Book Review: The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes

The Forgotten ManI had been looking for an objective book about The Great Depression for some time. Though I’ve read much on the subject, the majority has been more of an analytical nature and I was looking for something that would also provide historical context. I found that in The Forgotten ManThe Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes. The book was not unknown to me. I had seen references to it many times. I initially avoided the book for no other reason than the sources that regarded it highly. There are two schools of thought when it comes to The Great Depression, FDR and the New Deal.

The first is that President Roosevelt was the savior of all mankind and his policies saved the country from The Great Depression (generally promoted by the left). The second school of thought (generally promoted by the right) is that FDR’s policies in fact, prolonged the country’s economic woes by helping to turn a severe recession into a depression. Most of the praise for this book comes from those that subscribe to the second school of thought and as such, I had avoided it out of concern that it was not objective enough.

For the record, based on my own research, I subscribe to the second school of thought. While I don’t believe that FDR was evil or that all of his policies were bad, the empirical evidence shows that most of his policies did far more harm than good. Interestingly enough, one of the strongest indictments of the New Deal came from FDR’s own Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., who testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in May of 1939:

“We are spending more money than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started and an enormous debt to boot.”

(The above quotation is not in the book, by the way, which I believe gives it even more credibility as being objective. If the book was intended to tear down the New Deal policies, this quote surely would have been included.)

With that said, I found The Forgotten ManThe Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression to be quite enlightening. It focuses on the people involved in business and government during the time period and their relative contributions (or objections) to the policies of the day. It provides historical context that goes beyond data and statistics and includes many eye-opening perspectives from the people that were the closest to both President Hoover’s and President Roosevelt’s administrations.

The Forgotten ManThe Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression does not delve into painful detailed statistics or economic theory. It does certainly touch on some of the predominant economic principles that affect the economy, but does so in a manner which us non-economists can understand. For that reason alone, this book is a must-read for anyone that truly wants to understand the real history of The Great Depression.


+Kevin A. Nye

The Forgotten Man:

A New History of the Great Depression

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

Book Description:
Publication Date: May 27, 2008

great depression photo
Photo by George Eastman House
It’s difficult today to imagine how America survived the Great Depression. Only through the stories of the common people who struggled during that era can we really understand how the nation endured. These are the people at the heart of Amity Shlaes’s insightful and inspiring history of one of the most crucial events of the twentieth century.

In The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes, one of the nation’s most respected economic commentators, offers a striking reinterpretation of the Great Depression. Rejecting the old emphasis on the New Deal, she turns to the neglected and moving stories of individual Americans, and shows how through brave leadership they helped establish the steadfast character we developed as a nation. Some of those figures were well known, at least in their day—Andrew Mellon, the Greenspan of the era; Sam Insull of Chicago, hounded as a scapegoat. But there were also unknowns: the Schechters, a family of butchers in Brooklyn who dealt a stunning blow to the New Deal; Bill W., who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in the name of showing that small communities could help themselves; and Father Divine, a black charismatic who steered his thousands of followers through the Depression by preaching a Gospel of Plenty.

Shlaes also traces the mounting agony of the New Dealers themselves as they discovered their errors. She shows how both Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt failed to understand the prosperity of the 1920s and heaped massive burdens on the country that more than offset the benefit of New Deal programs. The real question about the Depression, she argues, is not whether Roosevelt ended it with World War II. It is why the Depression lasted so long. From 1929 to 1940, federal intervention helped to make the Depression great—in part by forgetting the men and women who sought to help one another.

Authoritative, original, and utterly engrossing, The Forgotten Man offers an entirely new look at one of the most important periods in our history. Only when we know this history can we understand the strength of American character today.

See The Forgotten ManThe Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression at

Photo by The U.S. National Archives

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