In October 1951, every Member of the House of Representatives and the Senate received an unusual petition in the mail from an artist named Thomas Hart Benton.
Since Congress first convened in 1789, petitions had been the primary means by which people—individual citizens, municipal governments, interest groups, to name a few—lobbied Congress for assistance on a particular topic. Traditionally, petitions arrived as letters and advocated for any number of issues. Some, like 19th-century petitions calling on Congress to abolish slavery, were issues of national importance. Others, like petitions asking for federal help dredging harbors, were regional or local concerns. In 1844, for instance, Congress received a petition signed by the citizens of Springfield, Illinois, including a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, asking Congress to build a new road to serve its growing population.
What made the 1951 petition unique was that it came in two parts: a letter and a piece of art. It was an offset lithograph of an original painting created to depict the devastation left by a Midwestern flood that year.
Benton’s artwork in the petition, titled Homecoming–Kaw Valley, depicts a family returning home to the devastation left by severe flooding in the Kansas–Kaw–River Valley. Heavy rains in July 1951 caused streams and rivers to jump their banks. The flooding swept through Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Oklahoma. In the painting, houses are mangled, trees are stripped bare, and cars and furniture are shoved atop piles of rotting debris. The floodwaters continue to linger on the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri, the downtown skyline just visible in the background.
Benton, an acclaimed artist whose mural, the Social History of Missouri, adorned the Missouri state capitol, was the son of a former Representative. Benton explained why he sent his grim artwork. “It is not for sale,” he wrote. “It is given to you in the hope that you’ll forget the academics of precedent and get out a new bill which will relieve the human side of this rotting catastrophe.”
And it was a catastrophe. In a letter to Congress, President Harry S. Truman wrote that the flooding that year drove some “two or three hundred persons . . . from their homes.” The devastation included farms, small businesses, and factories dedicated to the defense industry. “There are scenes that are comparable to the bombed urban areas in Europe,” one witness testified before Congress, “and as a matter of fact if you could see one and then the other it would be impossible to distinguish between them.”
In the wake of the natural disaster, the House Appropriations Committee created a Special Subcommittee on Rehabilitation of Flood Stricken Areas to investigate the different strategies and costs of relief for flood victims. Because flooding posed such a high risk in many low-lying areas of the country, few if any private insurers offered affordable protections for flood damage. The flood insurance program sought by supporters like Benton would have lessened the risk by using federal money to subsidize a pool of subscribers which would help defray the cost for homeowners and business owners. During its hearings, the subcommittee heard from a number of witnesses and experts. Soon word got out about the varied levels of assistance the special subcommittee was considering. One idea was to create a federal flood insurance program. Benton sent his striking artistic petition in an effort to persuade both the special subcommittee and the House in general to provide the broadest possible help to the victims in the Midwest.
Unfortunately for Benton, however, his petition arrived too late. By the time it landed on Capitol Hill, the appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives did not include the federal flood insurance program. A frustrated Benton lamented the decision: “The congress has millions to spend . . . but not one cent for human suffering.”
Benton never petitioned Congress again, but one Representative found a way to keep his lithograph working on behalf of flood victims. Richard Walker Bolling of Missouri gathered discarded petitions and later auctioned them in Kansas City, donating the proceeds to flood survivors. Benton’s original work, Flood Disaster (Homecoming–Kaw Valley), had an afterlife, too. A prominent Kansas City family purchased it, and later exhibited it in Kansas and New York.
In May 1952 Congress approved the appropriations bill with $55 million dollars in aid for flood victims. Eventually, as a result of more flooding and other natural disasters—specifically Hurricane Betsy, which caused damage to Florida and the Gulf Coast in 1965—Congress created a National Flood Insurance Program as part of the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968.
Sources: Letter from Thomas Hart Benton to Congressman, October 13, 1951; Hearings Before the Special Subcommittee on Rehabilitation of Flood Stricken Areas, Rehabilitation of Flood-Stricken Areas, 82nd Cong., 1st sess. (September, 1951); Council Grove Republican (Council Grove), October 18, 1951; Washington Post, October 6, 1967; Henry Adams, “Flood Disaster (Homecoming–Kaw Valley),” Sotheby’s Catalog, May 19, 2011.Follow @USHouseHistory