Wallace, Henry A.

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Henry Agard Wallace (October 7, 1888–November 18, 1965) served as the nation's secretary of agriculture throughout much of the Great Depression. He used his office to promote change in the country's agricultural system with the goal of restoring profitability to the farm business and holding the large American farm population on the land.

Born on an Iowa farm, Wallace came from a well-known family in agricultural circles. His grandfather Henry (Uncle Henry) Wallace, his father Henry C. (Harry) Wallace, and his uncle John Wallace founded a successful farm journal, Wallaces' Farmer, in 1895. Uncle Henry served on President Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission in 1908 and 1909, and Harry became the U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1921. Hoping to modernize farming, improve the lives of farm people, and encourage them to remain farmers, the Wallaces contributed in large ways to the development of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the country's agricultural colleges.

After graduating from Iowa State College in 1910, Henry A. Wallace had gone to work for Wallaces' Farmer. When his father moved to Washington, Henry replaced him as editor and carried forward the family's program on behalf of farming and farmers. He championed the further development of the USDA and of agricultural colleges as research and educational agencies, and he joined his father in an ultimately unsuccessful fight for "Equality for Agriculture." This initiative proposed the establishment of a government corporation that would market farm products, raise farm prices, and thereby convince farmers that they need not move to the city. In 1926, the editor also founded a private corporation, the Hi-Bred Corn Company, designed to develop hybrid corn seed and persuade farmers to use it.

In the 1928 presidential contest, Wallace actively opposed Herbert Hoover. To Wallace, Hoover appeared determined to make the United States an industrial nation. The process, Wallace feared, would drastically shrink the farm population, deprive the United States of its capacity to feed itself, and rob it of other contributions that, Wallace assumed, only farm people could make.


After the Great Depression changed American politics, Wallace moved to a higher post, becoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture. Wallace was a logical choice because he had great prestige in farm circles, was one of Hoover's prominent critics, and had helped to persuade Iowa farmers to desert the Republican Party. Having become restless in the job he had held for many years, Wallace welcomed the new opportunity.

Roosevelt's first term. When he moved to Washington in March 1933, Wallace confronted grim conditions in rural America, for the Depression had hit farmers extremely hard. The producers of grain and cotton had not participated in the economic boom of the 1920s, and after 1929 farm prices had dropped even more than the prices of goods farmers needed to buy. Some farm owners lost their farms, and many renters, sharecroppers, and wage laborers lost their places on the land. Farm people demanded change; some even employed violent means to express their discontent, and moderates warned of a revolutionary upheaval.

The new secretary brought the leaders of farm organizations to Washington and persuaded them to back legislation that would give him the power to experiment with a variety of proposed solutions to the farm crisis. He favored one of them: the Voluntary Domestic Allotment Plan, which would pay farmers to cut back on the acreage devoted to raising several crops, including wheat and cotton. The argument was one Wallace had made since the early 1920s, that industrial corporations managed their production levels in ways that made their operations profitable, and farmers should do the same. Farmers, however, were only small operators; they were not corporate giants, and thus they needed help from a government agency if they were to manage their production successfully. The agency should not merely try to convince farmers to curtail production, as the Hoover administration had done, quite unsuccessfully. Instead, it should use the federal government's taxing and spending powers to persuade farmers to change. Roosevelt accepted the idea, Congress responded with a broad Agricultural Adjustment Act, and Wallace established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) in May 1933 to implement the legislation.

Wallace promoted other ideas for the protection and improvement of American agriculture, most of which served to enlarge the federal government. Two of his efforts focused on soil conservation. In 1935, he took over a soil erosion program from the Interior Department and established the Soil Conservation Service to develop and administer the program. Because he promoted long-range agricultural planning, he was prepared when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1936 that the Agricultural Adjustment Act violated the U.S. Constitution. In response, Wallace championed passage of legislation that empowered the AAA to pay farmers to shift acres from soil-depleting crops, like wheat and cotton, to soil-building ones, such as clover.

Wallace also successfully resisted a proposal championed by the National Farmers Union, which called upon the federal government to guarantee farmers a price for their products that would more than cover their production costs. The aim was to hold all farmers on the land, but Wallace regarded it as unrealistic. His aim was to protect farmers who could succeed if they received fair prices. In response, the Farmers Union demanded Wallace's removal from office, but failed to get it.

Roosevelt's second term. By 1936, most farmers approved of Wallace's efforts on their behalf. At least they liked the money that came from Washington and the higher prices they obtained in the market. Thus, they rewarded the president with their votes in the election that year. Support for Roosevelt came from farmers in the Midwest, who had customarily voted Republican, as well as farmers in the South, who had traditionally supported Democrats.

During Roosevelt's second term, Wallace continued his efforts to make farming more profitable and to hold commercial farmers on the land. He also moved in a direction new to him when he championed programs that focused on the poorest people in farm communities. As recently as 1935 Wallace had ousted lawyers from the AAA after they pushed a scheme to make southern sharecroppers more secure, but beginning in 1937 he supported a new agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), that had a similar aim. The FSA tried to help tenant farmers become farm owners and to improve conditions for sharecroppers and migratory farm workers.

Although many Americans at the time were concerned about such people, Wallace concluded before the end of the 1930s that Congress would not appropriate the funds required to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the poorest folks in the land. Thus, he turned to industrialization and a high-wage economy as solutions to their problems and as a means of improving the lot of more prosperous farm people at the same time. Industrial development and high wages, Wallace now believed, could draw people out of depressed rural conditions and enlarge markets for those who continued to farm.


Wallace's success as secretary and the broadening of his point of view enabled him to move higher in American politics and government. By the late 1930s, his admirers favored him as Roosevelt's successor, seeing him as the leader who could maintain the New Deal's momentum. However, the leaders of the American Farm Bureau Federation had become unhappy with Wallace; to them, Wallace seemed to have become more interested in the rural poor and in urban workers than in substantial commercial farmers. The Farmers Union, on the other hand, which had new leadership and advocated a political alliance between farmers and wage earners, had moved to Wallace's side. Roosevelt's decision to run for a third term ended Wallace's bid for the White House, but the president insisted that Democrats nominate this former Republican for the vice presidency, and they did.

Wallace's service as vice president shifted his focus away from agriculture but did not lead him to the presidency. Pressured by Robert Hannegan, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and other prominent democrats, Roosevelt deserted him in 1944; the Democrats nominated Harry Truman for the vice presidency, and he, not Wallace, succeeded Roosevelt. After a year and a half as secretary of commerce in the Roosevelt-Truman administration, Wallace broke with Truman over foreign policy and was forced to resign. Running on a third-party ticket, he challenged Truman in 1948 and finished fourth in a field of four. The outcome destroyed his political career.

Living his last years on a farm in Westchester County, New York, Wallace devoted much of his attention to his lifetime passion for plant breeding. The corporation he had founded in 1926 had become a huge success, while other developments he had promoted in agriculture, including the enlarged role of the federal government, continued to have his support. Although the now enormous productivity of American farmers pleased him, one feature of rural life troubled him: The American farm population had become alarmingly small.



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