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Peek, George Nelsonlocked

(19 November 1873–17 December 1943)
  • Justus D. Doenecke

Peek, George Nelson (19 November 1873–17 December 1943), businessman, farm leader, and New Deal administrator, was born at Polo, a small village in northern Illinois, the son of Henry Clay Peek, a livestock merchant and local sheriff, and Adeline Chase. In 1885 the family moved to a farm near Oregon, Illinois. In 1891 Peek attended Northwestern University, remaining there one academic year. After briefly working as an office assistant for a furniture company, he was hired in January 1893 in Minneapolis by Deere and Webber, a branch of the John Deere Plow Company. He rose from credit manager and salesman to head of the collections department.

By then Peek was six feet tall and known for his iron resolution and strong personality. In 1901 he moved to Omaha, where he became general manager of the John Deere Plow Company. He quickly revived the declining Omaha branch, especially in his trade territory of Nebraska, Wyoming, western Iowa, and southern South Dakota. In 1909 he was part of a seven-man task force that converted the firm into Deere and Company, a holding and operating company. In 1903 he married Georgia Lindsey; they had no children. In 1914 he became vice president in charge of sales and moved to Deere’s headquarters in Moline, Illinois.

In 1917 Peek was appointed industrial representative on the War Industries Board (WIB), a body entrusted with converting peacetime manufacturing to war production. His tasks included advising agencies on locating new production facilities, helping industry find needed supplies, and diverting commodities to either civilian or military use. The WIB lacked significant authority until March 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson appointed financier Bernard Baruch as chairman. Baruch in turn immediately appointed Peek WIB commissioner of finished products, an office Peek held through January 1919. Baruch continued to serve as Peek’s patron. In February 1919 Secretary of Commerce W. C. Redfield appointed Peek chairman of the Industrial Board of the Department of Commerce, which sought to cushion price declines during demobilization, but Peek resigned in April after fighting over rail tariffs with Walker D. Hines, director general of railroads.

From 1919 to 1923 Peek was president and general manager of the Moline Plow Company, which was virtually bankrupt when he took over. Because of the postwar agricultural depression, he was unable to revive the company, noting, “You can’t sell a plow to a busted customer.” While president, Peek made a bad business decision to put Moline’s “Universal” tractor on the market before all flaws had been eradicated. In 1924 he clashed with the firm’s vice president and his former WIB colleague, General Hugh S. Johnson, who sought to reorganize the company and limit operations to the production of plows, thereby eliminating sales of tractors, harvesters, and drills. When the board accepted Johnson’s plans, Peek resigned in June. He subsequently won a $280,000 lawsuit against the firm that charged that his management contract had been violated.

In the meantime, however, Peek and Johnson had devised a program, “Equality for Agriculture,” which they outlined in a pamphlet of that title (1921). The ideas were Peek’s and the language usually Johnson’s. Farmers, they noted, were buying manufacturing goods at relatively high prices in a market protected by tariffs. Conversely they were selling their own produce in a world market at relatively low prices. To alleviate this inequity, Peek and Johnson proposed that the government establish a minimum price for selected crops—eventually wheat, corn, cotton, tobacco, and rice—that would give the farmers “parity,” that is, the same purchasing power they had in the boom years of 1909–1914. A special government corporation would purchase farm surpluses and dump them abroad at whatever the market would bring. Losses on foreign sales would be paid by the farmers themselves through a tax, called an “equalization fee,” based on each bushel or pound of a commodity.

Between 1924 and 1928 Peek’s proposals were continually embodied in bills sponsored by Senator Charles L. McNary (R.-Oreg.) and Gilbert N. Haugen (R.-Iowa). During those years Peek spearheaded McNary-Haugen legislation as president of the American Council of Agriculture and chairman of the Executive Committee of Twenty-Two of the North Central Agricultural Conference. In 1927 and 1928 President Calvin Coolidge vetoed McNary-Haugen bills. When the Republican convention of 1928 failed to endorse Peek’s proposals, he headed the Smith Independent Organization, a futile effort to mobilize farmers behind Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith.

In 1932 Peek campaigned vigorously for Franklin D. Roosevelt. In May 1933 Congress created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and Peek was named AAA administrator. Almost immediately he fought bitterly with Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, who favored production control above all, and Jerome Frank, chief counsel of the Department of Agriculture, who wanted to use the AAA as an instrument of social and economic reform. Peek opposed acreage restriction and forced scarcity, which were the heart of the act, maintaining there was no such thing as overproduction. At the same time, he pushed marketing agreements and an aggressive agricultural export program. The dispute became bitter, and on 6 December 1933 President Roosevelt asked for Peek’s resignation, though he assuaged Peek by making him special adviser on foreign trade and president of the government’s Export-Import Bank. Peek sought bilateral trade agreements on the basis of selected imports and exports, which brought him into conflict with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who advocated unconditional most-favored-nation policies. When Peek’s office negotiated the disposal of 800,000 bales of cotton in a barter deal with Germany, the president balked. In November 1935 Peek resigned from both offices.

For the rest of his life, Peek strongly criticized the New Deal. In 1936 he collaborated with writer Samuel Crowther, another fervent economic nationalist, to produce Why Quit Our Own, based on a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post and containing a strong attack on Roosevelt’s farm program. Peek supplied the material, and Crowther wrote the articles. In 1936 and 1940 Peek campaigned for Republican candidates. He was a member of the national committee of the America First Committee (AFC), organized in 1940 to fight Roosevelt’s interventionist foreign policy, and he wrote pamphlets for the AFC calling for economic autarchy. Beginning in 1937 he divided his time between Moline and Rancho Santa Fe, California, where he died.

Bibliography

The George N. Peek Papers are at the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection of the University of Missouri. Additional Peek papers are in the Chester C. Davis Collection at the University of Missouri. For the definite life of Peek, see Gilbert C. Fite, George N. Peek and the Fight for Farm Parity (1954). Superior accounts of Peek’s New Deal activities are in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal (1959); Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: Launching the New Deal (1973); and Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The New Deal Years 1933–1937 (1986). Valuable descriptions of Peek are in Bernard Sternsher, Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal (1964); Jordan A. Schwarz, The Speculator: Bernard M. Baruch in Washington, 1917–1965 (1981); and John Kennedy Ohl, Hugh Johnson and the New Deal (1985). An obituary is in the New York Times, 18 Dec. 1943.