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Arthur Morgan is best known as the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a man whose sweeping program for the New Deal agency ran afoul of his fellow board members and the president, resulting in his eventual dismissal. Yet, as Aaron Purcell cautions in his interesting new biography, this reductionist view obscures the larger impact that Morgan had on the history of American reform. Inspired by a Progressive vision of improved communities, Morgan worked [End Page 114] tirelessly to engineer a better life for people, marked by moral values, meaningful work, and personal fulfillment. Unfortunately, he failed to recognize that his ideas had fallen out of fashion in a modernizing society. In this reassessment of Morgan’s life and work, Purcell has crafted a useful and readable biography of a fascinating individual.
As a young man, Morgan was influenced by the utopian thinker Edward Bellamy, whose most famous work, Looking Backward (1888), tells the story of a man who travels through time to a perfected future marked by a highly regulated economy, harmony among workers and producers, and universal education. Morgan embraced Bellamy’s vision, particularly the notion that with careful regulation, practical education, and an ethic of public service, individuals might build a community dedicated to public good and individual improvement. He also adopted a lifelong belief in scientific racism and population control as expressed in the eugenics movement. As Morgan entered his professional career as an engineer, educator, and public servant, Bellamy’s promise of “a more equal and enlightened society” informed his work (p. 235).
Early on, Morgan, a self-taught engineer, focused on drainage and land reclamation projects in Florida and Ohio. He experimented with created communities for workers on those projects, and he also learned the difficulty of navigating bureaucracy and government oversight. An interest in education led Morgan to accept the presidency of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he implemented a program of practical education and training to prepare students for future careers. As Purcell notes, he also began to exhibit the characteristics that would lead to difficulty later in life, most notably his rigid moral and ethical standards and a dogmatic style of administration.
The chairmanship of the Tennessee Valley Authority provided Morgan with the ultimate opportunity to put his vision into practice, using environmental and social engineering to reshape life in the poverty-stricken region. Yet amidst his success, Morgan ran into the political realities of the New Deal and the competing vision of a fellow board member, David Lilienthal. Revisiting the infamous [End Page 115] “Board Fight,” Purcell convincingly argues that Morgan’s inflexibility and resentment of politics abutted Lilienthal’s political savvy and the realities of New Deal bureaucracy. It was Morgan’s personality, as much as his vision, that ultimately doomed his tenure in government.
In his post-TVA retirement, Morgan became involved with a number of smaller projects, most notably a relatively successful program of community-building and education in India. Working outside the reach of American politics, Morgan finally saw his vision come to fruition and, in the process, embraced a newfound flexibility. During this period he also became a recognized scholar of Bellamy’s life and work, still dedicated to the possibility of true progress and national improvement.
Purcell’s biography provides a fascinating study of a complex individual. Morgan’s unique version of Progressivism, based on community-building, social improvement, and practical education, charted a different path for a country moving toward individualism, industrialization, and bureaucratization. Purcell’s analysis of this vision is one of the strengths of his biography, positioning Morgan within (and beyond) American Progressivism as a social movement; in fact, this biography would benefit from a larger discussion of that context, of Morgan’s vision as it relates to aspects of Progressivism and the New Deal that scholars are beginning to explore more fully, like the burgeoning conservation movement and the importance of consumerism, particularly within Roosevelt’s vision of economic recovery. Morgan dedicated his life to finding...