History Lesson

Help! Call the White House!

How the 1927 Mississippi Flood created big government.

As the Hurricane Katrina anniversary coverage blows out to sea and New Orleans braces for another year of neglect, it’s worth pausing to consider the fallout from the disaster that was previously deemed the worst in U.S. history—the 1927 Mississippi flood. After Katrina, it is now clear, too little was done to rethink the government’s role: The era of big government is still over. In contrast, though, the 1927 catastrophe provoked a fierce argument over whether Washington should jettison its historical reluctance to aid battered localities, and, in that end, the flood helped usher in an era of activist government—based on the realization, often forgotten today, that there are certain problems that government alone can solve.

In 1927, the White House was occupied by a president who, like George W. Bush, had little use for activist government (at least at home): Calvin Coolidge. “If the federal government were to go out of existence,” he said, “the common run of people would not detect the difference.” Those services people needed, he thought, the states could best provide. Coolidge forged his views in the rural Vermont of his youth—a landscape of homogenous Yankee communities that celebrated thrift, piety, and self-reliance. And while Coolidge’s old-fashioned rectitude made him beloved in the wake of Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome scandals, the president’s philosophy was becoming increasingly ill-suited for 20th-century realities. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson grasped that industrialization and urban growth had made activist government a necessity, at least in such areas as regulating working hours, the safety of food and drugs, and interstate commerce. Even the “return to normalcy” under Harding and Coolidge couldn’t erase the new expectations that the White House should take the lead in keeping the United States affluent, strong, and just.

Coolidge’s ideology was put to the test in April 1927, when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks. Since the previous fall, heavy rains, followed by floods, had wrought havoc in the Midwest. On April 16, the disaster assumed new proportions when a 1,200-foot stretch of a levee collapsed in southern Illinois. Five days later, the force of the torrent broke another levee downriver at Mounds Landing, Miss. The waters swept away hundreds of black laborers working to fortify the river banks. In the days ahead, the disaster would kill hundreds, displace hundreds of thousands, and produce damages totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The day after the levee collapsed, Coolidge held a meeting of his Cabinet. He chose Herbert Hoover, his commerce secretary, to head up a rescue and relief effort. Hoover was Coolidge’s stylistic opposite: Where the president liked to delegate work and didn’t care for the minutiae of policy, Hoover was a workaholic, technocrat, hands-on manager, and—as a Stanford-trained engineer who had led food-relief efforts for Europe after World War I—an obvious choice for the job.

Hoover threw himself into his task, but the funds he secured were insufficient. Private philanthropy simply came up short. Public debate swirled around a strong response from Washington—in both dollars and symbolism. Coolidge resisted both. Governors, senators, and mayors asked him to visit the flood zone. “Your coming would center eyes of nation and the consequent publicity would result in securing millions of dollars additional aid for sufferers,” the governor of Mississippi wired. But Coolidge demurred. He declined requests from NBC to broadcast a nationwide radio appeal, and from humorist Will Rogers to send a telegram to be read at a benefit.

Taking center stage, Coolidge feared, would feed demands for a greater federal role in dealing with the calamity. Four decades earlier, Grover Cleveland had vetoed a relief bill for Texas drought victims, and even Theodore Roosevelt, who did as much an anyone to expand the presidency’s role in solving national problems, had demanded that local New Orleans banks underwrite federal funds being spent to fight yellow fever there. For Coolidge to break with this tradition might set a dangerous precedent—and, he knew, might imperil the budget surpluses he had worked hard to achieve.

But the public—especially in the distressed areas—called on Washington to do more. “It has been necessary,” wrote the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, “to school President Coolidge day by day a bit more towards the realization of the immensity of the catastrophe.” Urging the president to use the surplus for relief, the Paducah News-Democrat concluded that Coolidge had either “the coldest heart in America or the dullest imagination, and we are about ready to believe he has both.” Still, others supported the president. “Fortunately, there are still some things that can be done,” the New York Times declared, “without the wisdom of Congress and the all-fathering federal government.”

Unremitting newspaper coverage of the suffering wrought by the flood increased the pressure. But Congress had adjourned, and Coolidge declined to convene a special session to pass an emergency appropriation. Only in late 1927, when Illinois’ Frank Reid, the Republican chair of the House Flood Control Committee, held public hearings was Coolidge’s hand forced. In his December 1927 State of the Union message—they were often done in December back then—he endorsed federal flood-control measures. But he insisted that local governments and property owners bear most of the costs. Coolidge’s plan also called for spending hundreds of millions dollars less than the Senate and the House bills. Deadlock ensued. Will Rogers remarked that Coolidge was going to further postpone relief legislation in “the hope that those needing relief will perhaps have conveniently died in the meantime.”

Eventually, Coolidge conceded on the issue of local contributions, but only partially. To avoid assuming too large a permanent role for Washington, he specified that only areas flooded in 1927 could depend on more federal aid and less local aid. But Congress thought little of this overture, and Coolidge grew intransigent about yielding any more. In April, the president told an aide that he considered the emerging legislation “the most radical and dangerous bill that has had the countenance of the Congress since I have been president.”

Coolidge had his reasons. He told reporters he feared that Congress had “lost sight of” the goal of protecting those threatened by floods. “It has become a scramble to take care of the railroads and the banks and the individuals who may have invested in levee bonds, and the great lumber concerns that own many thousands of acres in that locality, with wonderful prospects for the contractors.” He also thought that the appropriation was being larded up with giveaways, and that Southern corruption would prevent the funds from reaching their beneficiaries.

In early May, with the House and Senate trying to reconcile their versions of the bill, Coolidge finally stepped in to strike a deal. To his satisfaction, it stipulated that Washington would be financially responsible only for the areas flooded in 1927. But it also allowed that the cash-strapped localities wouldn’t have to contribute and thus spent more federal dollars than the president wanted. It also established a federal board to improve the physical engineering around the river. And, notably, it deemed the region’s flooding to be a matter of national concern. Declaring the measure “the best that can be obtained from Congress,” Coolidge accepted it—though he declined to host a signing ceremony, inking the bill in private on May 15, just after finishing his lunch.

Despite the president’s reluctance, the 1928 bill was a landmark. Not only did it provide needed aid but (as Coolidge had feared) it overturned the expectations that Washington could leave regional crises to state and local governments. Soon, under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, the public would come to rely on a vigorous role for Washington in disaster relief, as in so many other areas—through programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority Act (which among other things aimed to control flooding and stop soil erosion) and the Soil Conservation Service (charged with using technical expertise to protect farmland).

But FDR and, for that matter, Coolidge, held office at a time when public sentiment was building behind the idea that a strong state in a wealthy nation could—and should—alleviate human suffering. Bush and the Republican Party have benefited from the popularity of the opposite idea: that the private sector, not the government, best provides relief. For everything that it destroyed, Hurricane Katrina seems to have left that idea standing.