Jesse Jones is perhaps the most important, but least well-known, figure who served in the federal government during the Great Depression, New Deal, and World War II. Jones never held elected office, but as director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and later secretary of commerce, he wielded substantial power over the nation's economy. A southwestern banker, Jones did not share the worldview of East Coast financiers. He was almost as distrustful of them as were the impoverished Americans who lost livelihoods in the depression. His sympathies instead rested with the bankers and business community of the South and the West, regions that were, in the words of Walter Prescott Webb, a "colonial economy."
Steven Fenberg has done Jones justice in this thoroughly researched and meticulously written biography. This is a book that shows the unfolding of Jones's life as Jones lived it. For example, the book's organization, not into numbered and argument driven chapters but into chronological slices of Jones's life, reveals how a boy from rural Texas with only an eighth-grade education came to be one of the most important builders of a city and saviors of a nation. Prior to the publication of Unprecedented Power, journalists and acquaintances of the powerful Texan had written the only biographies of Jones. For those who want to know how Jones viewed the world in which he operated, this is the book for them.
Fenberg takes the reader to Washington, D.C., where Jones operated for the most important years of his career, and he presents the political and economic decisions Jones made through Jones's eyes. The reader learns how President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave him the nickname "Jesus Jones" (1). During the 1930s, he became for the president an important link to the nation's business community "west of the Hudson" (206). Jones's most significant accomplishments during the [End Page 428] depression years included use of the RFC, a federal government agency created in the waning days of the Herbert Hoover administration, as the bank of the New Deal. The RFC made loans, and made money for the government from these loans, to other government entities that underwrote the programs that saved countless businesses, homes, and farms from foreclosure while also financing the public works projects that, according to some historians, were the core of the New Deal.
These actions alone would be enough for a successful career, but Jones was not through. He continued to hold his post through the war years, and his efforts proved even more important to ensuring an Allied victory. The RFC was instrumental in promoting the production of war materiel, the most important American contribution to the war effort. Jones involved himself in crucial ways with the supply chain necessary for the production of armaments, buying and stockpiling things like rubber and tin, and he feuded with administration liberals, most notably Vice President Henry Wallace, who was jealous of Jones's close relationship with the president. If this book has flaws they result from the failure to tell a more balanced, analytical story, issues that could have been rectified with a more ambitious research agenda to include the materials in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, the RFC materials in the National Archives, and the papers of many of Jones's contemporaries. These concerns aside, Unprecedented Power will stand for years as the definitive biography of Jones, and will be read not only by Texas historians, but also by scholars interested in national governance.