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The Depression and the New Deal, 1929-41

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cousin of Theodore, was a rich patrician from New York, a man who had abandoned his family's Republican Party affiliation to come a Democrat. He also suffered from polio and could stand only with leg braces and only for a short time. Like his famous cousin, he challenged and overcame his disabilities. He had served as Under Secretary of the Navy during his hero Woodrow Wilson's presidency, ran for vice president in 1920, and became governor of New York in 1928. He was a man of great self-confidence because of his family background, his elite education, his political experience, and his overcoming personal adversity. Helped by his wife and cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt, FDR won the democratic nomination for president in 1932 and then the presidency itself. His campaign did not indicate what he would do if elected but it was clear that he would do something, that he would take charge. President Herbert Hoover seemed hapless in the face of the great Depression; FDR did not.

FDR was willing to try anything or even many things at once; he was a pragmatist, not an ideologue like Hoover. Although he wanted a balanced budget, he would not let that issue stand in the way of recovery. Declaring that people had nothing to fear but fear itself, FDR closed the banks immediately until examiners could sort out which ones were sound, which had failed, and which could reopen once reorganized. Restoring confidence by such a bold move to stop the bank panic set the tone. FDR gathered around him political leaders to advise him politically, government experts who could navigate the bureaucratic waters, and experts from private business and universities to help him plan courses of action. Some of his advisors had been in the war planning agencies during WWI and now wanted to use government power to help not kill people.

The New Deal, as his measures were called, focused on Relief, Recovery, and Reform. Relief measures included the bank holiday, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration, the Work Progress Administration, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, and the first Agricultural Adjustment Act. Recovery included the Economy Act designed to balance the budget, ending alcohol prohibition, negotiations and legislation to foster trade, measures such as the AAA and the National Industrial Recovery Act to raise prices by restricting output, and inflating the currency by abandoning the gold standard. Reform efforts included the Wagner Act which created the National Labor Relations Board and acknowledged the right of collective bargaining. The Rural Electrification Administration brought power to the countryside. Poverty in the large Tennessee River valley was to be relieved by the building of hydroelectric dams, flood control, and economic efforts by the Tennessee Valley Authority (created 1993). The Social Security Act of 1935 was designed to insure that old folks would not be penniless.

FDR had the support of many corporate leaders as well as Northern urban voters and white Protestants in the South. When he ran for a second term in 1936, he received the largest percentage of the popular vote any candidate has ever received. More significantly, the people elected a Congress even more liberal than he was

The New Deal shifted left, being more concerned with the welfare of individuals than institutions. The Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Administration illegal because its purpose was price fixing and collusion among manufacturers. When the first Agricultural Adjustment Act was declared illegal, another was passed but as a "conservation measure" pulling farm acreage out of production. The Fair Employment Act (1938) established a minimum wage in enterprises which engaged in interstate commerce and in the national government. Conservatives opposed the measure, of course, because they believed that employers had the right to pat what they wished. Still, a wage of twenty-five cents an hour was not high even by 1938 standards; it was to rise to forty cents an hour by 1945. The work week was reduced to 44 hours a week and scheduled to decline to 40 hours in 1941. Given the severe rise in unemployment because of the recession of 1937, FDR reversed went back to deficit spending and supported the Economy Act of that year. The Act stipulated who was to be fired first as the federal government cut back its work force. Wives were to be fired before husbands because in practice and in law husbands were required to support families but wives were not. Similarly in the Depression, married teachers had to yield their places to married men and single people; school districts were trying to insure that households had at least one source of income. The mores of the time supported such measures. Three quarters of adults believed that a woman's place was in the home.

By 1938, the New Deal was in trouble. Business had long abandoned it. The Supreme Court had thrown out enough New Deal legislation that FDR tried to pack the Court by having Congress expand the number of Justices so he could appoint pro-New Deal men; it failed but his efforts scared many and gave some credence to those who charged FDR with wanting to be a dictator. African Americans benefitted from New Deal measures, for Roosevelt was not a racist, but the benefits scared racists, particularly in the South where most African Americans lived, for the feared that the New Deal would mean using federal power to aid african Americans.

Although it appeared to be faltering by the late 1930s and it and FDR's reputation were saved by the outbreak of World War II in September, 1939, the New Deal successfully restructured US society. The rich got richer, of course, but so did everyone else. The vast gap between the rich and the average person was closed substantially. Consumer culture booms in such circumstances. Conservatives lambasted the increased role of the federal government and that it, finally, affected the lives of individuals directly, but even they accepted it by the time Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953.

by Donald J. Mabry