While virtually unknown today, Jesse Holman Jones wielded power comparable to that of FDR, saving a crippled U.S. economy during the Great Depression.
"Jesse Jones redefined Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, the New Deal and World War II mobilization,” said Steven Fenberg, author of Unprecedented Power, a biography of Jones. “If anything, Jones shows us that government can help people and make money at the same time.”
At a crucial time in U.S. history and working largely out of the limelight as chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., Jones saved farms, homes, banks and businesses; built infrastructure; and even set the price of gold with FDR each morning in the President’s bedroom.
Now writer and producer of the Emmy Award-winning documentary film, “Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones,” Fenberg, tells the story of Jones for the first time.
Check out an excerpt of a newly-released Q&A with author of Unprecedented Power, Steven Fenberg:
When did you first learn about Jesse Jones?
It was impossible to grow up in Houston during the 1950s and ’60s and not be influenced by Jesse Jones. He built the city’s most extravagant movie theaters, its largest hotels and its tallest office buildings. His philanthropic foundation, Houston Endowment, supported every major medical, educational and cultural institution in the city. My family’s first store in Houston was located in a building built by Jesse Jones in 1914. Like so many others, my family came to Houston at the end of World War II, when the city was booming because of the industrial military buildup Jones had initiated. Jesse Jones’s commercial activities and his public service profoundly influenced Houston and all of its citizens.
When did you decide to write a book about Jesse Jones?
When I realized that Jesse Jones had initiated and managed many New Deal agencies that made money for the federal government.
It’s almost as if Jones led a double life, that of a businessman and that of a political appointee. Was that common for the time? Do figures like Jones still exist today with regard to that duality?
When Jesse Jones arrived in Houston in 1898 to manage his uncle M.T. Jones’s estate, everything was locally owned, including the banks, newspapers, hotels, insurance companies and utilities. Like many others of his time, Jones understood that he would prosper only if his community thrived, and from the start as a civic leader, he nurtured his community, while as a capitalist, he built his businesses. Some of today’s corporate leaders understand that their businesses will struggle if the workforce they rely on is undereducated and if the consumers they depend on are unable to buy, but the direct link between success and failure in their corporations and their communities is not as apparent because local ownership and control is no longer the norm. We have become more global and less local.
What were his greatest accomplishments?
Stabilizing and preserving the U.S. economic system during the Great Depression and militarizing industry eighteen months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Was Jones really the most powerful man in the U.S. next to FDR?
Every major magazine and newspaper columnist claimed that next to FDR, Jones was the most powerful person in the nation. In 1940, the Saturday Evening Post reported, “Next to the President, no man in the Government and probably in the United States wields greater powers.” In 1941, TIME magazine claimed, “In all the U.S. today there is only one man whose power is greater: Franklin Roosevelt.”
Fortune magazine called Jesse Jones the “fourth branch of government.” A special Congressional resolution was required to allow Jones to hold two government jobs at once: Federal Loan Administrator and Secretary of Commerce. At the time, conservative Republican Senator Robert A. Taft remarked, “I have no great objection to giving Mr. Jones the additional power to act also as secretary of commerce, but I think it is an extraordinary precedent, which is justified only by the character of the man and which I hope may not be repeated.”
Why didn’t Jones run for political office?
If FDR had asked Jones to be his running mate in 1940, he would have accepted. Otherwise, Jones had more power and independence as an appointed official than he would have had in an elected position.
Despite all the good it did, do you think Jones’s industrial mobilization for WWII led to the military industrial complex President Eisenhower warned against?
In 1939, the federal budget, including New Deal expenditures, was less than $10 billion; in 1942, $62 billion was spent just on defense, and most of that went toward building enormous plants that produced airplanes, ships, trucks, tanks, engines, metals and rubber. Until 1940, the U.S. stood behind at least 17 other nations in terms of military strength. Jones and the RFC built the plants and accumulated the materials that turned the nation into what he called the “storehouse of freedom.” It is important to realize, however, that Jones and others began planning the conversion of the economy from military to civilian, and from government to private, almost as soon as they started to build it, knowing that the new enormous capacity had to be properly channeled to prevent oversupply, monopolies and government dominance over industry.
Jones was primarily a businessman, but he also fancied himself a bit of an architect. He built a large part of the Houston skyline, as well as major buildings in New York City and Fort Worth. How much of his physical legacy remains?
Many of his buildings still stand in Houston and in New York City, including the famous Mayfair House, 10 East 40th Street and 200 Madison Avenue, which is worth a visit just to see the lavish lobby. In Houston, among others, the Rice Hotel, the Gulf Building (now known as the Chase Building) and the Houston Chronicle Building still stand.
Why is this the definitive biography of Jesse Jones?
Unprecedented Power gives Jones his deserved place in history by revealing his remarkable contributions and achievements. Tapping exhaustive archival sources, it covers his story from the 1650s, when his ancestors arrived in North America from Wales, to his death in 1956.
Read more and order your own copy of Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good here!