On May 18, 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, creating the TVA. The aim was to provide river navigation, flood control, electric power, employment and improved living conditions in the seven states cradling the Tennessee Valley region. Much of the public welcomed the TVA as one of the most visionary of FDR’s New Deal innovations. Displaced farmers and the region’s power companies were not among them.
“They started a new deal program that would help everyone and improve everyone’s life. They formed a group called the Tennessee Valley Authority. These were the biggest idiots of all. They come strolling in here thinking they’re all good giving people cheap electric power, but they don’t think of the farmers.
“Where do you think they got their power from? They got it from the rivers. The rivers I used to irrigate my land with. But it was all gone then. They formed dams, and stopped up the water. My poor apples were gone then. My sisters still had their business, but they too were unhappy with what the TVA was doing to the farm that my father had started.
“That was it for me. I couldn’t produce any more apples with those darn TVA people doing what they wanted with the water. I was then forced to move into town to try to get a factory job. I took all the money that I had, and all my clothes, and I was off to see what this New deal was all about.
“Wendell Wilkie, president of the Commonwealth and Southern Company, led the fight against the TVA. He had many followers, but there were also men that disagreed with him and they liked the idea of having the Tennessee Valley Authority.”
Interviewed November 11,1934
“There is just one phase of this program to which we object most seriously, and that is the Federal Government spending the taxpayers’ money for the erection of power plants which, as we feel, are not needed for the very simple reason that generally, throughout the country, there is an abundance of power capacity, and particularly in the Tennessee Valley region there is already an excess of capacity. We are at a loss to understand how the power generated at Government-built plants can be disposed of except to take the place of privately owned power plants now supplying that community.”
John D. Battle
Executive Secretary of the National Coal Association
Hearings before the Committee on Military Affairs
House of Representatives (74th Cong., 1st Sess., 1935)
Representative Joe Martin of Massachusetts stated that the TVA was “patterned closely after one of the Soviet dreams.” As a subsidiary of the federal government, the TVA enjoyed numerous advantages that private power enterprises did not: from the onset it paid less than one fifth of the equivalent total Federal taxes paid by investor owned power companies. The authority did not pay any interest on funds appropriated to it from 1933 to 1959.
Not surprisingly, Wendell Wilkie’s Commonwealth and Southern, and various other power companies as well, filed a total of thirty four lawsuits against the TVA by 1937. Three of those challenged the very constitutionality of the act before the Supreme Court. The TVA remained intact throughout.
Between 1933 and the end of World War II, the TVA directors managed the biggest construction project on Earth, helping bring the people living in the region into the modern industrial and agricultural era. But not without a fight.