering new material from talented peers and printed sources.
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And he gave vent to his melancholy by reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. Yet, somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to function without eliminating the root problem, this strategy gave Lincoln relief without taking away his need for it. Consider his favorite poem, which he began to recite often in his mid-thirties.
It was in one sense, as a colleague observed, "a reflex in poetic form of the deep melancholy of his soul," and in another a way to manage that melancholy. One story of his recitations comes from Lois Newhall, a member of the Newhall Family troupe of singers. During an Illinois tour in the late s the troupe encountered Lincoln and two colleagues, who were traveling the same circuit giving political speeches. They ended up spending eight days together, and on their last they sat up late singing songs.
As the night wore down, Lincoln's colleagues started pressing him to sing. Lincoln was embarrassed and demurred, but he finally said, "I'll tell you what I'll do for you. You girls have been so kind singing for us. I'll repeat to you my favorite poem. Lincoln first came across the poem in the early s. Then, in , he saw it in a newspaper, cut it out, and committed it to memory.
He didn't know who wrote it, because it had been published without attribution. He repeated the lines so often that people suspected they were his own. When Lincoln finished, the room was still. Lincoln, who wrote that? She was eating pancakes the next morning when she felt something behind her.
A great big hand came around her left side and covered hers. Then, with his other hand, Lincoln laid a long piece of blue paper beside her. In his mid-forties the dark soil of Lincoln's melancholy began to yield fruit. When he threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a defining role. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity and conviction, creative skills in the face of adversity, and a faithful humility that helped him guide the nation through its greatest peril.
Some people, William Herndon observed, see the world "ornamented with beauty, life, and action; and hence more or less false and inexact. The hunch of old Romantic poets—that gloom coexists with potential for insight—has been bolstered by modern research. In an influential experiment two psychologists, Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, set up a game in their lab, putting subjects in front of a console with lights and a button, with instructions to make a particular light flash as often as possible.
Afterward, asked how much control they had had, "normal," or nondepressed, subjects gave answers that hinged on their success in the game. If they did well, they tended to say they'd had plenty of control; if they did poorly, very little. In other words, these subjects took credit for good scores and deflected the blame for poor scores. But the depressed subjects saw things differently. Whether or not they had done well, they tended to believe that they'd had no control. And they were correct: the "game" was a fiction, the lights largely unaffected by the participants' efforts.
According to the dominant model of depression, these findings made no sense. How could a mental disease characterized by errors in thinking confer advantages in perception? Abramson and Alloy pointed to a phenomenon called "depressive realism," or the "sadder but wiser" effect.
Though psychiatry had long equated mental health with clear thinking, it turns out that happiness is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies. The same research indicates that depressed people's perceptions and judgments are often less biased. Of course, whether such "less biased" judgments are appreciated depends on the circumstances.
Take a man who goes to a picnic, notices only ants and grass stains, and ignores the baskets full of bread and wine. We would call him a pessimist—usually pejoratively. But suppose a danger arises, and the same man proclaims it. In this instance he is surely more valuable than the optimist who sits dreamily admiring the daisies.
In s America an old conflict over slavery began to take on a new intensity, and in Lincoln joined the fight. That year Senator Stephen A. Douglas engineered the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in a large swath of the Northwest, and laid down a policy of "popular sovereignty," which delegated slavery policy to local voters. To Lincoln the new policy was a Trojan horse, an ostensibly benign measure that in fact would stealthily spread slavery through the nation.
He thought the conflict must be engaged. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. In Douglas, whom he battled repeatedly through the s, Lincoln faced a preternatural optimist, who really thought that moral and practical choices about slavery could be put off forever.
In October of , in a preview of their epic debates four summers later, Lincoln squared off against him in Springfield, Illinois. The physical contrast between the two men underlined their temperamental differences. Douglas stood five feet four inches, a foot shorter than Lincoln, and seemed packed with charisma.
He had penetrating eyes and dark hair that he styled in a pompadour. Lincoln was not just tall and gaunt but a truly odd physical specimen, with cartoonishly long arms and legs; he looked as if he wore stilts under his trousers. He spoke with a kind of high-piping voice, but at the pace of a Kentucky drawl. Before he rose to speak, he looked, wrote a reporter named Horace White, "so overspread with sadness that I thought that Shakespeare's melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois.
The melancholy mattered because his observers could sense the depth of feeling that infused Lincoln's oratory. Others could hit all the right notes and spark thunderous applause, but Lincoln's eloquence "produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself," White explained. Opposing the extension of slavery on moral grounds but conceding its existence as a practical necessity, Lincoln found himself in an unenviable spot. To supporters of slavery he was a dangerous radical, to abolitionists an equivocating hack.
His political party, the Whigs, was dying off, and a new organization—which eventually took shape as the Republicans—had to be built from scratch out of divergent groups. But Lincoln stayed his course with an argument that reached the primary force of narrative. The United States, he said, had been founded with a great idea and a grave imperfection. The idea was liberty as the natural right of all people.
The flaw—the "cancer" in the nation's body—was the gross violation of liberty by human slavery. The Founders had recognized the evil, Lincoln said, and sought to restrict it, with the aim of its gradual abolition. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence, with its linchpin statement that "all men are created equal," was meant to be realized, to the greatest extent possible, by each succeeding generation.
This political vision drew power from personal experience. For Lincoln had long applied the same principle to his own life: that is, continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing that it could never be perfectly attained. Individuals, he had learned from his own "severe experience," could succeed in "the great struggle of life" only by enduring failures and plodding on with a vision of improvement. This attitude sustained Lincoln through his ignominious defeats in the s he twice lost bids for the U. Senate , and it braced him for the trials that lay ahead. Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition.
And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society. He claimed his trunk, made his way to a crowded pier, and caught a ferry to Manhattan Island, where in two days he would deliver a speech in the Cooper Union's Great Hall. It was the chance of his career—an audience before the lords of finance and culture in the nation's media capital. But when Lincoln arrived on the island and called on a Republican colleague, he wore a "woe-begone look" on his face and carried a dour message: he said he feared he'd made a mistake in coming to New York and that he had to hole up and work on his speech.
Lincoln's literary prowess is as well appreciated as any aspect of his life; like so many of his rhetorical efforts, his stand at Cooper Union would be a triumph. On February 27 more than 1, people filed into the Great Hall. As soon as Lincoln began to speak they were engrossed, and by his closing line—"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it"—they were spellbound.
Yet Lincoln afterward seemed impervious to the praise. The link between mental illness and creativity is supported by a bevy of historical examples—Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Disraeli, and William T. Sherman, among many others from Lincoln's time alone, suffered from mood disorders—and a wealth of modern research.
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Many studies have found higher rates of mood disorders among artists, and the qualities associated with art among the tendencies of mentally disordered minds. But the dynamic is a curious one. As the psychologist and scholar Kay Redfield Jamison has written, "There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that, compared to 'normal' individuals, artists, writers, and creative people in general, are both psychologically 'sicker'—that is, they score higher on a wide variety of measures of psychopathology—and psychologically healthier for example, they show quite elevated scores on measures of self-confidence and ego strength.
With Lincoln sadness did not just coexist with strength—these qualities ran together. Just as death supports new life in a healthy ecosystem, Lincoln's self-negation fueled his peculiar confidence. His despair lay under a distinct hope; his overwhelming melancholy fed into a supple creative power, which allowed him not merely to see the truth of his circumstances but to express it in a stirring, meaningful way. The events in New York help illustrate the basic progression: Wariness and doubt led Lincoln into a kind of personal crisis, from which he turned to work.
Afterward he largely turned aside acclaim to return to wariness and doubt, and the cycle began again. After Lincoln's election as president in November of , the troughs of despair became deeper, and the need for creative response became all the more intense. Now his internal questions of self-worth and his abstract feelings of obligation were leavened by direct responsibility for the nation in a crisis of secession, which led soon after his inauguration to war.
The trouble fell hard on him. The burdens of his office were so great, he said, "that, could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive. Observing Lincoln in an hour of trial, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that he was unsteady but strong, like a wire cable that sways in storms but holds fast. In this metaphor we can see how Lincoln's weakness connected to a special kind of strength. In , amid one of many military calamities, Senator O.
Browning came to the White House. The president was in his library, writing, and had left instructions that he was not to be disturbed. Browning went in anyway and found the president looking terrible—"weary, care-worn, and troubled. However, one crucial detail upsets such a simple picture: Browning found Lincoln writing —doing the work that not only helped steer his nation through its immediate struggle but also became a compass for future generations.
Throughout his life Lincoln's response to suffering—for all the success it brought him—led to greater suffering still. When as a young man he stepped back from the brink of suicide, deciding that he must live to do some meaningful work, this sense of purpose sustained him; but it also led him into a wilderness of doubt and dismay, as he asked, with vexation, what work he would do and how he would do it. This pattern was repeated in the s, when his work against the extension of slavery gave him a sense of purpose but also fueled a nagging sense of failure.
Then, finally, political success led him to the White House, where he was tested as few had been before. Lincoln responded with both humility and determination. The humility came from a sense that whatever ship carried him on life's rough waters, he was not the captain but merely a subject of the divine force—call it fate or God or the "Almighty Architect" of existence. The determination came from a sense that however humble his station, Lincoln was no idle passenger but a sailor on deck with a job to do.
In his strange combination of profound deference to divine authority and a willful exercise of his own meager power, Lincoln achieved transcendent wisdom. Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, once told of watching the president drag himself into the room where she was fitting the First Lady. He was a complete picture of dejection. The dejected look was gone; in fact, the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope. It was the Book of Job. Throughout history a glance to the divine has often been the first and last impulse of suffering people.
The grace of God is glue! But for most of Lincoln's lifetime scientists assumed there was some relationship between mental and spiritual life. Lincoln, too, connected his mental well-being to divine forces. As a young man he saw how religion could ameliorate life's blows, even as he found the consolation of faith elusive. An infidel—a dissenter from orthodox Christianity—he resisted popular dogma. But many of history's greatest believers have also been its fiercest doubters. Lincoln charted his own theological course to a living vision of how frail, imperfect mortals could turn their suffering selves to the service of something greater and find solace—not in any personal satisfaction or glory but in dutiful mission.
An original theological thinker, Lincoln discounted the idea, common among evangelicals, that sin could be wiped out through confession or repentance. Rather, he believed, as William Herndon explained, "that God could not forgive; that punishment has to follow the sin. But unlike the Calvinists, who disclaimed any possibility of grace for human beings not chosen for that fate, Lincoln did see a chance of improvement. And unlike some fatalists, who renounced any claim to a moral order, Lincoln saw how man's reason could discern purpose even in the movement of a vast machine that grinds and cuts and mashes all who interfere with it.
Just as a child learns to pull his hand from a fire, people can learn when they are doing something that is not in accord with the wider, unseen order. In The Varieties of Religious Experience , William James writes of "sick souls" who turn from a sense of wrongness to a power greater than they. Lincoln showed the simple wisdom of this, as the burden of his work as president brought home a visceral and fundamental connection with something greater than he.
Their anger stemmed instead from what appeared to be a willful refusal to help regular citizens with direct aid that might allow them to recover from the crisis. Desperation and frustration often create emotional responses, and the Great Depression was no exception. Throughout —, companies trying to stay afloat sharply cut worker wages, and, in response, workers protested in increasingly bitter strikes. As the Depression unfolded, over 80 percent of automotive workers lost their jobs.
Even the typically prosperous Ford Motor Company laid off two-thirds of its workforce. In , a major strike at the Ford Motor Company factory near Detroit resulted in over sixty injuries and four deaths. At the Dearborn city limits, local police launched tear gas at the roughly three thousand protestors, who responded by throwing stones and clods of dirt. When they finally reached the gates of the plant, protestors faced more police and firemen, as well as private security guards.
As the firemen turned hoses onto the protestors, the police and security guards opened fire. In addition to those killed and injured, police arrested fifty protestors. One week later, sixty thousand mourners attended the public funerals of the four victims of what many protesters labeled police brutality. The event set the tone for worsening labor relations in the U. Farmers also organized and protested, often violently. The most notable example was the Farm Holiday Association. Although they never comprised a majority of farmers in any of these states, their public actions drew press attention nationwide.
To achieve their goals, the group called for farm holidays, during which farmers would neither sell their produce nor purchase any other goods until the government met their demands. However, the greatest strength of the association came from the unexpected and seldom-planned actions of its members, which included barricading roads into markets, attacking nonmember farmers, and destroying their produce.
Some members even raided small town stores, destroying produce on the shelves. Once they won the auction, the association returned the land to the original owner. In Iowa, farmers threatened to hang a local judge if he signed any more farm foreclosures. At least one death occurred as a direct result of these protests before they waned following the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
In this protest, approximately fifteen thousand World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand early payment of their veteran bonuses, which were not due to be paid until The group camped out in vacant federal buildings and set up camps in Anacostia Flats near the Capitol building Figure Many veterans remained in the city in protest for nearly two months, although the U. Senate officially rejected their request in July. By the middle of that month, Hoover wanted them gone. He ordered the police to empty the buildings and clear out the camps, and in the exchange that followed, police fired into the crowd, killing two veterans.
The ensuing raid proved catastrophic, as the military burned down the shantytown and injured dozens of people, including a twelve-week-old infant who was killed when accidentally struck by a tear gas canister Figure Department of Defense. As Americans bore witness to photographs and newsreels of the U. By the summer of , he was largely a defeated man. America was a country in desperate need: in need of a charismatic leader to restore public confidence as well as provide concrete solutions to pull the economy out of the Great Depression.
From industrial strongholds to the rural Great Plains, from factory workers to farmers, the Great Depression affected millions. In cities, as industry slowed, then sometimes stopped altogether, workers lost jobs and joined breadlines, or sought out other charitable efforts. With limited government relief efforts, private charities tried to help, but they were unable to match the pace of demand.
In rural areas, farmers suffered still more. In some parts of the country, prices for crops dropped so precipitously that farmers could not earn enough to pay their mortgages, losing their farms to foreclosure. In the Great Plains, one of the worst droughts in history left the land barren and unfit for growing even minimal food to live on.
Most white Americans felt entitled to what few jobs were available, leaving African Americans unable to find work, even in the jobs once considered their domain. Clubs like the Elks tried to provide food, as did small groups of individually organized college students. Religious organizations remained on the front lines, offering food and shelter. In larger cities, breadlines and soup lines became a common sight. At one count in , there were as many as eighty-two breadlines in New York City.
Despite these efforts, however, people were destitute and ultimately starving. Families would first run through any savings, if they were lucky enough to have any. Then, the few who had insurance would cash out their policies. When those funds were depleted, people would borrow from family and friends, and when they could get no more, they would simply stop paying rent or mortgage payments. When evicted, they would move in with relatives, whose own situation was likely only a step or two behind. This situation spiraled downward, and did so quickly. Breadlines and soup kitchens were packed, serving as many as eighty-five thousand meals daily in New York City alone.
Over fifty thousand New York citizens were homeless by the end of Children, in particular, felt the brunt of poverty. Many in coastal cities would roam the docks in search of spoiled vegetables to bring home. Elsewhere, children begged at the doors of more well-off neighbors, hoping for stale bread, table scraps, or raw potato peelings. In rural areas where such documentation was lacking, the number was likely far higher. And while the middle class did not suffer from starvation, they experienced hunger as well.
By the time Hoover left office in , the poor survived not on relief efforts, but because they had learned to be poor. A family with little food would stay in bed to save fuel and avoid burning calories. People began eating parts of animals that had normally been considered waste. Family members swapped clothes; sisters might take turns going to church in the one dress they owned. He subsequently selected over seventy interviews to air on a radio show that was based in Chicago.
Most African Americans did not participate in the land boom and stock market speculation that preceded the crash, but that did not stop the effects of the Great Depression from hitting them particularly hard. Subject to continuing racial discrimination, blacks nationwide fared even worse than their hard-hit white counterparts. As the prices for cotton and other agricultural products plummeted, farm owners paid workers less or simply laid them off.
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Landlords evicted sharecroppers, and even those who owned their land outright had to abandon it when there was no way to earn any income. In cities, African Americans fared no better. Unemployment was rampant, and many whites felt that any available jobs belonged to whites first. In some Northern cities, whites would conspire to have African American workers fired to allow white workers access to their jobs.
Even jobs traditionally held by black workers, such as household servants or janitors, were now going to whites. By , approximately one-half of all black Americans were unemployed. Racial violence also began to rise. In the South, lynching became more common again, with twenty-eight documented lynchings in , compared to eight in Since communities were preoccupied with their own hardships, and organizing civil rights efforts was a long, difficult process, many resigned themselves to, or even ignored, this culture of racism and violence. Occasionally, however, an incident was notorious enough to gain national attention.
One such incident was the case of the Scottsboro Boys Figure In , nine black boys, who had been riding the rails, were arrested for vagrancy and disorderly conduct after an altercation with some white travelers on the train. Two young white women, who had been dressed as boys and traveling with a group of white boys, came forward and said that the black boys had raped them. The case, which was tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, reignited decades of racial hatred and illustrated the injustice of the court system. Despite significant evidence that the women had not been raped at all, along with one of the women subsequently recanting her testimony, the all-white jury quickly convicted the boys and sentenced all but one of them to death.
The verdict broke through the veil of indifference toward the plight of African Americans, and protests erupted among newspaper editors, academics, and social reformers in the North. In all, the case was tried three separate times. The series of trials and retrials, appeals, and overturned convictions shone a spotlight on a system that provided poor legal counsel and relied on all-white juries.
In October , the U. Eventually, most of the accused received lengthy prison terms and subsequent parole, but avoided the death penalty. The Scottsboro case ultimately laid some of the early groundwork for the modern American civil rights movement. Alabama granted posthumous pardons to all defendants in Despite being falsely accused, the boys received lengthy prison terms and were not officially pardoned by the State of Alabama until Despite the widely held belief that rural Americans suffered less in the Great Depression due to their ability to at least grow their own food, this was not the case.
Farmers, ranchers, and their families suffered more than any group other than African Americans during the Depression. From the turn of the century through much of World War I, farmers in the Great Plains experienced prosperity due to unusually good growing conditions, high commodity prices, and generous government farming policies that led to a rush for land. As the federal government continued to purchase all excess produce for the war effort, farmers and ranchers fell into several bad practices, including mortgaging their farms and borrowing money against future production in order to expand.
However, after the war, prosperity rapidly dwindled, particularly during the recession of Seeking to recoup their losses through economies of scale in which they would expand their production even further to take full advantage of their available land and machinery, farmers plowed under native grasses to plant acre after acre of wheat, with little regard for the long-term repercussions to the soil.
Regardless of these misguided efforts, commodity prices continued to drop, finally plummeting in , when the price of wheat dropped from two dollars to forty cents per bushel. Exacerbating the problem was a massive drought that began in and lasted for eight terrible years. Dust storms roiled through the Great Plains, creating huge, choking clouds that piled up in doorways and filtered into homes through closed windows. Even more quickly than it had boomed, the land of agricultural opportunity went bust, due to widespread overproduction and overuse of the land, as well as to the harsh weather conditions that followed, resulting in the creation of the Dust Bowl Figure Drifts of dirt piled up against doors and windows.
People wore goggles and tied rags over their mouths to keep the dust out. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Livestock died, or had to be sold, as there was no money for feed. Crops intended to feed the family withered and died in the drought. To put this number in perspective, geologists estimate that it takes the earth five hundred years to naturally regenerate one inch of topsoil; yet, just one significant dust storm could destroy a similar amount. In their desperation to get more from the land, farmers had stripped it of the delicate balance that kept it healthy.
Unaware of the consequences, they had moved away from such traditional practices as crop rotation and allowing land to regain its strength by permitting it to lie fallow between plantings, working the land to death. For farmers, the results were catastrophic. Unlike most factory workers in the cities, in most cases, farmers lost their homes when they lost their livelihood.
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Most farms and ranches were originally mortgaged to small country banks that understood the dynamics of farming, but as these banks failed, they often sold rural mortgages to larger eastern banks that were less concerned with the specifics of farm life. With the effects of the drought and low commodity prices, farmers could not pay their local banks, which in turn lacked funds to pay the large urban banks. Ultimately, the large banks foreclosed on the farms, often swallowing up the small country banks in the process. It is worth noting that of the five thousand banks that closed between and , over 75 percent were country banks in locations with populations under 2, Given this dynamic, it is easy to see why farmers in the Great Plains remained wary of big city bankers.
For farmers who survived the initial crash, the situation worsened, particularly in the Great Plains where years of overproduction and rapidly declining commodity prices took their toll. Prices continued to decline, and as farmers tried to stay afloat, they produced still more crops, which drove prices even lower. Farms failed at an astounding rate, and farmers sold out at rock-bottom prices. One-fourth of the entire state of Mississippi was auctioned off in a single day at a foreclosure auction in April Not all farmers tried to keep their land.
Many, especially those who had arrived only recently, in an attempt to capitalize on the earlier prosperity, simply walked away Figure In hard-hit Oklahoma, thousands of farmers packed up what they could and walked or drove away from the land they thought would be their future.
Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression
They, along with other displaced farmers from throughout the Great Plains, became known as Okies. Click through to see what choices you would make and where that would take you. Now we are facing a fourth year of failure. There can be no wheat for us in in spite of all our careful and expensive work in preparing ground, sowing and re-sowing our allocated acreage.
Native grass pastures are permanently damaged, in many cases hopelessly ruined, smothered under by drifted sand. Fences are buried under banks of thistles and hard packed earth or undermined by the eroding action of the wind and lying flat on the ground. Less traveled roads are impassable, covered deep under by sand or the finer silt-like loam.
Orchards, groves and hedge-rows cultivated for many years with patient care are dead or dying. Impossible it seems not to grieve that the work of hands should prove so perishable. Much like other farm families whose livelihoods were destroyed by the Dust Bowl, Caroline Henderson describes a level of hardship that many Americans living in Depression-ravaged cities could never understand.
Despite their hard work, millions of Americans were losing both their produce and their homes, sometimes in as little as forty-eight hours, to environmental catastrophes. Many simply could not understand how such a catastrophe could have occurred. In the decades before the Great Depression, and particularly in the s, American culture largely reflected the values of individualism, self-reliance, and material success through competition.
Novels like F. With the shift in U. The arts revealed a new emphasis on the welfare of the whole and the importance of community in preserving family life. While box office sales briefly declined at the beginning of the Depression, they quickly rebounded. Movies offered a way for Americans to think of better times, and people were willing to pay twenty-five cents for a chance to escape, at least for a few hours.
Even more than escapism, other films at the close of the decade reflected on the sense of community and family values that Americans struggled to maintain throughout the entire Depression. Their journey leads them to realize that they need to join a larger social movement—communism—dedicated to bettering the lives of all people. Another trope was that of the hard-working everyman against greedy banks and corporations.
This was perhaps best portrayed in the movies of Frank Capra, whose Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was emblematic of his work. In this film, Jimmy Stewart plays a legislator sent to Washington to finish out the term of a deceased senator. In this film, Jimmy Stewart runs a family-owned savings and loan, which at one point faces a bank run similar to those seen in — In the end, community support helps Stewart retain his business and home against the unscrupulous actions of a wealthy banker who sought to bring ruin to his family.
The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob When there was earth to plow or guns to bear, I was always there, right on the job They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread? Finally, there was a great deal of pure escapism in the popular culture of the Depression. People wanted to forget their worries and enjoy the madcap antics of the Marx Brothers, the youthful charm of Shirley Temple, the dazzling dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Figure The Hardy series—nine films in all, produced by MGM from to —starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and all followed the adventures of a small-town judge and his son.
No matter what the challenge, it was never so big that it could not be solved with a musical production put on by the neighborhood kids, bringing together friends and family members in a warm display of community values. The pair would go on to star in nine more Hollywood musicals throughout the s and s. All of these movies reinforced traditional American values, which suffered during these hard times, in part due to declining marriage and birth rates, and increased domestic violence. At the same time, however, they reflected an increased interest in sex and sexuality.
While the birth rate was dropping, surveys in Fortune magazine in — found that two-thirds of college students favored birth control, and that 50 percent of men and 25 percent of women admitted to premarital sex, continuing a trend among younger Americans that had begun to emerge in the s. Contraceptive sales soared during the decade, and again, culture reflected this shift. Blonde bombshell Mae West was famous for her sexual innuendoes, and her flirtatious persona was hugely popular, although it got her banned on radio broadcasts throughout the Midwest.
Whether West or Garland, Chaplin or Stewart, American film continued to be a barometer of American values, and their challenges, through the decade. As so much of the Hoover presidency is circumscribed by the onset of the Great Depression, one must be careful in assessing his successes and failures, so as not to attribute all blame to Hoover. However, the extent to which Hoover was constrained by the economic circumstances unfolding well before he assumed office offers a few mitigating factors.
Put simply, Hoover did not cause the stock market crash. To assess the extent of his inability to provide meaningful national leadership through the darkest months of the Depression, his other policies require consideration. His unwillingness to face the harsh realities of widespread unemployment, farm foreclosures, business failures, and bank closings made him a deeply unpopular president, and he lost the election in a landslide to Franklin D.
Roosevelt right. Although it was a relatively quiet period for U. Following a goodwill tour of Central American countries immediately following his election in , Hoover shaped the subsequent Clark Memorandum—released in —which largely repudiated the previous Roosevelt Corollary, establishing a basis for unlimited American military intervention throughout Latin America. To the contrary, through the memorandum, Hoover asserted that greater emphasis should be placed upon the older Monroe Doctrine, in which the U.
Hoover further strengthened relations to the south by withdrawing American troops from Haiti and Nicaragua. Additionally, he outlined with Secretary of State Henry Stimson the Hoover- Stimson Doctrine, which announced that the United States would never recognize claims to territories seized by force a direct response to the recent Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Other diplomatic overtures met with less success for Hoover. Most notably, in an effort to support the American economy during the early stages of the Depression, the president signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in The law, which raised tariffs on thousands of imports, was intended to increase sales of American-made goods, but predictably angered foreign trade partners who in turn raised their tariffs on American imports, thus shrinking international trade and closing additional markets to desperate American manufacturers.
As a result, the global depression worsened further. A similar attempt to spur the world economy, known as the Hoover Moratorium, likewise met with great opposition and little economic benefit. Issued in , the moratorium called for a halt to World War I reparations to be paid by Germany to France, as well as forgiveness of Allied war debts to the U. Holding true to his belief in individualism, Hoover saw little need for significant civil rights legislation during his presidency, including any overtures from the NAACP to endorse federal anti-lynching legislation.
He felt African Americans would benefit more from education and assimilation than from federal legislation or programs; yet he failed to recognize that, at this time in history, federal legislation and programs were required to ensure equal opportunities. Hoover did give special attention to the improvement of Native American conditions, beginning with his selection of Charles Curtis as his vice-presidential running mate in the election.
Some Americans blamed him for all of the economic and social woes from which they suffered for the next decade; all blamed him for simply not responding to their needs. However, Hoover the president was a product of his time. Americans sought a president in who would continue the policies of normalcy with which many associated the prosperity they enjoyed. They wanted a president who would forego government interference and allow industrial capitalism to grow unfettered.
Hoover, from his days as the secretary of commerce, was the ideal candidate. In fact, he was too ideal when the Great Depression actually hit. Desperate to help, but unwilling to compromise on his philosophy, Hoover could not manage a comprehensive solution to the worldwide depression that few foresaw.
Only when reelection was less than a year away did a reluctant Hoover initiate significant policies, but even then, they did not provide direct relief. By the start of , unemployment hovered near 25 percent, and thousands of banks and factories were closing their doors. Americans would look to the next president for a solution. In photos from this time, he tends to appear grim-faced and downtrodden.
American individualism: the belief, strongly held by Herbert Hoover and others, that hard work and individual effort, absent government interference, comprised the formula for success in the U. Black Tuesday: October 29, , when a mass panic caused a crash in the stock market and stockholders divested over sixteen million shares, causing the overall value of the stock market to drop precipitously. Bonus Army: a group of World War I veterans and affiliated groups who marched to Washington in to demand their war bonuses early, only to be refused and forcibly removed by the U.
Scottsboro Boys: a reference to the infamous trial in Scottsboro, Alabama in , where nine African American boys were falsely accused of raping two white women and sentenced to death; the extreme injustice of the trial, particularly given the age of the boys and the inadequacy of the testimony against them, garnered national and international attention. Smoot-Hawley Tariff: the tariff approved by Hoover to raise the tax on thousands of imported goods in the hope that it would encourage people to buy American-made products; the unintended result was that other nations raised their tariffs, further hurting American exports and exacerbating the global financial crisis.
The stock market, which had been growing for years, began to decline in the summer and early fall of , precipitating a panic that led to a massive stock sell-off in late October.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929-1932
In one month, the market lost close to 40 percent of its value. Although only a small percentage of Americans had invested in the stock market, the crash affected everyone. Banks lost millions and, in response, foreclosed on business and personal loans, which in turn pressured customers to pay back their loans, whether or not they had the cash. As the pressure mounted on individuals, the effects of the crash continued to spread. The state of the international economy, the inequitable income distribution in the United States, and, perhaps most importantly, the contagion effect of panic all played roles in the continued downward spiral of the economy.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the government was confident that the economy would rebound. But several factors led it to worsen instead. One significant issue was the integral role of automobiles and construction in American industry. With the crash, there was no money for either auto purchases or major construction projects; these industries therefore suffered, laying off workers, cutting wages, and reducing benefits.
Affluent Americans considered the deserving poor—those who lost their money due to no fault of their own—to be especially in need of help. But at the outset of the Great Depression, there were few social safety nets in place to provide them with the necessary relief. While some families retained their wealth and middle-class lifestyle, many more were plunged quite suddenly into poverty and often homelessness. Children dropped out of school, mothers and wives went into domestic service, and the fabric of American society changed inexorably.
He greatly resisted government intervention, considering it a path to the downfall of American greatness. His initial response of asking Americans to find their own paths to recovery and seeking voluntary business measures to stimulate the economy could not stem the tide of the Depression. Ultimately, Hoover did create some federal relief programs, such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation RFC , which sought to boost public confidence in financial institutions by ensuring that they were on solid footing.
When this measure did little to help impoverished individuals, he signed the Emergency Relief Act, which allowed the RFC to invest in local public works projects. But even this was too little, too late. The severe limits on the types of projects funded and type of workers used meant that most Americans saw no benefit. Protests ranged from factory strikes to farm riots, culminating in the notorious Bonus Army protest in the spring of Veterans from World War I lobbied to receive their bonuses immediately, rather than waiting until The government denied them, and in the ensuing chaos, Hoover called in the military to disrupt the protest.
The violence of this act was the final blow for Hoover, whose popularity was already at an all-time low. The Great Depression affected huge segments of the American population—sixty million people by one estimate. But certain groups were hit harder than the rest. African Americans faced discrimination in finding employment, as white workers sought even low-wage jobs like housecleaning.
Southern blacks moved away from their farms as crop prices failed, migrating en masse to Northern cities, which had little to offer them. Rural Americans were also badly hit. Some farmers tried to remain and buy up more land as neighbors went broke; others simply fled their failed farms and moved away, often to the large-scale migrant farms found in California, to search for a better life that few ever found. There was very little in the way of public assistance to help the poor. While private charities did what they could, the scale of the problem was too large for them to have any lasting effects.
People learned to survive as best they could by sending their children out to beg, sharing clothing, and scrounging wood to feed the furnace. Those who could afford it turned to motion pictures for escape. Movies and books during the Great Depression reflected the shift in American cultural norms, away from rugged individualism toward a more community-based lifestyle. In Hoover, Americans got the president they had wanted, at least at first. He was third in a line of free market Republican presidents, elected to continue the policies that had served the economy so well.
But when the stock market crashed in , and the underlying weaknesses in the economy came to the fore, Hoover did not act with clear intentionality and speed. His record as a president will likely always bear the taint of his unwillingness to push through substantial government aid, but, despite that failing, his record is not without minor accomplishments. And while his attitude toward civil rights mirrored his conviction that government intervention was a negative force, he did play a key role changing living conditions for Native Americans.
The Stock Market Crash of Figure The Great Crash The promise of the Hoover administration was cut short when the stock market lost almost one-half its value in the fall of , plunging many Americans into financial ruin. What was the Crash? Selling Optimism and Risk Advertising offers a useful window into the popular perceptions and beliefs of an era.
Causes of the Crash The crash of did not occur in a vacuum, nor did it cause the Great Depression. Department of Defense As Americans bore witness to photographs and newsreels of the U. The Depths of the Great Depression From industrial strongholds to the rural Great Plains, from factory workers to farmers, the Great Depression affected millions. Black and Poor: African Americans and the Great Depression Most African Americans did not participate in the land boom and stock market speculation that preceded the crash, but that did not stop the effects of the Great Depression from hitting them particularly hard.