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The Politics of Hard Times
The Democratic party opened the 1932 campaign confident of victory. The crash of 1929 had made a mockery of Republican claims to being "the party of prosperity." In the three years of Herbert Hoover's Presidency, the bottom had dropped out of the stock market and industrial production had been cut more than half. At the beginning of the summer, Iron Age reported that steel plants were operating at a sickening 12 per cent of capacity with "an almost complete lack" of signs of a turn for the better. In three years, industrial construction had slumped from $949 million to an unbelievable $74 million. In no year since the Civil War were so few miles of new railroad track laid."1
By 1932, the unemployed numbered upward of thirteen million. Many lived in the primitive conditions of a preindustrial society stricken by famine. In the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky, evicted families shivered in tents in midwinter; children went barefoot. In Los Angeles, people whose gas and electricity had been turned off were reduced to cooking over wood fires in back lots. Visiting nurses in New York found children famished; one episode, reported Lillian Wald, "might have come out of the tales of old Russia." A Philadelphia storekeeper told a reporter of one family he was keeping going on credit: "Eleven children in that house. They've got no shoes, no pants. In the house, no chairs. My God, you go in there, you cry, that's all."2
At least a million, perhaps as many as two millions were wandering the country in a fruitless quest for work or adventure or just a sense of movement. They roved the waterfronts of both oceans, rode in cattle cars and gondolas of the Rock Island and the Southern Pacific, slept on benches in Boston Common and Lafayette Square, in Chicago's Grant Park and El Paso's Plaza. From Klamath Falls to Sparks to Yuma, they shared the hobo's quarters in oak thickets strewn with blackened cans along the railroad tracks. On snowy days, as many as two hundred men huddled over fires in the jungle at the north end of the railway yards in Belen, New Mexico. Unlike the traditional hobo, they sought not to evade work but to find it. But it was a dispirited search. They knew they were not headed toward the Big Rock Candy Mountain; they were not, in fact, headed anywhere, only fleeing from where they had been.3
On the outskirts of town or in empty lots in the big cities, homeless men threw together makeshift shacks of boxes and scrap metal. St. Louis had the largest "Hooverville," a settlement of more than a thousand souls, but there was scarcely a city that did not harbor at least one. Portland, Oregon, quartered one colony under the Ross Island bridge and a second of more than three hundred men in Sullivan's Gulch. Below Riverside Drive in New York City, an encampment of squatters lined the shore of the Hudson from 72nd Street to 110th Street. In Brooklyn's Red Hook section, jobless men bivouacked in the city dump in sheds made of junked Fords and old barrels. Along the banks of the Tennessee in Knoxville, in the mudflats under the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey, in abandoned coke ovens in Pennsylvania's coal counties, in the huge dumps off Blue Island Avenue in Chicago, the dispossessed took their last stand.4
"We are like the drounding man, grabbing at every thing that flotes by, trying to save what little we have," reported a North Carolinian. In Chicago, a crowd of some fifty hungry men fought over a barrel of garbage set outside the back door of a restaurant; in Stockton, California, men scoured the city dump near the San Joaquin River to retrieve half-rotted vegetables. The Commissioner of Charity in Salt Lake City disclosed that scores of people were slowly starving, because neither county nor private relief funds were adequate, and hundreds of children were kept out of school because they had nothing to wear. "We have been eating wild greens," wrote a coal miner from Kentucky's Harlan County. "Such as Polk salad. Violet tops, wild onions. forget me not wild lettuce and such weeds as cows eat as a cow wont eat a poison weeds."5
As the party in power during hard times, the Republicans faced almost certain defeat in the 1932 elections. President Herbert Hoover could escape repudiation only if the Democrats permitted internal divisions to destroy them. There was some prospect that the Democrats might do just that. National Democratic party leaders criticized Hoover not because he had done too little but because he had done too much. The main criticism they leveled at Hoover was that he was a profligate spender. In seeking to defeat progressive measures, Republicans in Congress could count on the votes of a majority of Democrats on almost every roll call.6 But when, in their determination to balance the budget, Democratic leaders reached the point of advocating a federal sales tax, many of the congressional Democrats balked.7 Under the leadership of Representative Robert "Muley" Doughton of North Carolina, rebellious Democrats joined with Fiorello La Guardia's insurgent Republicans to vote down the sales tax and adopt income and estate taxes instead.8 The sales tax fight fixed the lines of combat at the forthcoming Democratic convention. Progressive Democrats were determined to overturn the national party leadership at Chicago in June and choose a liberal presidential nominee.
By the spring of 1932, almost every prominent Democratic progressive had become committed to the candidacy of New York's Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Liberal Democrats were somewhat uneasy about Roosevelt's reputation as a trimmer, and disturbed by the vagueness of his formulas for recovery, but no other serious candidate had such good claims on progressive support. As governor of New York, he had created the first comprehensive system of unemployment relief . . .