Jesse H. Jones, businessman and New Deal official, son of William Hasque and Laura Anna (Holman) Jones, was born in Robertson County, Tennessee, on April 5, 1874. Jesse's mother died when he was six years old, and his father's widowed sister, Nancy Hurt, became the Jones children's surrogate mother. When Jesse was nine, the family moved to Dallas, Texas, where William Jones managed his brother's lumberyard in Terrell. Two years later they moved back to a farm on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. After completing the ninth grade, young Jesse was placed in charge of one of his father's tobacco factories. In 1891 the family returned to Dallas where Jesse entered Hill's Business College. In 1895 he went to work in his uncle's firm, the M. T. Jones Lumber Company, in Hillsboro, Texas, and later became manager of the company's Dallas lumberyard, then the largest in town. In 1898, after his uncle's death, Jones went to Houston as general manager where he remained with the company for another seven years. During this period he established his own business, the South Texas Lumber Company. He then began to expand into real estate, commercial buildings, and banking. In a few years he was the largest developer in the area and was responsible for most of Houston's major prewar construction. Besides owning nearly 100 buildings in Houston, Jones also built structures in Fort Worth, Dallas, and New York City. Gradually he sold his lumber interest, except for one yard in Houston, and began to concentrate on real estate and banking. In 1908 he bought part of the Houston Chronicle. Between 1908 and 1918 he organized and became chairman of the Texas Trust Company and was active in most of the banking and real estate activities of the city. In 1909 he switched his religious affiliation from Baptist to Methodist. By 1912 he was president of the National Bank of Commerce (later Texas Commerce Bank, and by 2008, part of JPMorgan Chase & Co.) During this period he made one of his few ventures into oil as an original stockholder in Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon Company, U.S.A.). As chairman of the Houston harbor board he raised money for the Houston Ship Channel.
During World War I President Woodrow Wilson asked Jones to become the director general of military relief for the American Red Cross. He remained in this position until he returned to Houston in 1919. In December 1920 he married Mary Gibbs of Mexia. He became the sole owner of the Houston Chronicle in 1926. Jones served as director of finance for the Democratic National Committee, made a $200,000 donation, and promised to build a hall. These actions were instrumental in bringing the 1928 Democratic national convention to Houston. At the convention Jones was nominated as a "favorite son." On the recommendation of John Nance Garner, President Herbert Hoover appointed Jones to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a new government entity established to combat the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Jones chairman of the RFC, a position he held from 1933 until 1939. In this capacity, Jones became one of the most powerful men in America. He helped prevent the nationwide failure of farms, banks, railroads, and many other businesses. The RFC became the leading financial institution in America and the primary investor in the economy. The agency also facilitated a broadening of Texas industry from agriculture and oil into steel and chemicals. Jones's success in Washington was closely associated with Roosevelt and Garner. Roosevelt realized that his outstanding weakness was his lack of rapport with business. Jones provided a connection as businessmen respected him. Garner and Jones were conservatives, however, and did not always approve of the politics of the New Deal. During Roosevelt's regime, these two were undoubtedly the second and third most influential men in Washington. Jones's control extended to such RFC subsidiaries as the Commodity Credit Corporation, the Electric Home and Farm Authority, the RFC Mortgage Company, the Federal National Mortgage Association, and the Export-Import Bank. Moreover, the RFC helped to finance many public works programs. Jones's tough business acumen made the RFC the most powerful and successful agency in the Roosevelt administration. In 1939 Roosevelt appointed Jones to head the Federal Loan Agency. Jones resigned as head of the RFC, but as Federal Loan Administrator continued overall control of the RFC. He also had general supervision over the Federal Housing Authority and the Home Owners Loan Corporation.
After flirting with the vice-presidential nomination in 1940, Jones was offered the post of secretary of commerce. With congressional approval, he was allowed to retain his post as FLA chief during the war years, when he supervised more than thirty agencies that received federal money. Jones's relationship with the president and some members of his cabinet, however, deteriorated. In 1944 Roosevelt believed that Jones was allied with Republican Thomas E. Dewey against him. On January 20, 1945, Jones received a letter from the president asking him to resign so that the post could be given to Henry Wallace, his former vice president. Jones was offered other positions but declined and returned to Houston. From this time to his death he occupied himself with his business ventures and philanthropy. He also broke with the Democratic leadership and supported the Republican ticket in 1948 and 1952. After a brief illness, he died on June 1, 1956, and was buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Houston. The Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston was named for him. Houston Endowment, which he established in 1937, was the nation's fifteenth largest by 1979. In 1988 the Jesse H. Jones and Mary Gibbs Jones Endowed Presidential Scholarship in the University of Texas at Austin Graduate School of Business was established by a gift of Houston Endowment. Collections of Jones's papers and memorabilia are housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, at the Library of Congress, and at Houston Endowment.