My Grandmother’s Misplaced Hope

In school I was given an assignment to interview someone who lived through the Great Depression.  As a young boy more concerned with Kentucky basketball than United States history, I did not necessarily appreciate the assignment.  As a grown man, it has become both a treasured memory and an ominous warning.

To fulfill the requirements of the assignment, I decided to interview my maternal grandmother, Jessie Rose.  My grandmother was born on December 7, 1930.  She grew up in rural eastern Kentucky.  Her father died when she was a young girl, and times were hard for her family.  She remembered winters where all of the meat and vegetables were gone and for months they had only lard and flour to eat.

She would work in the fields as hard as any man, my mom used to say, and then go in and cook for her family and all of the work hands.  She, like the generations before her, managed to somehow scratch a living out of the hills of Appalachia.

Unable to really comprehend such times, I, one of the direct beneficiaries of her hard work, asked her how the Great Depression affected her and her family.  She said that it surely did—after all, it was such a big event in the nation’s history.  However, she couldn’t really identify anything specific that changed for her family.  She finally said that her family was so very poor already that it didn’t really make much of a difference to them.

Her assessment of their situation calls to my mind the words of Alabama’s ballad “Song of the South.”

“Well somebody told us that Wall Street fell

But we were so poor that we couldn’t tell.”

If you are already living on lard and flour, it is hard to imagine how things could get much worse, short of outright starvation.  That didn’t happen, but it was a realistic possibility in those days.

Despite the fact that she couldn’t identify a specific way that things got worse for her and her family during the Great Depression, they all seemed to feel that America was at a critical point in her history in those days.  A turning point, if you will, where things could get much, much worse.  Maybe things would just fall apart.  It seemed like the experiment of a Constitutional Republic begun by the likes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Henry might just fail.

Well, as history now teaches, it didn’t fail.  At least, not exactly.  It survived, but in a very different form than was imagined by the Founders.  That leads me to the next set of questions I asked her—about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

At this, her face lit up a bit.  She clearly held much more positive memories of Mr. Roosevelt.  She could remember gathering, several families around one radio, to listen to his famous fireside chats.  She deeply respected and even loved FDR.

I asked her which of FDR’s policies she liked the most.  She couldn’t really identify any particular policy item.  “He just did something,” she said, as opposed to others who appeared to be doing nothing.  “He tried, and, if it didn’t work, he tried something else.”  I followed up by asking her what she liked the best about FDR.  Her answer remains as simple as it is profound—“he gave us hope,” she said.

Rosenstock-Huessy once wrote, “No people can live without faith in the ultimate victory of something.”  My grandmother was right; Americans living during the era of the Great Depression needed hope.  Hope that things would get better.  Hope that they might have more than lard and flour to eat.  Hope that the crops might not fail again, and, if they did, that things would still work out all right.  Hope in a future that might be a little better for them and their kids.

Hope—hard to live without it, and, in those days, when it was in such short supply, a masterful politician stepped forward to provide it.

 “Cotton was short and the weeds were tall

But Mr. Roosevelt’s a gonna save us all.”

Mr. Roosevelt provided the hope that many good Americans like my grandmother needed, but, unlike leaders past who directed Americans to hard work, virtue, and God for hope, he asked them to put their hope in the government and its programs.  And, he didn’t let a little thing like the Constitutional limits of the federal government get in the way.  Remember that whole “the switch in time that saved nine” thing?  The United States of America did survive the Great Depression, but our Constitutional system was altered beyond recognition.

I grew up greatly admiring FDR because my family did.  Only later did my views begin to change.  First, I came to realize that there is very little evidence that the massive government intervention in the economy during the era of the New Deal actually did any good at all.  Further, while it is debatable whether the New Deal actually helped to alleviate the suffering brought on by the Great Depression, it is beyond doubt that FDR’s programs represented one of the most massive power grabs by the federal government in the history of our republic.  It changed the very fabric of our nation, giving rise to federal regulation of nearly every part of the economy and the colossal entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, which threaten our national solvency today.

The New Deal transformed the very nature of our republic and not for the better.  Through bold legislative and executive action, coupled with judicial acquiescence, our Constitutional system was transformed without so much as a nod to the amendment process.  Via the Interstate Commerce Clause, Congress, through FDR’s tireless efforts, was granted the virtually boundless power to try something, anything to “fix” the Great Depression.

Today, the hope of the Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal is long gone, and its programs instead contribute greatly to the marked absence of hope in our time.  Our turn away from the Constitutional Republic envisioned by the Founders toward a large, European-style social democracy may have given “Pappa . . . a job with the TVA” and a “washing machine” and a “Chevrolet,” but it has not given America real abiding hope.  Instead, it has saddled us with promises that we simply will not have enough money to pay.  We need look no further than the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki to see what happens when the money finally does begin to run out, and it does not inspire one to hope.

Now, we again find ourselves in dark times, and we have another President who has stridden forth offering us hope.  Oh, sure, the current straits are less dire than they were in my grandmother’s days, but we undoubtedly stand at another important crossroads.  Hope is again in short supply.  It looks like the prospect of things getting better for us and our children is pretty bleak.  Most of us have more to eat than lard and flour, and for that we should be thankful, but the economy is historically weak with no real relief in sight.  A message of hope, in such settings, is, as we have seen, enormously powerful.

Further, just like FDR, the hope that Mr. Obama offers us is in new federal government programs.  And, it promises to be another power grab of epic proportions.  It will, if successful, once again alter the very fabric of our Constitutional system, pushing us even further toward a European-style socialist democracy than the New Deal did.

Obamacare is the signature legislative initiative of Mr. Obama’s first term as President, and it best represents the hope Mr. Obama is offering us.  Like FDR’s New Deal programs, it is an effort, through the Interstate Commerce Clause, to dramatically extend the scope and reach of the federal government to unprecedented levels.  Further, like the New Deal programs, it will ultimately be tested in the Supreme Court.  Will today’s Court have the courage to stand up for the Constitution, or will it cave to political pressure as the Depression-era Court did?  We will likely find out for sure this summer, and we should get a hint of how the Court will rule when oral arguments begin next week.

In the meantime, and regardless of what the Supreme Court does, what will we, the American people, do?  We took a serious wrong turn toward statism at the Great Depression.  For the future of our republic, we must resist making that mistake again.

We must learn the lessons of the past.  People desperately need to hope in something.  We need faith in the ultimate victory of something.  And, when times get hard enough and people get desperate enough, even good people like my sweet, hard-working grandmother, will trade very precious things, like the careful checks and balances of our Constitutional system, for a little hope, even if it is misplaced.