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Monday, July 6, 2015

Don’t Put Eleanor Roosevelt on the $10 Bill

Her legacy is bad economics and outright authoritarianism


When Barack Obama was running in the Democratic primaries for president in 2008, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews oozed a special admiration for the Illinois senator: “My, I felt this thrill going up my leg,” he confessed.

Last week, Matthews’ left leg was inspired once more, but this time it was set a-tingling by the ghost (or poltergeist) of Eleanor Roosevelt.

He wants her image on US currency. (Of course, as a spokeswoman for her husband Franklin’s high-tax, big-spending policies of the 1930s, Eleanor had already been in everybody’s pockets.)

Last month, the US Treasury invited Americans to put forth suggestions for a woman to appear on the $10 bill in the year 2020. It’s meant to be an honor, perhaps long overdue, to mark the centennial of the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote.

But Eleanor Roosevelt? At the risk of throwing cold water on Matthews’ legs, let me explain why his reasons are flawed.

Matthews: “For all the horrors of the 1930s, there was one person who was out there demanding relief. For a husband who could not walk, there was a wife who could and did, visiting coal miles, migrant camps, the homes of sharecroppers and all those New Deal projects.”

Who knew that out of 125 million Americans in the 1930s, only a single, solitary one — just one! — demanded “relief.” Makes you wonder how the “Great Depression” ever got its name.

But, of course, Matthews doesn’t mean “relief” in the sense of a psychic easing of pain and distress. He means federal spending, in one form or another (whether evidence ever shows it worked or not). But, even in that case, Eleanor was hardly alone. Then as now, all it took was a pair of lungs and a desire to “do something” with the incomes of other people, present and future.

Now, about “all those New Deal projects”: Like the proverbial mosquito in a nudist colony, I hardly know where to begin. Statist orthodoxy holds that when you mix tax money with good intentions — even if you add a heaping helping of cynical vote-buying, corruption, waste, and fraud — you get magical outcomes. But not even the Roosevelt administration’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, believed there was much magic to New Dealing. He declared publicly on the eve of World War II,

We have tried spending money. We are spending more money than we have ever spent before and it does not work. … I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job, I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. … I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started and an enormous debt to boot!

As historian Burton W. Folsom demonstrated conclusively in his book New Deal or Raw Deal: How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged Americathe make-work and redistributive schemes of the 1930s were economic snake oil combined with political smoke-and-mirrors. Economists at UCLA concluded some years ago that those policies helped prolong the Depression by about seven years.

In my essay “Great Myths of the Great Depression,” I pointed out how FDR’s federally-supervised destruction of crops and discouragement of business hurt both farmers and workers.

Chris Matthews worships without understanding the hocus-pocus that contemporary commentator H.L. Mencken saw through from start to finish.

He labeled the New Deal a “political racket” and “a series of stupendous bogus miracles,” with its “constant appeals to class envy and hatred,” its “treating government as a milch-cow with 125 million teats,” and its “frequent repudiations of categorical pledges.”

FDR’s fabled New Deal began, declared Mencken, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flop-houses and disturbing the peace.”

Matthews: “It was Mrs. Roosevelt who took a stand for African Americans, most dramatically when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall, resigning her membership from the DAR right then and there.”

I agree, Eleanor was right on that one. But so were millions of other Americans. Eleanor was not the first to object to the Anderson snub, nor was she alone. Thousands of other DAR women resigned their memberships too, many of them before the First Lady did. Black author Zora Neale Hurston was among those who had to pressure Eleanor to climb aboard the indignation train after it had left the station.

Matthews: She championed civil rights, lobbied against the poll tax, pushed for a living wage. 

Again, Matthews fails to see anybody fighting for civil rights but Eleanor and others who jumped in front of the march. She should be applauded for getting this right, but Eleanor was a late-blooming talker, not a doer, and there were lots of both talkers and doers before her. 

As to the living wage, she was dead wrong. Forcing wages up by government decree simply prices the less-skilled out of a job. (And her progressive predecessors knew it: the minimum wage was aimed at keeping African Americans and others that progressives declared “undesirable” out of work, in effect subsidizing racial discrimination.)

Matthews: As FDR’s widow she carried on his commitment to the United Nations, helping to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

And the world lived in peace and harmony ever after. Right.

The fact is, what’s good in the UN’s Declaration wasn’t new; it was said before, and better, by people such as America’s Founders. What’s bad in the UN’s Declaration — such as the nonsensical “right” to “free and compulsory education” — is statist gobbledygook that either doesn’t work or is deservedly paid little heed in much of the world.

There you have it. That’s Matthews’ best case for picking Eleanor Roosevelt from among the hundreds of millions of great women in American history and putting her face on the ten dollar bill. Pretty lame, but it doesn’t even consider what she tried to do to the First Amendment.

One of the persistent critics of the New Deal was the columnist Westbrook Pegler. Eleanor disliked him enough to put pressure on the FBI to shut him up. She wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, suggesting he pursue a sedition investigation that would implicate Pegler.

When Hoover reported that his snoops uncovered nothing, she leaked Hoover’s letter to her friend Josephine Adams, who had ties to the Communist Party, in the hopes that Adams and her Daily Worker friends would dig up some dirt on Pegler that she could throw back at Hoover. All this is well documented by Pennsylvania State University historian David Witwer here.

If this nasty stuff from Eleanor Roosevelt gives Chris Matthews a thrill up the leg, imagine how he must have felt when he learned the Obama administration’s IRS was targeting Tea Partiers!

Fearing I might not be giving Eleanor a fair shake, I decided to browse through the weekly newspaper columns she wrote from 1936 to 1962 under the overbearing and unimaginative title “My Day.”

Given the way Matthews and other statists fawn over her, I figured I would surely find an endless string of wisdom pearls. Instead, I found sappy verbosity that, even as history, is dull and unquotable. Many of her columns display an embarrassing naiveté about policy matters, both foreign and domestic.

Take this one from 1962, when “My Day” was, mercifully, in its last days in American newspapers. She began,

Among the many people who send me plans for possible better understanding with Russia and avoidance of a nuclear war is a gentleman named Mr. Stephen D. James. He can be reached through P.O. Box 2737, Grand Central Station, and he invites anyone who has an idea as to how to preserve the peace of the world to send it to him.

The James plan, she revealed, was a massive “Peace Hostages” program (yes, another government program) whereby American volunteer families would move to Russia for a couple of years in exchange for Russian families being sent here. Surely the two major world powers wouldn’t undertake a nuclear war as long as each had possession of such “peace hostages.” Though admitting she wouldn’t volunteer herself, Eleanor nonetheless opined that “this is not such a bad idea.”

If Eleanor Roosevelt’s mugshot is to be on a bill, let it be an invoice — for the costs of her naïve complicity in prolonging the Great Depression, for her deliberate willingness to use the FBI to undermine the First Amendment, and for her 26 years of quaint but forgettable newspaper columns. We can surely do better.


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.