"Keep America American": Great Depression, government intervention, and conservative response in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, 1920s--1940

by Egolf, Jennifer Ann, Ph.D., WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY, 2008, 351 pages; 3326477

Abstract:

This study of one rural county in western Pennsylvania during the Great Depression highlights people’s response to government recovery programs. Rural folks in Somerset County experienced the depression before the crash in 1929, and throughout the 1920s, miners and farmers in the area found ways to cope with rising unemployment and declining farm prices. Miners used the strike to fight for better conditions; farmers organized into cooperatives to secure the best prices for their products. Each promulgated a set of values that reflected their vision of America. The 1920s was only a prelude to the economic downturn in the 1930s, when rural folks had to adapt to changes in the way that the government approached the economy. Many residents in Somerset County favored the approaches of Herbert Hoover, who honored their cherished values of thrift, self-help, and minimal government. For similar reasons, they also supported Republican Governor Gifford Pinchot, until he began to implement new taxes and to consolidate power at the state level. To many conservatives and localists, Pinchot resembled Franklin Roosevelt, who entered office promising federal assistance to the needy.

When Roosevelt took office, he implemented programs that often contradicted their cherished values. He passed costly federal direct and work relief programs that ran counter to their belief in private charity, self-help, and local control. His and Governor George Earle’s “new deals” also included farm policy that set limits on production and forced processors to pay a tax and consumers to pay more for food. County residents generally favored the laissez faire, supply and demand model for the economy. Even more troubling to the county’s localists and conservatives was the labor legislation that Roosevelt and Earle approved. The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, and Pennsylvania’s Labor Relations Act, passed two years later, forced companies to recognize unions, and residents believed that this also prevented individual workers from freely negotiating for employment. When the Pennsylvania Turnpike began construction in 1939, the county experienced one of the worst labor disputes since the “strike for union” of coal miners in 1922. The protracted battle underscored conservative’s fears that the unions and Roosevelt conspired to deny Americans jobs unless they had a “union card” and supported the Democratic Party.

Somerset County residents’ steadfast values informed their voting behavior and political actions. Because their values were often conservative and they had a long history of voting Republican, the residents fought to preserve the party’s conservative principles and also to retain the Republican Party in power at the local, state, and national levels. Although this is a community study, it is important because the region’s people helped to shape the political landscape of the late 1930s and beyond.

AdvisersElizabeth Fones-Wolf; Ronald L. Lewis
SchoolWEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAmerican history; Modern history
Publication Number3326477

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