Franklin Delano Roosevelt and His New Deal
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and His New Deal
The 1932 presidential election came in the midst of the greatest economic depression experienced by the American people. Never before in the history of the United States has pessimism been so universal. The descent from the height of prosperity of the late 1920s had been rapid, bringing fear and uncertainty. By March 1932 approximately 12 million men and women were unemployed. By March 1933 unemployment had reached 13.5 million. In the hard-hit cities, long lines of hungry people waited before charity soup kitchens for something to eat, and thousands unable to pay rent, huddled in empty lots. Homeless people made shelters out of old packing cartons. More than one million Americans wandered through the country aimlessly looking for work.
President Herbert Hoover tried to use governmental power to check the economic downfall but did so without success.
Critics of Hoover claimed that his policies were too conservative and lacked imagination. His defenders maintained that, regardless of the president’s efforts, the depression just had to run its course. But millions of Americans could not afford to wait for the economic system to correct itself. The depression had caused not only financial disaster but also and perhaps the most important, a loss of personal pride, status and sense of self-respect. Many Americans demanded prompt and immediate action. As a result all indications pointed to a sweeping Democratic victory in the 1932 presidential election.
The Republicans knew that their position was weak indeed. But they renominated Hoover and campaigned on his record. The Democrats met in Chicago in June, confident of victory. After a successful pre-convention, masterfully managed by James Farley and Lois Howe, Franklin Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination on the fourth ballot. The fifty-year old governor broke with tradition by flying to the convention to accept the nomination in person. “I pledge you,” he told the delegates, “I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people” (Leuchtenburg,114).
Roosevelt toured the nation talking about economic reforms. He declared his total support for the system of capitalism but insisted that changes were needed to prevent dangerous revolutionary movements from developing out of the economic collapse. Hoover, on the other hand, opposed proposals for additional federal controls and stressed his belief that voluntary cooperation of individuals would restore prosperity. There was only one campaign issue: the economic depression (Leuchtenburg, 119).
On election day, 1932, the nation gave Roosevelt a smashing victory, 22,809,038 votes to Hoover’s 15,758,901. Hoover carried only six states, losing the electoral vote 472 to 59. The democrats also elected heavy majorities to both housed of Congress. “This is the greatest night of my life!” Roosevelt declared on hearing the election results. The nation wanted change and placed their faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt (Leuchtenburg,17).
Between Election Day and the swearing on of the new president, the depression worsened. Numerous bank failures, the result of sudden panic by depositors, added to the growing alarm, over 5,000 banks had been forced to close, with a loss of more than 3.4 billion to depositors. By March 4, 1933, the day of the inauguration, banks were closed in all but two states. The financial crisis was at its worst point. Stock and grain markets were shut. Business lay stagnant. Hunger marchers paraded in New York City and Chicago as if in a ghastly mockery of the official ceremonies in Washington (Freidel,74). It seemed that all the fears brought on by the depression had come to a climax.
Roosevelt’s inaugural address gave hope to a disillusioned America. His assured tone and absolute confidence in recovery provided a needed tonic to a confused nation. The new president’s encouraging voice urged immediate steps to end unemployment, to aid the farmer, and to bring about national recovery. If Congress failed to act, he promised to seek abroad powers “to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
This vigorous assertion of national leadership, combined with Roosevelt’s forceful presentation, inspired confidence and renewed faith in the democratic system of government. Not since George Washington had a president started his term of office with such popular support.
In Franklin Roosevelt’s first term (1933-37) the nation saw more important legislation passed than in any other four years in American history. Roosevelt and his advisors were called the “brain trust.” They believed that immediate federal action was needed to restore confidence in the economic system. Their goal was to maintain capitalism but, at the same time, to reform, not destroy, the economic system that had brought hardship to so many.
Roosevelt was also strongly committed to the idea of humane government, one that would rather consider the basic needs of the people. Any dogma or rigid philosophy of government did not restrict him. Rather he was practical and experimental in trying to rebuild the shattered economy. His programs were many and varied. “Do something,” he said. “If it works, do it some more. And if it doesn’t work, then do something else” (Leuchtenburg,45)
Roosevelt exuded confidence. His optimism and self-assurance were conveyed in a series of radio addresses, which came to be known as “the fireside chats.” There were about thirty broadcasts during his 12 years in office and millions of people eagerly awaited each one. “My friends,” he would begin, and then, in simple but elegant language, he would explain his New Deal. His warm personality, his sense of personal concern, and his informality combined to make these talks a success. He spoke as though he were actually sitting on a front porch with his neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt later observed that after her husband’s death, people would stop her o the street and say, “they missed the way the president used to talk to him. They’d say: ‘He used to talk to me about my government.’ There was a real dialogue between Franklin and the people,” she wrote.
The first fireside chat, a few days after he took office, dealt with the banking and financial crisis. After discussing his program -a four-day national banking holiday -Roosevelt asked the public to share their views with him. The White House received thousands of letters from ordinary people who were convinced that the president was willing to listen. And he did. Many of the letters simply told of the listeners’ faith in his leadership.
The most pressing and immediate problem when Roosevelt took office was to feed the millions of hungry. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in 1933 provided immediate federal grants to the states to assist the most needy with money. When this proved inadequate, the President established the Civilian Works Administration (CWA) which between November 1933 and April 1934 put some six million people to work on specially created jobs. These jobs such as road maintenance and building of playgrounds, parks, sewers, and airports -were not created to compete with private businesses but to create public projects to employ the employed.
Another agency in 1933, the Public Works Administration (PWA) planned bridges, dams, hospitals, and other public projects. The PWA contracted and paid private companies to do the work. All construction contracts awarded by the PWA required the hiring of some black workers. This set a president for other federal agencies. Among PWA’s many achievements were the Triborough Bridge in New York City, a new sewage system in Chicago, a municipal auditorium in Kansas City, and a new water-supply system in Denver.
In 1935 most relief programs -that is, programs to help the unemployed -were
launched under a new agency, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA attempted to make use of an individual’s skill, whether it be sewing or translating books into braille. At its peak in November 1938, nearly 3.3 million people were on its payroll. When the WPA ended in 1941, it had provided work for a total of 8 million people.
Among its 250,000 projects, the WPA had built or improved more than 2,500 Hospitals, 5,900 school buildings, 1,000 airports, and nearly 13,000 playgrounds. Some called these make-work programs a “Boondoggle” – a waste of money. But people were going back to work. And their salaries, besides giving them back the ability to buy things, also helped to stimulate the depressed economy.
The WPA also gave employment to artist, musicians, actors, singers, and writers. After all, Roosevelt said, they have to eat too. Some of the WPA cultural projects included interviews with more than 2,000 surviving ex-slaves and the recording of folk tunes, American Indian songs, and black spirituals. On post office walls around the country, WPA artist painted murals. “Some of it good,” observed Roosevelt, “some of it not so good, but all of it natural, human, eager, and alive” (Goodwin, 31)
Hundreds of WPA teachers taught painting, pottery, weaving, and carving. Americans who had never seen a live play or concert, came to live theater performances. In four years, the Federal Theater Projects, a division of the WPA, produced over 2,700 plays, including the classics, children’s plays, new American plays, and dance dramas. All in all, more than 30 million Americans saw at one time or another a WPA theater production.
Another New Deal program for helping the unemployed was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Between 1933 and 1941 the CCC took some 2.7 million young men between the ages of 18 and 25 and hired them to work on erosion control, tree planting, forest-fire fighting, dam construction, mosquito control, and other such projects. The corps also improved beaches and national and state parks. Recruited mainly from the cities where it was almost impossible for a young man to find a job, members lived in camps built by the War Department. Of the $30 a month wages received, $22 was sent to the young man’s family (Goodwin, 49). The CCC became a popular program, which bolstered the morale of many young unemployed.
Young people were also assisted by the National Youth Administration (NYA). This agency paid more than 500,000 college students to do part-time work, whether in libraries or as a research aides. Another 1.5 million high school students receive similar aid, usually enough to enable the student to remain in school and off the labor market. The aim of both the CCC and the NYA, in addition to helping young people, was try to prevent them to adding to the ranks of the unemployed.
No part of the New Deal drew more criticism than did these relief programs. Although their cost was enormous, they gave many people the sense that their government cared about them. While less than half of the total unemployed were ever involved in these relief programs, the overwhelming majority of Americans supported the presidents bold attempt to control the unemployment problem. Never before in American history had any presidential administration shown such concern. To many, Franklin Roosevelt became a personal hero.
While the income of most Americans increased during the 1920s, that of the farmers greatly declined. The basic problem was that they grew more food than the nation could consume. The settlement of the Great Plains, which put millions of acres of new land under cultivation, various inventions such as the motorized tractor, the harvester, and new and better techniques of insect control all enabled the farmer to grow more and more. But in agriculture, the law of supply and demand ruled -that is, quantity and demand determined prices for farm goods. Because there was too large of food supply, farm prices dropped dramatically. Farmers left their food in the fields to rot. Some used their grain as fuel -at least it was cheaper than coal others just abandoned their farms or were evicted because they had no money to pay their bill or meet their mortgage payments . (Goodwin, 194)
In 1933 Roosevelt and his advisors contrived the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which with some modifications, is still in effect today. The AAA raised farm prices by paying farmers to cut back production. Farmers were also paid if they did not use a portion of their land. To cut food production when people were hungry seemed a terrible thing to do. This contradiction between the government’s program of controlling food abundance and the reality if millions of Americans suffering from a lack of food was never resolved. For the farmers the AAA worked. Prices for their goods rose and even many of the most conservative farmers came to regard Roosevelt as a savior.
One of the poorest of all American farm areas was the Tennessee River valley. To provide the basic benefits of electricity to this depressed area, FDR in 1933 asked Congress to create the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA eventually built15 more dams both to control river flooding and to create cheap electric power. States affected by the TVA were parts of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. While some saw the TVA as a threat to private enterprise, most Americans viewed it as a bold and original way of handling one of the nation’s most serious regional problems.
For the troubled business community, in 1933 the New Deal created the Federal Deposit Insurance Cooperation (FDIC), functions to this day. The FDIC guaranteed bank deposits so that people were assured by the government of their personal savings and other capital. This stopped such problems as nationwide financial panic and the subsequent default of banks. The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), also still in operation, registered all securities traded on stock exchanges. Full and accurate information about a corporation had to be supplied to stock buyers. FDR appointed as its first chairman Joseph Kennedy (the father of President John F. Kennedy).
The National Recovery Act (NRA) was not as successful. Hailed by FDR as the “most important and far-reached legislation ever enacted,” it failed in its attempt to ration the nations business among the country’s surviving corporations. This was to be accomplished through a series of “codes of fair competition.” While the NRA failed in many of its objectives, it did have some successes. Codes of fair competition in the textile industry for example raised wages from $5 per week for most workers to a minimum of $12 to $13. The NRA established the principle of maximum hours and minimum wages on a national basis for the first time. It also outlawed child labor. But the NRA was too complex and involved too much paper work. Ultimately, this type of business was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1931.
Most of the New Deal’s famous “alphabet agencies” -PWA, CCC, SEC, TVA, NRA and FDIC became law during the first 100 days of FDR’s administration. Hope seemed to have surfaced everywhere. The president was enormously popular. The people had demanded action from their leaders and FDR had respond with bold new initiatives. Indeed, Roosevelt and his administration had changed the center of power in the United States in that more power was given to the national government, the balances of power-a basic tenet of our political system survived. No industry was nationalized and the profit motive still prevailed.
The fear that the president had tried to interfere with America’s free enterprise was unwarranted. Without the immediate resolve of Roosevelt, without the programs that tried to feed and employ the people, the business community might have collapsed. In the 1934 congressional election the Democrats scored overwhelming victories, swelling their majorities in both the House and the Senate. This landslide for the Democrats could only be interpreted as a ringing endorsement for the policies of FDR (Nash, 118).
Still, some insisted that the president had moved to fast with his programs -that change was too rapid, that the business world was being disrupted and dominated. Others said that he was not moving fast enough in alleviating the problems of the poor. As criticism for not doing enough to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder increased, FDR moved resolutely for more reform. In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed. For the first time, the federal government, using employer and employee contributions, made payments for pensions to the aged and the ill. Unemployment insurance began and workers who lost their jobs could now collect payment while looking for new work. In the same year Congress passed the Wagner Act. This legislation guaranteed collective bargaining and prohibited employer interference with union -organizing activities. It also provided that representative’s of the majority of the employees and any factory could be the exclusive bargaining representative’s for all the employees in contract negotiations. Workers were no longer negotiating alone, but in mass. Indeed, the Wagner Act caused an enormous expansion of unions with ensuing bloody conflicts between employees and employers (Goodwin, 97).
In an effort to prevent union organization, General Motors spent almost $1 million on “goon squads” to harass workers through intimidation. Virtual warfare took place as unions attempted to organize the automobile and steel industries. Despite the antagonism of big business, organized labor continued to grow.
On the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court began to rule some of the New Deal acts, such as the NRA, unconstitutional. The big test for Roosevelt and the New Deal would be the presidential election of 1936. Voters could then decide if they agreed with his policies, and if they should give the president a second term.
Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Boston: Little Brown and Company.1990
Goodwin, Doris Kerns. No Ordinary Time. New York: Simon and Schuster.1994
Leuchtenburg, William. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York: Harper and Row. 1963.
Nash, Gerald. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1967.