David Lilienthal (1899-1981)

David Lilienthal was a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) from 1933 to 1941, part of a three-member board that included Arthur E. Morgan (Chairman) and Harcourt A. Morgan (Vice Chairman) [1].  Lilienthal became chairman of the TVA in 1941 and held this leadership position until early 1946 [2].

David Eli Lilienthal was born on July 8, 1899, in Morton, Illinois, to Leo and Minnie Lilienthal. In high school, he excelled in academics and boxing – perhaps developing the pugilistic skills he would later need during the New Deal.  Lilienthal earned his bachelor’s degree from DePauw University in 1920 and his law degree from Harvard in 1923.  Like many future New Deal lawyers, he was heavily influenced by Harvard Professor Felix Frankfurter.  Frankfurter “aroused his interest in conservation and development of natural resources” [3].

During the early years of his career Lilienthal practiced law in Chicago.  Then, in 1931, he became a commissioner for the Wisconsin State Utility Commission.  As both a lawyer and a utilities commissioner, Lilienthal was successful in reducing prices for consumers [4].  President Franklin Roosevelt noticed, and in 1933 FDR asked him to be one of the three leaders of the TVA.  Lilienthal accepted the appointment, “drawn by the romance of the New Deal into the service of the American Government” [5].  He oversaw the TVA’s legal department, as well as its distribution and sale of electricity [6].

Of the three TVA leaders, Lilienthal was the most passionate about providing affordable electricity to the residents of Tennessee and the surrounding states.  These Americans were not receiving adequate (or any) power service from utility companies, largely because the private companies had little interest and/or could not afford to bring electric service to sparsely populated areas at reasonable rates (see our summary of the TVA).  Despite this, TVA faced enormous resistance from private business, and several legal challenges made their way to the Supreme Court [7].  Additionally, some members of Congress viciously attacked Lilienthal and the TVA.  In 1938, for example, U.S. Senator Styles Bridges (R-NH) labeled TVA a “rotten outfit” and called Lilienthal “its Der Fuehrer” [8].

The most prominent TVA battle, lasting through much of the 1930s, occurred between Lilienthal and Wendell Wilkie, president of the private utility company Commonwealth and Southern Corporation.  Wilkie felt that the TVA was trying to force his company out of business by undercutting electric rates.  He claimed that Lilienthal and Harold Ickes, head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), were setting up electric systems that were duplicates of his own, in a deliberate effort to make him sell at lower rates.  He told a congressional committee that this was “one of the most cruel, one of the most brutal, one of the most unfair and one of the most un-American doctrines ever advocated by any one anywhere” [9].

Thanks to Lilienthal’s tenacity, the TVA survived all obstacles and challenges, freeing it up to play an integral role during World War II and allowing it to provide affordable electricity to millions of Americans for decades.  After his service in the TVA, Lilienthal became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (1946-1950), wrote several books, and spent many years in the private sector as a consultant and executive.  He died in 1981, survived by his wife, Helen Marian Lamb; their children, Nancy Alice Bromberger and David Eli Lilienthal Jr.; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren [10].  Lilienthal once wrote: “I believe men may learn to work in harmony with the forces of nature, neither despoiling what God has given nor helpless to put them to use” [11].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., Annual Report of the Tennessee Valley Authority, for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1935, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1936, p. v.  (2) James S. Olson (ed.), Historical Dictionary of the New Deal, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985, p. 302.  (3) “David E. Lilienthal Is Dead At 81; Led U.S. Effort In Atomic Power,” New York Times, January 16, 1981, accessed December 31, 2016.  (4) Ibid.  (5) David E. Lilienthal, TVA: Democracy on the March, New York: Penguin Books, 1944, in the beginning section “The Author.”  (6) Ibid.  (7) See, e.g., “Supreme Court, 8 to 1, Backs TVA On The Sale Of Power Produced From Wilson Dam,” New York Times, February 18, 1936, and “High Court Rules Against Utilities On TVA Power Plan,” New York Times, January 31, 1939.  (8) “Bridges Denounces ‘Hitlerism’ In TVA; Inquiry Is Debated,” New York Times, March 10, 1938.  (9) “Wilkie Attacks TVA As ‘Brutal’,” New York Times, November 24, 1938.  (10) See note 3.  (11) See note 5, p. 11.

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