Commerce Cabinet Crisis IX: Jesse H. Jones


Harry Hopkins was followed by a second Commerce Secretary who was an important Roosevelt administration figure, but not really important in his capacity as Secretary of Commerce. That man was Jesse H. Jones. Born in Tennessee, as a young man Jones went to work for his uncle at age 19; the uncle then died when Jones was just 24, at which point he moved to Houston and took over the family business. Jones became a major Houston figure, and helped secure federal funding for the Houston Ship Channel that turned Houston into an important port.

Woodrow Wilson offered him the Commerce job back in the day, but Jones turned it down. Later, Wilson prevailed upon him to run military relief for the American Red Cross. After the war, Jones went back into private business, but Herbert Hoover called on him to serve as a member of the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation which was initially tasked with trying to rescue troubled banks by providing loans and liquidity. This didn’t really work very well and, as is well known, the situation got worse and worse throughout the Hoover years. When FDR took office, he reorganized the RFC and put Jones in charge.

The new RFC had more funding and a broader mandate—it made loans directly to businesses and to state and local governments across the country. The result was perceived by Jones’ rivals inside and outside of the administration as a patronage empire, but it seems Roosevelt was happy enough with his work. When Hopkins was sent abroad to represent FDR in London and Moscow, his Commerce hat was passed to Jones. Soon enough, the war was on and domestic reform projects were out of the spotlight. Instead, the RFC was reoriented toward war production. By 1944, Roosevelt was sick of Vice President Henry Wallace and wanted him dumped from the ticket which he was, in favor of Harry Truman. But there was a desire to keep Wallace on the inside of the tent pissing out, so the Commerce job was given to him and Jones was forced out in 1945.