Brother, Can You Spare A Billion? The Story of Jesse Jones  

Jones and workers

The Great Depression

In 1929, the country began its steep slide into the depths of the Great Depression. In 1931, when it became apparent that two failing Houston banks were about to bring down all the others, Jones called the city's leading businessmen to his office to work out a plan that would allow the stable banks and several local companies to rescue the two faltering banks.

As a result of Jones' leadership, no banks in Houston failed during the Great Depression. His work did not go unnoticed. President Herbert Hoover appointed Jones to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was created to provide relief to the nation's banks and get the economy back on track. Unfortunately, the economy continued to collapse.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, he expanded the RFC's powers and elevated Jones to chairman. Quickly, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation became a central pillar of Roosevelt's New Deal. As chairman, Jones directed billions of dollars toward needy banks, industries, farmers and citizens. He had almost complete autonomy in deciding where the government's money should go and he parceled it out not as charity, but as an investment by America in its people.
Under Jones, the RFC did not just make grants or loans, it bought stock in struggling enterprises, giving the government a voice in how those enterprises were run. During the bleakest years of the Depression, Jones was arguably the most powerful man in the world financial community. He was, in the words of observers at the time, nothing less than a "fourth branch of government."

Jones and FDRWorld War II And Mobilizing Industry

Besides helping to save the economy during the Depression, Jones led the country's move into wartime. In 1940, Roosevelt appointed Jones to his cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. Jones refused to take the job unless he could also retain his position as Federal Loan Adminstrator, overseeing all lending, including the activities of the RFC. Using his dual positions as Secretary of Commerce and Federal Loan Adminstrator, Jones mobilized industry to make the United States' "arsenal of democracy" a reality.

In June 1940, Congress gave Jones and the RFC practically limitless power to do anything the defense and war-making authorities needed to protect the safety of citizens and prepare for war. Subsidiaries, such as the Defense Plant Corporation and Defense Supplies Corporation, were set up first to strengthen the country's defense and finally to wage war.

Only upon Jones' request and the approval of the President could any of these activities take place. More than 20 billion dollars was disbursed for the war effort, which included establishing new synthetic rubber and magnesium industries in the U.S. By the time he left federal service in 1945, forced out by a bitter rivalry with Roosevelt's vice president, Henry Wallace, he had forever altered the way business and government dealt with each other.

Jones' Legacy

After fourteen years of public service in Washington, D.C., Jones returned to Houston in 1947 and began to focus on philanthropy. In 1937, Jones and his wife Mary, founded Houston Endowment. Jones had always felt handicapped by his lack of formal education. He began supporting scholarship programs, including programs for women and minority students. Jones was eager to assist young men and women of all races obtain a college education and improve their stations in life. By the time he died on June 1, 1956, he had helped more than 4,000 students through scholarship programs in 57 colleges and universities.