The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

by Amity Shlaes


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The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

In The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes, one of the nation's most-respected economic commentators, offers a striking reinterpretation of the Great Depression. She traces the mounting agony of the New Dealers and the moving stories of individual citizens who through their brave perseverance helped establish the steadfast character we recognize as American today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060936426
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/27/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 235,224
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Amity Shlaes writes a column for Forbes and serves as the chairman of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. She is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Coolidge, The Forgotten Man, and The Greedy Hand. She chairs the jury for the Hayek Book Prize of the Manhattan Institute. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Forgotten Man
A New History of the Great Depression

Chapter One

The Beneficent Hand

January 1927
Average unemployment (year): 3.3 percent
Dow Jones Industrial Average: 155

Floods change the course of history, and the Flood of 1927 was no exception. When the waters of the Mississippi broke through banks and levees that spring, the disaster was enormous. A wall of water pushed down the river, covering the area where nearly a million lived. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover raced to Memphis and took command. Hoover talked railroads into transporting the displaced for free and carrying freight at a discount. He commandeered private outboard motors and built motorboats of plywood. He urged the people who were not yet flooded out, such as the population around the Bayou des Glaises levee, to evacuate early, then rescued with the trains those tens of thousands who had ignored his warning. He helped the Red Cross launch a fund drive; within a month the charity had already collected promises of more than $8 million, an enormous figure for the time.

Several hundred thousand ended up in new refugee camps, many planned, right down to the latrines, by Hoover and his team. Hoover asked governors of each state to name a dictator of resources—he used the word "dictator"—and the governors complied. The dictators then managed the dysentery and the hunts for the missing along the floodwaters in their states hour by hour. He and the Red Cross sent the refugees to concentration camps—a phrase not so freighted then as it is today—at Vicksburg, Delta, and Natchez. One hundred thousand blankets from army warehouseswere shipped to warm the refugees.

Things felt calmer on Hoover's watch. By mid-May, though the flooding was far from over, the anecdotes began to compete in the news with the reports of tragedy. Northerners read in Time magazine that a town called Waterproof, Louisiana, had not proven waterproof, and that its switchboard operators were still working—albeit from new posts, high up above the waters, on scaffolding. Not far from Memphis, Tennessee, bootleggers had also set up shop on high, in treetops. New babies were receiving flood names—Highwater Jones, Overflow Johnson. Now from Memphis, now from Little Rock, now from the Sugar Bowl, the itinerant flood manager, Hoover, wired or broadcast his analyses of the meaning of the disaster. Such flooding, he said, "is a national problem and must be solved nationally and vigorously." But the commerce secretary also spent a lot of time reassuring. The waters might hide the land, the crops might be lost, but the mood was now hopeful. More than any single figure, Hoover was succeeding in making Americans feel that the South would be all right again.

Hoover was already so famous that his name was a verb—to Hooverize, after the efforts in food rationing that he had led from a post as Washington's food administrator at the end of World War I. Americans recalled that he had led the humanitarian drive to feed occupied Belgium during the war. Now Hoover had outdone himself—and on a home territory whose geographic area covered more than Belgium's. What the public liked about Hoover was their sense of him as guardian, that he would protect them and what they had. If Hoover could win the presidential election the following year, then he might hold back whatever waters of adversity threatened. He was a Republican, like the sitting president, Calvin Coolidge. He would pick up where Coolidge left off—though he might update things, for everyone knew that Hoover, a mining engineer, could do amazing things with technology. One of Hoover's neatest feats—and he pulled it off right around the time of the flood—was to acquaint the public with an early version of television. "Herbert Hoover made a speech in Washington yesterday afternoon. An audience in New York heard and saw him," the New York Times wrote in awe, adding that Hoover had "annihilated" geographic distance and commenting in a headline: "Like a Photo Come to Life." It was not yet modern television but wired images and the telephone combined. Still, the idea took hold in the minds of the reporters. Under Hoover, it was easy to believe that the 1920s were merely the American beginning.

The idea of philosophical continuity from Coolidge to Hoover seemed ironic to one man: Calvin Coolidge himself. The two were party allies. Hoover had loyally campaigned for Coolidge in 1924—indeed, had helped to defeat a Coolidge opponent in 1924 in California to clear the Republican presidential nomination for Coolidge. But Coolidge did not especially like Hoover. In the very period when the Mississippi waters were rushing, in fact, Coolidge's press spokesman had taken an explicit shot at Hoover, telling reporters that the commerce secretary would not be considered for the job opening if the secretary of state happened to retire.

The differences between the men had started with small things. Hoover was a fly fisherman. Coolidge fished with worms. Hoover liked the microphone. Coolidge shied away from it. After a landslide presidential victory in 1924 Coolidge had sent a clerk to read aloud his State of the Union address. Hoover ignored politics for the first thirty-five years of his life. Coolidge held his first office, that of city council member in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-eight, and had rarely been out of government since. Hoover was a mining engineer; Coolidge was a country lawyer. Hoover was a worldly American, a blend of regions and cities, the most successful in his field of his generation. He believed in the Anglo-American gold standard, not only because it had made him rich but because he had seen firsthand how it kept the world running, like a grandfather clock. Coolidge was a pure New Englander who seemed to re-create New England wherever he went. The very concept of "overseas" was a bit vague to Coolidge. The typical Republican of his day, he supported tariffs in the belief that they strengthened the United States. His failure to recognize the consequences of his policies, both abroad and for his country, was his greatest shortcoming.

The Forgotten Man
A New History of the Great Depression
. Copyright © by Amity Shlaes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Peggy Noonan

The Forgotten Man is an epic and wholly original retelling of a dramatic and crucial era. There are many sides to the 1930’s story, and this is the one that has largely been lost to history. Thanks to Amity Shlaes, now it’s been re-found.”

Arthur Levitt

“I could not put this book down. Ms. Shlaes timely chronicle of a fascinating era reads like a novel and brings a new perspective on political villains and heros—few of whom turn out to be as good or bad as history would have us believe.”

Paul Volcker

“Amity Shlaes’s fast-paced review of the [Depression] helps enormously in putting it all in perspective.”

George F. Will

“Americans need what Shlaes has brilliantly supplied, a fresh appraisal of what the New Deal did and did not accomplish.”

Mark Helprin

The Forgotten Man offers an understanding of the era’s politics and economics that may be unprecedented in its clarity.”

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Forgotten Man 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 134 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was interested in reading another history of the Great Depression, having only read a single book on the subject, John Kenneth Galbraith's, 'The Great Crash: 1929'. Amity Shlaes' book was highly recommended by many authoritative sources as well-suited to the non-expert in economics who is interested in understanding the conditions which lead to the Depression, those factors that perpetuated it and, more particularly, what steps, if any, might be taken to avoid a repetition of those sorrowful times. As the author of a general-interest book, Shlaes tries to hold the reader's attention by abundant use of anecdotes to illustrate what otherwise might appear as arcane economic concepts. This yields a somewhat encyclopaedic survey of the times, but also familiarizes the reader with many important historical personalities that are currently obscure, e.g. Rex Tugwell, Raymond Moley, Adolf Berle and Felix Frankfurter. As I understood the book, the major points were: 1. FDR's penchant for experimentation, 2. His susceptibility to influence from his cohort of advisors the so-called 'Brain Trust', a frequently mutating group of intellectuals, recruited on the basis of their appeal to Roosevelt's current fancy and, most importantly, 3. That New Deal policies needlessly prolonged the Depression, simultaneously creating 'identity' and 'interest' politics. A corollary of New Deal policies was the creation of indebted constituencies: this resulted from developing conditions tantamount to 'class warfare' and by putting more and more people on 'the dole'. Shlaes, however, is candid enough to point out FDR's shrewd abilities as a political thinker, citing, for example, his swift reversal of course by adoption of the formerly vilified scions of 'big business' when he realized the liklihood of an impending European war and the need for support from this quarter. Another interesting an politically adroit move was FDR's appointment of Joe Kennedy as first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission: who better to monitor fraudulent securities trading activity than an insider and master of the method? John Maynard Keynes and his theories, adapted to various New Deal programs by FDR, receives a few pointed rebukes. The most telling point in favor of Shlaes' perspective came in the form of an endorsement by the current head of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke. In November, 2002, at a ceremony honoring Milton Friedman's ninetieth birthday, he was quoted as remarking, 'I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You're right, we did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again.' Let's hope he's right. But, What better vindication could Shlaes' arguments wish for? In summary, an interesting book, well worth reading.
TerBenn More than 1 year ago
In reading The Forgotten Man you SWEAR that Ms. Shlaes was writing this deeply informative history of the Great Depression while reflecting on current events EXCEPT for the fact that she did it two years ago! The actual book is only about 380 pgs with the remaining 100 pgs given to notes and references, etc., yet the author has PACKED those pages full of insightful details of a time that was, believe it or not, even more difficult than our present economic "crisis". As I read page after page I'm amazed that our economy wasn't derailed more than it was and, equally as disturbing, that the fabric of our American culture was tilted so much by a President's personal agenda (sound vaguely familiar?!). Remember, Ms. Shlaes work was first printed in 2007, when our current President was hardly a national figure. However, as I read this intriguing work, I invariably find myself penciling into the margins "then or now?!" If you enjoy history or economics or politics or simply the process of garnering tidbits to drop into intellectual conversations, Ms. Shlaes book is a 'must read' for you! It certainly was time well spent! Thanks, Amity!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a great resource for anyone who would like a fresh perspective on the Great Depression and FDR's policies; or would like to better understand what will and will not work to help bring our country out of its current economic slump. Too often the fairytale of the New Deal clouds the reality.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For years, the conventional wisdom about the New Deal has focused on its First 100 Days (see J. Alter's new book 'The Defining Moment') during which we are told FDR's inspired improvisations helped to lift a nation's morale and 'save' capitalism. Of course, that is bunk. Shlaes smoothly-written narrative, which puts the policy positions of the 30's in the mouths of their leading advocates, will seem very familiar to the conservative vs liberal economic arguments of our day. She rightly shows that rather than being a laissez faire Scrooge, Herbert Hoover was almost equally as 'activist' as FDR would be, and with equally empty results. She frankly poses the devastating answer to the conventional wisdom: the outcome after 4 1/2 years of frenzied New Deal legislation, programs, speeches, rallies, marches, executive orders, regulations and fireside chats was that in 1937-8 the US entered 'the depression within The Depression,' with renewed high unemployment and reduced economic output. The New Deal was a miserable failure. FDR and the Democrats had no answers. Spending other people's money in the name of the greater good may make the spender feel virtuous, but it creates no new value. Robbing Peter to pay Paul may win you Paul's vote, but it is not an economic policy for the long haul. Shlaes description of the overweening arrogance and rule-crazy conceit of the famous NRA Blue Eagle bureaucracy will make you laugh and remind you of nothing so much as the flow-chart of Hillary Clinton's healthcare scheme of 1994. But if you have not been taught the truth about the past it is so much easier to repeat its mistakes. This is an enjoyable read and an outstanding book. Read it. You will learn things.
Monkeybrains220 More than 1 year ago
I've just finished reading Ms. Shlaes' The Forgotten Man, but when I watch the nightly news, I feel like the story never ended. What an incredible job she's done gathering the history the Great Depression and presenting it in a way that makes it seem like a mystery that's solving itself at the story unfolds. I highly recommend this book ... especially if you are (and I'll admit I was) ignorant of the genesis of the first Great Depression.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shlaes' balanced portrayal of grievous economic/political errors by both Republicans and Democrats reveals just how tangled were the causes of the Great Depression. In fact, the book's title illustrates the confusion the depression generated. The Forgotten Man was originally described by philosopher William Graham Sumner a generation earlier as those ordinary citizens upon whose backs the progressives placed their grand ideas to improve society. Yet FDR appropriated the term to mean the poor and helpless affected by macroeconomic events, a reversal of the original intention of Sumner's. The overriding question of the Great Depression became which Forgotten Man needed the most help. From the tragedy of Smoot-Hawley, which plunged imports by 40%, to the incomprehensible bureaucracy of the NRA, Shlaes narrates this economic history through people's stories, both famous and ordinary. While much of the material presented was not new to me, I was fascinated with two issues: FDR's quixotic approach to economic decisionmaking, and the noxious micromanagement of the NRA. We have learned a lot since those heady days of bold experimentation, that there are reasonable steps government can take when the economy turns south. We are still, however, grappling with the folly of short-sighted quick fixes and the law of unintended consequences. One note, it appears the editing was at times a bit sloppy, with awkward sentences and misused words left in the final draft. One sentence used 'affect' when 'effect' was needed, and one paragraph was so garbled it appeared the editor skipped that page. A couple of times the author made reference to obscure earlier passages that caused me to scramble back to figure out what she meant. For the most part, though the book flowed well. I enjoyed her intertwining of several ongoing narratives as she passed through the years of the depression.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be enlightening, entertaining, and interesting. Amity Shlaes has done her research and simply points out the obvious during the great depression. Anyone who is interested in history, the great depression, or past presidents and their legacy's, this is the book for you! Enjoy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a book that should be read by policy-makers at all levels, economists, and people that are interested in the Great Depression and the policies that stemmed from it. The author does a fine job describing both the policies, the agencies that enforced the policies, and the personalities that formulated them. Amity Shlaes writes the tale splendidly, not bogging readers down with statistics, but certainly using them to enforce facts. She also takes the readers in to the rooms where agencies were created and in to the minds of those agency leaders. Throughout, the book forms a cautionary tale for actions that are being taken to revamp our moribund economy today.
trombaguy More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book. It gives a very fair account of the Great Depression. It points the myriad mistakes made by both Hoover and Roosevelt. This book is a must read for these economic times. It puts all the bailout and sub-prime messes in to an all too clear focus. If you're the least bit sympathetic to the free-market, capitalism and the U.S. Constitution, this book will take your breath away.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I used to think that I had a pretty good understanding of the Great Depression. FDR was elected to office and saved the country from an inept Herbert Hoover, along with the large corporations that "controlled" the economy at that time. Much of my information was based upon public high school and public university educations that reinforced this theme. My knowledge was also supported by grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles that had lived through this difficult time. Ms. Shlaes book has given me an entirely new perspective. Some may criticize it as biased. On the contrary, I think she has produced an objective body of work that has been extensively researched and includes excerpts from personal diaries and letters of key players in the Roosevelt administration. Those individuals were directly involved with policy making during this period. I was amazed at how closely events of the 1930's seem to parallel the actions of our current politicians in Washington. This book should be required for all high school and college students, as well as anyone holding office in local, state, or Federal government.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read this year. After reading it I feel like the forgotten man but i do have faith America will finally see the light and take back our government in 2010.
Sprokitt More than 1 year ago
The Forgotten Man provides a historical and political overview of America's Great Depression. More importantly, the book delves into the various character and interpersonal interactions of the significant political figures of the time. In so doing, Ms Shlaes is able to show how the interplay of politics and character shaped both the Depression and placed significant limits on the nation's recovery. Its also interesting to see how the various economic ideas and theories we take for granted today were viewed back then, and again today through the lens of history.

Whether well meaning or not, the decisions of few powerful figures transformed our nation in that time of crisis. The interplay of the various characters gives insight into how personaly, life experience, and perspective both shape and limit government policy and its ability to act. The Forgotten Man is especially interesting read in the context of our currently evolving financial crisis. The parallels are as striking as the uncertainty of the Depression's outcome was then, and may also be now.

A great read for anyone interested in economics, politics, and history. Its certainly all here in an entertaining and well written book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is indeed, an outstanding reference, resourseful...a must for the serious reader of the Great Depression.
kzin More than 1 year ago
this is not your father's history book, or mine for that matter. but you will learn what really happened during the great depression.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good detail of the people, their actions and the theories of the New Deal Era. This reads like a prophecy of what America is going through now. We could learn from this history and not repeat it's mistakes. Read & be enlightened. Government can not provide productive jobs. It causes chaos when it tries.
We_the_People More than 1 year ago
The Sixteenth Amendment seems to have been the only part of the Constitution respected by the New Dealers, setting the standard for so-called liberal politicians ever since. Amity Schlaes' topical and absorbing study of what really happened in the Great Depression should be on the reading list of every concerned American for its applicability to today. Ms. Schlaes captures your attention immediately in the introduction with a surprising twist in an economic and human-interest analysis from the era. The rest of the book illuminates the truths behind the conventional uncritical views of the origins and efficacy of New Deal policies taught in most history classes. From the influence of the many Soviet admirers and Stalin apologists in the FDR's administration, to the chilling unsuccessful assault on the Schecter Brothers' small poultry business, the lesson of the dangers of big government overreach are well documented in this excellent book. You can't escape the parallels to today.
Warlock More than 1 year ago
Amity Shlaes has written a great book explaining the causes of the great depression. I think anyone interested in America's history should read this book.
fogman More than 1 year ago
Having read a number of other books about the Great Depression and with analogies having been made to our recent economic downturn, I was interested in a right-of-center approach to Roosevelt's New Deal. The author's credentials made me a bit wary of her interpretation of the Roosevelt administration, but I was curious to read about her take on the events of the 1930s. Ms. Shlaes is obviously qualified on the subject of the Depression, but she seems to feel that Roosevelt was given faulty advice from a group of advisors who were influenced by the events in Soviet Russia that once mesmerized the American intellectual left. Without stating as such, I think she feels that socialism may have crept into the legislative thinking of FDR. She also dwells to a considerable extent on Andrew Mellon and Wendell Wilkie to apparently emphasize how the New Deal shortchanged these giants of industry and utilities and whom history has forgotten or mischaracterized. I failed to see how these individuals influenced to any great extent the programs of the New Deal or the eventual recovery of the American economy, if indeed any individuals did influence our recovery more than World War Two did. Unions and the sufferings of the labor class are not given much print unless Ms. Shlaes wants to indicate the perfidious influence of the communists in the labor movement. She does mention the fact that some companies used thugs to break up strikes but little is made of the appalling conditions and low wages paid out. She seems to fault the Supreme Court for its eventual ruling in favor of the minimum wage, and blames Roosevelt for inhibiting industry growth and employment by forcing companies to pay its workers a decent wage. By raising wages, Ms. Shlaes feels that companies were unable to reinvest in its business or to hire more workers. I don't feel that many people believe that FDR single-handedly ended the Depression, just as the Right steadfastly holds on to its belief that Ronald Reagan forced the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Roosevelt had his faults, but his accomplishments like social security and the Wagner Act that ended industry's exploitation of the workingman are seen as debatable in this account. Ms. Shlae's interpretation of the motives of FDR and the legislation that revolutionized American business and labor does provide for serious discussion of the role of government in tending to our economy's shortcomings and to the greed of industry that is left to unregulated excesses. I just feel that a more balanced approach could have made this interesting book a bit more palatable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a true eye-opener and very timely. I recommend it for anyone who wants to know what is going on with the economy now.
AmericanPatriot More than 1 year ago
Even Glenn Beck recommends it! A must read...
LilJenn More than 1 year ago
Harry Truman is my favorite president. He was not mentioned in this book at all. That was disappointing. With that aside, if your interested in economics and different perspective on the Great Depression this is a great book to read. This book is very informative on the gold standard, development of utilities, Keynesians(people who believe in putting money into the ecomomy to stimulate growth), communisim, as well as how a lot of policies, laws and institutions were created between the 20's and 40's (social security, labor unions, SEC, TVA, AAA, ACLU,etc.). The one thing this book helped me to understand was how the depression was not at all similar to the current economy we are in ,right now, in 2009. The perspective the author used was interesting but sometimes read like a textbook. The amount of information that was gathered to write this book is astounding. I believe this book has helped me understand the problem with to much government involvement in our daily lives and how this affected us then and now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I found this book sometimes a bit biased in its treatment of Roosevelt and his administration's policies, the wealth of factual information and the writing style made this book well worth reading. The Author obviously is a bit dubious, however, about the value of social programs or Government intervention and anyone interested in reading this book should be prepared for this. I only wish the author had been a bit more balanced. There was a lot of good that came out the Government programs during the Depression and the author doesn't give these as much credit as they deserve.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting; great historical review of similar circumstances experienced with the 2008 economic meltdown!
Texas_Diesel More than 1 year ago
An enlightening update to an era usually viewed as a "video soundbite" in today's world. Politics are nicely set aside and an intelligent review of socialist policy thrust upon this country and it's people has been written. This history is repeating itself today. With the publication of this book, we the people, cannot blame the resurgence of socialist, Marxist public policy on our ignorance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago