Getting the farm bill passed

The Agricultural Adjustment Act was a bill formulated by farm economists, sold by them to farm organization leaders, sold again by farm leaders and economists to the President, but without any basis in public understanding.

The bill was a rude shock for conservatives. Representative Fred Britten of Illinois said, “The bill before the House is more Bolshevistic than any law or regulation existing in Soviet Russia.” Representative Joseph Martin of Massachusetts said, “We are on our way to Moscow.”

The hatred of the right-wing for government planning of any type was “compounded in this case by the specific and fierce objections of canners, millers, and the food industry to the processing tax. In short order, the processors’ lobbyists began to deploy around Capitol Hill” (Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger).

There were very influential farm Senators who “advocated the time-honored solution of inflation” (Schlesinger). If the President wanted to utilize devices for agricultural adjustment, “They were prepared to let him go ahead; but they did not want him to forget that cheapening of the currency was, as they saw it, the sure way to lighten the dead weight of debt and to redress the unfavorable terms of trade between countryside and city” (Schlesinger).

In the House of Representatives, where debate could be limited, the administration succeeded in getting the bill passed without difficulty. But in the Senate “inflationist sentiment could not be so easily contained. By now, at least three different techniques of inflation had acquired ardent supporters. Some inflationists, like Burton K. Wheeler, and Huey Long of Louisiana, wanted, in the phrase of the day, to “do something” about silver. Others, like Tom Connally of Texas, favored general devaluation. Still others, like Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma, proposed, in a straightforward way, to enlarge the currency through the printing of paper money. All agreed in regarding the Administration Farm Bill as fatally defective in its disregard of monetary remedies” (Schlesinger).

The demand for inflation evoked a wide response. The dollar was continuing to climb against the value of goods. In the Senate Thomas was emerging as the leader of the inflation block. A veteran of the free silver fight of 1896, he had continuously urged inflationary remedies since the start of the Depression. “Money, so far as he was concerned, was legal-tender currency and very little more; bank deposits he rejected as a fictitious substitute for money, acceptable in place of the real thing in times of financial confidence but of small consequence in depression. Therefore the way to revive the economy was to enlarge the legal currency: ‘We must have more money in circulation. I care not what kind – silver, copper, brass, gold or paper’”(Schlesinger). He believed the choice was between inflation and revolution.

“In this conviction, Thomas now combined the main inflationist techniques – silver, devaluation, and flat money – into a single package and brought forward the Thomas Amendment designed to be tacked on to the Agricultural Adjustment Bill” (Schlesinger).

The Administration was alarmed by the mounting sentiment for inflation. In January, an amendment for silver garnered 18 votes. On April 17, Wheeler’s Silver Amendment got 33 votes. “After the defeat of the Silver Amendment, Elmer Thomas promptly introduced his Omnibus Amendment authorizing the President to issue greenbacks, to remonetize silver, and to alter the gold content of the dollar. It was apparent that the Thomas proposal would unite all inflationists and very likely command a majority of the Senate. Over the bitter opposition of his orthodox advisers, Roosevelt, preferring permissive inflationary legislation to mandatory, decided to accept a qualified version of the Thomas Amendment in the hope of turning aside the inflationist drive” (Schlesinger).

Meanwhile, there was turbulence in the farm belt. “In mid-March the Farmers Holiday Association, speaking through its Chief, Milo Reno, had threatened a farm strike if Congress did not accept its demands by May 3rd” (Schlesinger). They wanted a guaranteed cost of production for farm products, mortgage relief, and, above all, inflation. Reno said it was “an undisputed fact that our problem is not overproduction, but underconsumption, [brought about] by the monopolization and manipulation of our circulating medium.” With the Farm Bill stalled in the Senate, farmers began to take things into their own hands, as they had the previous autumn.

“On April 27th over five hundred farmers crowded the courtroom in Le Mars, Iowa, to demand that Judge Charles C. Bradley suspend foreclosure proceedings until the State courts had passed on recently enacted legislation. When Bradley turned the farmers down and rebuked them for wearing hats and smoking in the presence of the court, a sullen murmur rose from the crowd. A Farmer’s Holiday leader described the reaction: ‘That’s not his courtroom. We farmers paid for it with our tax money and it was as much ours as his. The crowd had a perfect right there.’ As the judge continued to scold the throng, men stepped forward, their faces masked in blue bandannas, and dragged him from the bench. In a fury they slapped him and mauled him, placed a blindfold around his eyes and threw him on a truck. Some shouted, ‘Get a rope! Let’s hang him!’

A mile from the city, they stopped, tossed a rope over a telegraph pole, fastened one end about his neck and tightened the knot till he nearly lost consciousness. Someone removed a hub cap from the truck and put it on his head, while others pushed him to his knees and told him to pray. Crowned with the cap, grease running down his face, thrust to the ground, he looked at the angry men around him and prayed: ‘Oh Lord, I pray thee, do justice to all men.’ And still he refused to pledge himself not to foreclose mortgages on their farms. They threw dirt on him, then tore off his trousers and smeared them with grease and dirt, till, weary and perhaps abashed, they went away” (Schlesinger).

“At Denison, Iowa, in the same week, a crowd of farmers attacked a collection of agents and special deputies trying to foreclose J.F. Field’s farm. Alarmed by the new surge of violence, Governor Clyde L. Herring placed half a dozen counties under martial law and moved in the National Guard” (Schlesinger).

Paul Schwietering is a resident of Union Township.

Paul Schwietering