Henry Wallace served as Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, Vice President of the United States from 1941 to 1945, and Secretary of Commerce from 1945 to 1946. In 1944, when many others felt that the New Deal was at an end, Wallace said: “The New Deal is not dead. If it were dead the Democratic Party would be dead, and well dead… the New Deal has yet to attain its full strength” . He is best known to posterity for a controversial run for the presidency in the election of 1948.
Henry Agard Wallace was born in Adair County, Iowa, on October 7, 1888, to farmers Henry Cantwell Wallace (“Harry”) and Carrie May Brodhead, the first of six children the couple would have. The family had financial problems up until 1895, when his father and grandfather started the publication Wallaces’ Farm and Dairy. Two years later, renamed Wallaces’ Farmer, they had attracted thousands of paying subscribers, and the great success of the publication allowed the family to enjoy a more comfortable life and move into a brick mansion in Des Moines. Wallaces’ Farmer was a classic American farmers’ journal, covering everything from agricultural improvements to Bible lessons, and it made Harry Wallace a celebrity in the farm belt. As a result, he was named U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Harding on March 5, 1921, and served until his death on October 25, 1924 .
As the eldest child, it was Henry’s responsibility to take care of the farming chores around his family’s estate. In the process, he became interested in plants and crop improvements, especially corn, and had a special area for his own gardening and experimentation. Henry graduated from West High School in 1906 and then from Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in 1910. His senior thesis described soil conservation as a national problem needing government intervention. After college, Henry Wallace joined Wallaces’ Farmer as a writer and editor, a job he would hold right up to the New Deal .
In 1932, Wallace began meeting with Henry Morgenthau, Rexford Tugwell, and Dr. M. L. Wilson, a professor of agriculture who was promoting a program to control overproduction of farm goods. Through them, he met Franklin Roosevelt and a good relationship developed between the two men . Wallace backed Roosevelt for president, and the support of Wallaces’ Farmer proved beneficial to FDR’s campaign. After his victory, the president appointed Wallace Secretary of Agriculture. By this time, Wallace was a firm believer in reducing farm production to raise prices, so he helped craft the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid farmers to take land out of production and slaughter excess livestock, and helped the farm sector recover .
Over time, Wallace’s progressive views put him at odds with the political establishment. In 1944 Roosevelt was persuaded to replace Wallace as Vice-Presidential candidate with little known Senator Harry Truman of Missouri, who became president upon FDR’s death early in 1945. Wallace worked for the new president but then broke with him to make a bid for the White House in 1948, in a futile effort to revive the New Deal coalition in the face of a rejuvenated Republican Party and beginnings of the Cold War. The election threatened to split the Democratic Party in two, until Truman won a surprise victory.
Wallace retired to his farm in South Salem, New York, but maintained a lifelong interest in national affairs. He died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease on November 18, 1965, at the age of 77. He was survived by his wife Ilo; three children, Mrs. Leslie Douglas, Henry B. Wallace, and Robert Wallace; all his siblings, Mary, Ruth, Annabell, John, and James; and several grandchildren. After Wallace died, the New York Times highlighted his greatest achievement: “As Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940 he led farmers from ruinous economic collapse back to stable prices and a measure of prosperity” .
Sources: (1) John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: A Life of Henry Wallace, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, p. 321. (2) Ibid., pp. 3-22; also see “Former Secretaries,” U.S. Department of Agriculture (accessed March 19, 2016). (3) Ibid., pp. 23-37. (4) Ibid., pp. 100-102. (5) “Henry A. Wallace Is Dead at 77; Ex-Vice President, Plant Expert,” New York Times, November 19, 1965; and see our summary of the Agricultural Adjustment Act at https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/programs/. (6) “Henry A. Wallace,” New York Times, November 19, 1965.