Hard times hit South Carolina long before the Great Depression

black sharecroppers sc

The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.

But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.

The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.

Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.

Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.

No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.

“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.

“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.

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Speaking up for ‘Silent Cal’

calvin coolidge

Book reviews, when done well, can provide useful history lessons in and of themselves.

Take The Economist’s review of Coolidge, Amity Shlaes’ new biography of the underappreciated 30th US president.

“Mr. Coolidge’s hallmark was distrust of government. He saw it as an entity that uses ‘despotic exactions’ (taxes) that sap individual initiative and prosperity across the board …” according to publication.

“Coolidge learned at first towards the surging progressive movement, which supported state intervention and union involvement in the economy,” the review adds. “But his views shifted when he saw what those ideas meant in practice.”

The Economist is not noted for being a publication of a particularly libertarian bent by any means, but it recognizes Coolidge’s achievements during his five-and-a-half years as president, during which American debt fell by one-third, the tax rate by half and unemployment dropped precipitously. It’s unfortunate that more Americans haven’t taken note of Coolidge’s accomplishments.

While no means perfect, Coolidge offers an interesting counterbalance to FDR and his New Deal approach.

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Hoover, Roosevelt and ‘Annie’

One of the great myths of American history is that President Herbert Hoover was a proponent of laissez-faire economics, and that his purported hands-off approach led the US to economic ruin.

In fact, Hoover was anything but hands off once the economy began tanking in 1929, and his meddling made things far worse than they otherwise would have been.

According to economist Murray Rothbard, the government under Hoover embarked on the “Hoover New Deal,” an anti-depression program marked by extensive governmental economic planning and intervention – including bolstering of wage rates and prices, expansion of credit, propping up of weak firms, and increased government spending (e.g., subsidies to unemployment and public works).

“Hoover, from the very start of the depression, set his course unerringly toward the violation of all the laissez-faire canons,” according to Rothbard. “As a consequence, he left office with the economy at the depths of an unprecedented depression, with no recovery in sight after three and a half years, and with unemployment at the terrible and unprecedented rate of 25 percent of the labor force.”

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Cotton roads: Recalling an ill-conceived idea

Using cotton as a key ingredient in road building seems difficult to fathom today but during the 1930s it was all the rage, at least for a short while. 

Part of the reason was that because in the midst of the Great Depression there was an abundance of three things: Unemployed Americans, cotton and roads that needed to either be built or refurbished. Someone somewhere came up with the idea of combining the three.

Hence, for some time, cotton roads were said to be the wave of the future, and the soft, fluffy staple fiber became a major element in road building across a good part of the US.

The idea apparently came about when a New Deal entity called the Agricultural Adjustment Administration sought ways to increase consumption of American cotton, the price of which had been driven down through overproduction.

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How alcohol made FDR a legend

A perplexing question to some of us born long after Franklin Roosevelt’s reign as president ended is how a man who enlarged the powers of the federal government beyond anything even considered previously, built up labor unions, slowed long-term economic growth and weakened business was able to acquire such a cult of personality?

Author Mark Thornton says the answer is simple, if counterintuitive to many today: “In (Roosevelt’s) first 30 days, he did more to bring liberty to Americans than any president since Thomas Jefferson repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts.”

Inaugurated on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt dealt with the banking crisis and the budget during his first week on the job.

Then, on March 13, he called on Congress to repeal Prohibition and 1o days later signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized the sale in the United States of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent.

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