American History / Right Place, Wrong Time: The Rise And Fall Of Governor Harvey Parnell

Right Place, Wrong Time: The Rise And Fall Of Governor Harvey Parnell

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In October of 1929 the economic bubble the United States and the majority of the world had reveled in burst. The stock market crashed and the United States found itself deep in the worst economic depression the country had ever known. The year before, Harvey Parnell, a farmer and the Lieutenant Governor, rose to the highest office in the State of Arkansas after John Martineau left his post to pursue a position as a federal judge. Parnell’s governorship will be tainted by the depression and will, for a short time, be viewed as the worst in the State’s history. Even though Harvey Parnell was viewed by many as the “Herbert Hoover of Arkansas,” he did attempt and accomplish some rather impressive reforms and improvements in the State, some of which include: road improvements, education reform, and his attempts to save the farming community from complete obliteration. Unfortunately, his success was often clouded by the Great Depression, which would eventually lead to his retirement from office.

Harvey Parnell once said that “[at] one time public roads in Arkansas were so bad that the wild geese, honking southward, would go around them.” In 1927, Parnell, as Lieutenant Governor, helped get the legislation for the Martineau Road Plan passed in the State Legislature. This legislation dealt with the improvement of the state highway system. Parnell also proposed the building of roads in the rural areas connecting outlying communities with the main state highway. Parnell, and Martineau before him, worked to make sure that the new highway system would not be paid for by personal property taxes but by the taxes on gasoline and vehicle licenses. This way the people paying for the new highway would be the people who actually use it. As a result, by 1930 more than four thousand miles of the state highway had been improved.

“In almost every county of the State, bright-faced, mind-hungry boys and girls of pure American blood, with intellects as keen as any on Earth, are condemned by law to grow up in ignorance, without a fair chance to obtain an education.” This is a quote from a speech Harvey Parnell gave to the Arkansas Education Association in 1929. It would definitely be true to say that the flagship of Parnell’s administration was its reform of the education system in Arkansas. In 1929, only about thirteen thousand children attended school on a regular basis. This figure only included grade schools; high schools were very rare and many required tuition to be able to attend. Parnell viewed education as the main ingredient in the success of the State. He once said that “brain, and not brawn, must bring prosperity to Arkansas.”

In order to fix the state educational system, Parnell began by implementing the Equalizing Fund for the Free Public Schools proposed by both Parnell and Martineau in 1927. This law put in place the mechanisms for “[guaranteeing]… all children of the State a minimum standard of educational advantages.” Unfortunately, when the Equalizing Fund was created there were not many ways to fund it. So in 1929, the Legislature enacted a state income tax where part of the money would go to the Equalizing Fund. Also in that year, the Legislature amended a tax law, written by Harvey Parnell in 1923, which placed a tax on the sale of cigars and cigarettes. The changes they made allowed for an easier method of collection. The proceeds from this tax also went into the school fund.

By 1930, seventy-two consolidated school buildings were “built in communities… which never before enjoyed high school advantages.” Also by 1930, high school enrollment increased by more than twenty per cent, the number of students bussed to school increased from thirteen thousand to over thirty-six thousand, school terms were increased to eight months and the schools were staffed with better teachers and stocked with new equipment. This reform happened so quickly that Parnell was informed “that no such educational awakening has ever occurred in any state within so short a time.” Parnell had accomplished a complete turnaround of the state’s educational system.

Another major problem in the state during this time dealt with Parnell’s kinsmen, the farmer. During a speech given over KLRA radio Parnell claimed that “The darkest hour in the history of the State came in 1930.” This plight that Parnell spoke of was the Drought of 1930 that affected nearly the entire country. The effects of the drought were felt for many years after. Parnell encouraged cotton farmers to reduce their acreage and plant food in the extra space to support their families. Farming families responded to Parnell by storing vegetables and fruits through “canning, preserving, drying, and processing.” Parnell claimed that farmers would have no money to spend but would have enough food not to go hungry. They would have enough to survive to the next year.

Parnell also tried to lessen the weight on the farmers’ shoulders by reducing the property tax and creating a state income tax. If the property tax had been left alone or even raised the farmers who did not make a profit would still be taxed on the value of their farm property. Parnell created the state income tax, so that only the people who made a sizeable profit over the year would be taxed and not the farmers who barely broke even. The only people that really opposed the implementation of a state income tax were the very rich because, as Parnell put it, they “saw the end of their long paradise of tax evasion.” As a result of the income tax, a new State Hospital for Nervous Diseases was constructed, a Tuberculosis Sanitarium was built in Booneville, and an eight month school was made available in every school district.

If Harvey Parnell was able to accomplish all of these things for the State, how then did he come to be known as the “Herbert Hoover of Arkansas”? The simple answer to this question is the Great Depression. After the stock market crashed in 1929, the people of Arkansas, along with most of the nation, were left with barely pennies to their name. Just two years before Arkansas had survived a massive flood from the Mississippi River and one year after the crash they had to endure the greatest drought the country had ever known. By the fall of 1930, hunger had become a major problem in the poorer parts of Arkansas. The Red Cross was dispatched to help with the need for food, but their supplies and funding was limited. In January of 1931, farmers in England, Arkansas marched into the town and demanded that the store there provide them with provisions to last them through the winter. After negotiations with the Red Cross the store was opened and supplies were given to the farmers. As a result of not only the crash in 1929 of the stock market and the Drought of 1930, a banking panic occurred in November and December of 1930 where more than 600 banks across the United States closed their doors.

The Depression combined with the Drought of 1930 made the public very conscientious about money and spending. As people began to look at how Governor Parnell was building new buildings and bridges and improving the road systems, they began to question his ability to recognize the seriousness of the situation. Possibly what they saw more than the building of these new works was his constant raising of taxes to pay for them. Eventually the people of Arkansas just stopped paying the taxes and the Martineau Road Program and the School Equalizing Fund lost all of its revenue and ground to a halt.

Parnell failed at trying to get Arkansas out of the Depression, but how was the nation finally able to recover? During Parnell’s administration, Herbert Hoover was the President of the United States and he tried things similar to Parnell’s efforts. Hoover, too, was not very well liked in the eyes of the public by the end of his time in office. Hoover lost the Presidency in 1932, when the nation elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to succeed him. Roosevelt was governor of New York during Parnell’s administration, and he too had to help his state cope with the Crash of 1929 and Banking Panic of 1930. The only thing Roosevelt didn’t have to face was the worsening plight of the farmers. Hoover put in place the mechanisms for Roosevelt’s plans to save the country, but he is rarely recognized for this. Franklin Roosevelt outlined his plan for recovery in his inaugural speech in March of 1933. He named this plan the New Deal. Out of this New Deal, Roosevelt created many programs such as the Civil Works Administration which provided four million people with jobs and the Public Works and Works Progress Administrations that built schools, public buildings, roads, and bridges throughout the country. Even though the New Deal relieved the stress of the Great Depression somewhat, the nation didn’t truly recover until the buildup for World War II in 1941.

After serving the people of Arkansas for nearly fifteen years from his start as representative in the Arkansas House of Representatives to becoming Governor, Harvey Parnell retired from the governorship in 1933. He tried to be a champion of the small farmer, a reformer of the educational system, and a provider of a great highway system to the state of Arkansas, but in the end he left office being viewed as one of the worst governors in history; a title which could be seen as true from one point of view but is highly erroneous from another. Like a lot of history, the legacy of Harvey Parnell changes depending on the perspective. Even though Parnell left defeated, he left with honor and integrity. In his farewell address he humbly stated that “I can only say that I am very thankful; I am deeply grateful and shall never forget” and neither shall we.

Selected Bibliography

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.

Garraty, John A., “The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression,” The American Historical Review 78, no. 4 (October 1973): 907-944.

Hamilton, David E., “The Causes of the Banking Panic of 1930: Another View,” The Journal of Southern History 51, no. 4 (Nov. 1985): 581-608.

“Harvey Parnell,” 2003, <http://www.oldstatehouse.com/exhibits/virtual/governors/the_1920s_and_1930s/parnell.asp> (April 13, 2006)

Harvey Parnell address to the Arkansas Education Association, 1929. Harvey Parnell Speeches (MC80), folder 1. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Harvey Parnell campaign speech, 1930. Harvey Parnell Speeches and Clippings (MS/P24), folder 2. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Harvey Parnell farewell address, 1933. Harvey Parnell Speeches and Clippings (MS/P24), folder 4. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Harvey Parnell radio address over KLRA, November 8, 1931. Harvey Parnell Speeches (MC80), folder 2. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Harvey Parnell speech on his nomination for governor, 1928. Harvey Parnell Speeches and Clippings (MS/P24), folder 2. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Harvey Parnell speech on education, 1930. Harvey Parnell Speeches (MC80), folder 2. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Harvey Parnell speech on crop conditions, 1931. Harvey Parnell Speeches and Clippings (MS/P24), folder 3. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Inaugural address of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1933. http://newdeal.feri.org/speeches/1933a.htm.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Ltd., 1984.

Romasco, Albert U. The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Smiley, Gene. Rethinking the Great Depression. American Ways Series. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004.

“Taxation and Rural School Development in Arkansas,” Lincoln County School News, 17 June 1930.

Williams, C. Fred, et al. A Documentary History of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1984.



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