Veblen's Possible Influence on the New Deal Land-Utilization Program as Evidenced by His Student Claud Franklin Clayton

By Vaughn, Gerald F. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Veblen's Possible Influence on the New Deal Land-Utilization Program as Evidenced by His Student Claud Franklin Clayton


Vaughn, Gerald F., Journal of Economic Issues


While there is considerable indirect evidence of Thorstein Veblen's influences upon New Deal policies, there are relatively few direct attributions of credit to him [Tilman 1988]. In this paper, I present one of the rarer cases of direct evidence by describing the New Deal career of economist Claud Franklin Clayton (1890-1968), who studied under Veblen at the University of Missouri. Leonard A. Salter Jr., the major historiographer of the development of land economics, ranks Clayton along with W. J. Spillman and Lewis C. Gray as the three leading figures in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the formative years of land economics research up to World War II [Salter 1967, 244].

Clayton's career added significant content to Veblen's principles and reveals the influence of Veblen's insights as applied during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Possibly Clayton's finest contributions came as the right-hand man to Gray in planning and overseeing the federal government's submarginal land-utilization program of the 1930s, and the origin of Clayton's contributions can be traced to his study under Veblen. This article correlates the thought of Veblen and Clayton.

Clayton earned his bachelor's (1915) and master's (1916) degrees in sociology at the University of Missouri. While majoring in sociology, he also took graduate-level economics courses from Herbert J. Davenport and Veblen. Clayton's master's thesis, "The Theory of Social Unity," which was supervised by Charles A. Ellwood, was a study in social psychology and particularly social solidarity. In his thesis, there is this acknowledgment to Veblen:

For what follows and for much of what has preceded, general acknowledgement of indebtedness is due to Professor T. B. Veblen. Where possible this obligation is indicated by specific references in the footnotes to Professor Veblen's published works. But, through classroom work and otherwise, the present writer's indebtedness to Professor Veblen is general, rather than specific, so that it has not always been possible to follow the customary method of direct citation by way of acknowledgement. Such citations of this character as it has seemed feasible to introduce will not be taken, therefore, as indicating the full extent of the present writer's sense of this general indebtedness [Clayton 1916, 41-431.

In Joseph Dorfman's biography of Veblen, Clayton is quoted as saying "those of us who sat with Veblen and learned to know his thought, ultimately learned that what so often appeared irrelevant to the problem in hand, represented in reality the probing of a remarkable intellect into the roots of our modern civilisation" [Clayton, quoted in Dorfman 1934, 3141.

One could infer that Clayton was a disciple, not merely a student, of Veblen. Even many years later, he wrote that he considered Veblen to be the "profoundest thinker of my time (among men I have personally known)," and as "an analyst of the genesis and nature of institutions, Veblen is, I think, without a peer in the history of thought" [Clayton 1959, 154-155]. He had been astounded by "Veblen's insight into the springs of human behavior" that create habits of thought (institutions), which in Veblen's conception imprison mankind: "Man motivated by an 'instinct of workmanship' and frustrated by archaic habits of thought was the underlying theme of Veblen's teaching" [Clayton 1959, 158[. Yet here is what Clayton concluded:

Veblen showed us the prison, but he did not show us the way out of it. He did not try to. If he cared about the matter at all, he may have felt that there is no way out. I doubt very much, in any case, that he would regard the question of a way out as of any importance. But I do. And that is one of the reasons why I can not properly be classed as a disciple of Veblen, as my :friend, Professor John D. Black, used to call me [Clayton 1959, 158].

One may understand and forgive Black's mistake, since Clayton's thought and distinguished career clearly reveal the Veblenian influence. …

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