In politics, the words liberal and conservative are opposites. Conservatives usually prefer less change. They want the government to only do what people cannot do on their own. Liberals see change as a good thing and like the idea of using the government to do good things with the country’s resources. Conservatives see government action as taking away each person’s right to make their own choices. A liberal would view government as a tool for making things possible that each person cannot do by themselves.
In modern times, our Republican Party is the party of conservatives and Democrats are the party of our liberals. Franklin Roosevelt was a Democrat, and the New Deal is a good example of a time when governmental power was used to do things individuals could not have done on their own. But in many ways, Roosevelt stopped short of making the dreams of the most liberal leaders come true. Most importantly, he did not make the rich give up their money and give it to the poor. And he did very little to promote equality between men and women or between people of different races.
So, was FDR a liberal?
THE TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY
Many of the New Deal projects tried to fix problems in just part of the country. The most famous of these projects was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA worked on flood control, reforestation, and hydroelectric power in the area around the Tennessee River. They gave jobs to more than 1,000 Americans on a project that Roosevelt saw as a model for other government projects in the future. Led by David Lilienthal, the TVA workers built dams to use the Tennessee River to make hydroelectric power. Electric lighting and machinery made the lives of people who lived in the area easier, and it also encouraged more people to start businesses. The TVA didn’t just build dams. They also tried to teach farmers important lessons about crop rotation, soil replenishment, fertilizing, and reforestation.
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The Hiwassee Dam is one of many dams that are part of the TVA.
Not everyone liked the TVA, most of all the 15,000 families who were forced to leave their homes to make way for the building of the new dams. At first, many people did not trust the government and TVA leaders. As with several other New Deal programs, women did not get hired for any of the new jobs that were needed. Most Americans still thought that men should be the person in the family to earn money. However, after the dams were built and people started to get electricity they started to change their minds. New businesses like textile mills that made clothing opened, and some of these offered jobs to women. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt often pointed to the TVA as one of the best parts of the New Deal. It brought together the government along with private businesses to help the economy around the dams. Just months before his death in 1945, he gave a speech about trying to copy the TVA idea all over the country.
MANUFACTURING AND LABOR UNIONS
For many years, labor unions had a hard time protecting their members. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, most labor strikes had ended when the government came in on the side of owners. The New Deal changed that. For the first time in America’s history, the government passed laws to protect and support labor unions.
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was central to this plan. It said that businesses had to accept regulations and laws that included minimum wages and maximum work hours. To protect workers, the NRA set up a “code of fair practice” for every industry. These codes said that workers had the right to organize unions and use collective bargaining to make sure that pay went up when prices went up. Headed by General Hugh S. Johnson, the NRA worked to make over five hundred different codes for different industries. A complicated program like the NRA created its own problems. While codes for some industries such as car makers and steel factories made sense, Johnson pushed to create codes for dog food manufacturers and even entertainment (such as regulating the number of dancers in any one show).
One unintended result of the NRA was that the rule that said workers could be a part of a union sounded to some people like a rule that said workers had to be in a union. In industries that had never seen labor unions, such as oil or rubber, workers tried to get help from groups that would help them form unions. The Communist Party used this chance to help in the hope of getting people to like them. The number of strikes (when workers refuse to work) doubled between 1932 and 1934, with over 1.5 million workers going on strike in 1934 alone. Many of these strikes ended when workers died in fighting with the police or with replacement workers.
These fights showed a problem with FDR’s ideas. His plans to fix short-term problems did not fix bigger, long-term problems like differences between the rich and poor, and problems many workers faced like low pay, long hours, and little protection. For many workers, life at work was not much better than life without a job. New Deal programs may have put men back to work and gave them help, but the problems in the system needed to be fixed.
Primary Source: Photograph
John L. Lewis was the leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The Wagner Act was a big help for organized labor and Lewis used the chance to make his union stronger.
To help workers, Roosevelt signed into law the Wagner Act, also called the National Labor Relations Act. This law created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which protected American workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively. The NLRB also gave workers a way to complain about problems they were having with owners. Although Republicans and factory owners did not like it, the Supreme Court decided that the Wagner Act was constitutional in 1937. John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) who had wanted a law to protect the rights of workers and unions celebrated the passage of the Wagner Act. The connection between FDR and the Wagner Act helped both Roosevelt and Lewis’ United Mine Workers union in the 1936 election as union workers rewarded the president with their votes. The signing of the Wagner Act was the beginning of many years of support for Democratic candidates by union workers.
In the early days of the country, most people were farmers. But in the 1800s, people started to work in jobs where they got paid by someone else, and the question of retirement became important. Who should pay retired workers? At what age was retirement reasonable? In the beginning, people were expected to save a little of each paycheck for the day they would retire. The idea of a pension, money paid by companies to retired workers, was not common. Unfortunately, most working Americans lived paycheck to paycheck, with little or nothing extra to be saved for the future and many workers had to pay for their family members who retired. The Social Security Act of 1935 tried to fix this problem
Many countries in Europe tried to start pension plans. Britain and Germany had some success. Roosevelt decided that the American pension plan, called Social Security, would be a “contract between generations.” The current generation of workers would pay a little each month in a tax that the government would give to older people who were retired. When a person turned 65, he or she would start getting a check each month from the government. In this way, Social Security works as a way to share money between younger and older Americans. Taking from working Americans and giving to the older people is how American Social Security works.
Roosevelt knew that once Social Security became law, it would always be a part of American life. He guessed that once workers had paid into a system for years, they would expect to receive their money. No politician would ever dare to end the system once it was in place! He was correct. Social Security is still one of the most popular and most expensive things the federal government does for the people.
A team led by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first female to hold a Cabinet position, wrote the Social Security Act. In addition to providing for retirees, unemployment insurance was part of the plan. The Federal government offered to match money states paid for the blind and job training or for the physically disabled. Unmarried women with children also received money under the Social Security Act. However, by far, the largest number of people who got money because of the law are America’s retirees.
Primary Source: Magazine Cover
Frances Perkins was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1933. She was the first female member of the president’s cabinet and she was important to the success of Social Security.
Roosevelt and his team knew that the Social Security Act was not perfect. Like other new ideas, he hoped the law would be a start for a system that could be improved over time. In the beginning, retirees only got a small amount of money. Still, Roosevelt knew the plan was a big change. For the first time, the federal government took on the job of helping older people in need.
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Senator Robert Taft was a vocal, conservative critic of FDR and the New Deal. He was afraid that the growth of government power would take away from individual responsibility and lead to big and wasteful government.
OPPOSITION TO THE NEW DEAL
While many people liked Roosevelt, especially in the first few years of his presidency, the New Deal did receive a lot of criticism, both from conservatives who felt that it would ruin the way the economy worked and from liberals who felt that it did not give enough help to those who needed it.
Business owners and rich Americans led the conservative criticism against the president. Many of them said that he was moving away from important American values. A group of business owners, the National Association of Manufacturers, tried to get businessmen to ignore parts of the NRA and the new laws that protected labor unions. Even a few conservative Democrats said that some of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were anti-American.
The most clear critic of the New Deal was Senator Robert Taft, son of former President William Howard Taft. Taft, like Hoover, thought that the government needed to let private businesses fix the economy instead of the government. He said the New Deal was socialist and thought the government was spending too much money. He also did not like the National Labor Relations Board or Social Security. Taft never won his argument, but he was a Senator for many years and always made strong conservative arguments against FDR’s plans.
Other people thought that Roosevelt had not done enough. Dr. Francis E. Townsend of California was one who felt that Roosevelt had failed to deal with the country’s big problems. Townsend, who was a retired dentist, wanted a huge pension plan for the elderly. The Townsend Plan, as it was known, was popular with many Americans. The Townsend Plan said the government should give every retired person $200 each month, as long as they spent it in 30 days. Townsend and his followers thought that the money would help the economy.
Another person who became famous was Father Charles Coughlin. He was a “radio priest” who liked the New Deal in the beginning. But later he said that the president’s plan did not do enough. He used his weekly radio show to get followers. In the end, Coughlin lost his audience when he began saying anti-Semitic ideas and said that America should support Adolf Hitler in Germany.
The biggest critic of the president was the corrupt but beloved Louisiana Senator Huey “Kingfish” Long. Partly he did not like FDR because he also wanted to be president himself, but Long also said that the president was not doing enough to help people.
He proposed his own Share Our Wealth program. Under this plan, Long wanted to take all the money away from the rich and give it to poor Americans. He wanted to give $5,000 to every family, $2,500 to every worker, as well as give extra money to retired people and students. Long was an outstanding speaker and, like the president, was able to explain complicated ideas in easy-to-understand language. Long’s ideas probably would not have worked, but he had many followers. If he had not been killed, he might have run against Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election.
In 1935, the Supreme Court hurt the New Deal. In a series of decisions including United States v. Butler, Carter v. Carter Coal Company, Morehead v. New York, and Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, the Court said that important pieces of the New Deal were unconstitutional, including the AAA, WPA, NRA, and both federal and state minimum wage laws. In the opinion of the Court, Roosevelt had gone too far. The Constitution, the Court said, did not give the federal government the power to set prices or say how much workers should be paid. Roosevelt was not happy with the Court’s decision.
Despite criticism of his ideas and being hurt in court, Roosevelt was still popular in 1936, and he beat the Republican candidate Alf Landon in the presidential election by an Electoral College vote of 523 to 8. FRD thought it was his moment of strongest public support and chose to fight back against the Supreme Court. Roosevelt’s plan was nicknamed Court Packing. Ever since the earliest days of the country, the Supreme Court had always had nine members, but the Constitution doesn’t actually say how many justices there should be. Roosevelt wanted to add new justices who liked his ideas. He planned to add one justice for every current justice over the age of 70 who refused to step down. This would have allowed him to add six more justices. Since the Constitution does not say what the size of the Supreme Court should be, this was legal, but President Roosevelt was playing a dangerously political game. The Court has always been a separate branch of government, limiting the power of both Congress and the President. If Roosevelt could change who was on the Supreme Court, he would have control over their decisions.
Both the Supreme Court and Congress quickly said they did not like FDR’s new idea, including people from his own party and Roosevelt’s plan never happened. The retirement of Justice Van Devanter, as well as the sudden death of Senator Joe T. Robinson who had promoted Roosevelt’s plan in the Senate put a stop to court-packing. In the end, Roosevelt might have scared the justices into supporting his new programs, and they upheld both the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act. Never again during his presidency would the Supreme Court strike down any important parts of his New Deal. However, Roosevelt suffered politically in that Americans became more suspicious of his ideas and more cautious how much power the president has.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoon pointed out the common criticism of FDR as a power-hungry president who got used to asking Congress to pass laws that would give him more and more power.
MINORITIES AND THE NEW DEAL
Critics point out that the New Deal did not help all Americans. Most of all, African Americans were left out. In the New Deal job programs, such as the CCC, CWA, and WPA, African Americans often did not get jobs. The NRA was sometimes called the “Negroes Ruined Again” program. The AAA did not help tenant farmers and sharecroppers, many of whom were African Americans. In the beginning, even Social Security did not include maids and servants, which were jobs done by many African American women. Roosevelt did try to fix some of these problems and by 1935 things were getting better. In the end, the WPA gave jobs to 350,000 African Americans each year, which was about 15% of all WPA workers. By the close of the CCC in 1938, the program had given jobs to over 300,000 African Americans, increasing the black percentage of its workers from 3% to nearly 11%. In 1934, the PWA began to require that all government projects hire African Americans using a quota that matched the percentage of the local population. Additionally, one New Deal program, the Federal One Project, helped over one million African American children learn to read and write.
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Mary McLeod Bethune was a leader in education and member of FDR’s unofficial group of African American advisors known as the Black Cabinet.
Roosevelt had mixed success in helping race relations. Within his White House, Roosevelt gave jobs to some African Americans, although most were in minor positions. Unofficially, Roosevelt asked for advice from the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, better known by its nickname: the Black Cabinet. One key member of the Black Cabinet was Mary McLeod Bethune, a leading African American educator who had helped found Bethune-Cookman University.
With this job, she became one of the president’s most important African American advisors. During his presidency, Roosevelt became the first to appoint an African American federal judge, as well as the first commander-in-chief to make an African American a brigadier general. Most importantly, he became the first president to speak out against lynching.
Even though he did do some things to help African Americans, Roosevelt also knew he was limited. To make sure he had enough people supporting his ideas, Roosevelt did not want to make White Southern Democrats angry with him. While he talked about how there should be laws against lynching, he never pushed Congress to vote for one. Also, even though the federal government made changes to make sure to give jobs to African Americans, few changes were made by state or city governments, and African Americans were usually at the back of the employment lines. Even though there were only some changes, Roosevelt should get credit for seeing how important civil rights were. More than any other president since the Civil War, Roosevelt knew how important the federal government could be in supporting civil rights, and how much he could help support a new group of young civil rights leaders.
Roosevelt was also able to work with Congress to improve the lives of Native Americans. In 1934, he signed into law the Indian Reorganization Act, which is better known as the Indian New Deal. Since the end of the Indian Wars in the late-1800s, the government had been forcing Native Americans to learn and live by White culture. Roosevelts Indian New Deal helped them start local self-government and preserve their culture. John Collier, the Commissioner on Indian Bureau Affairs from 1933 to 1945, fought for this new law and saw it as an opportunity to correct the bad things the government had done to Native Americans in the past. Even though it was hard work and did not fix all problems, Collier’s plans helped give land back to Native Americans and protected Native American cultures.
WOMEN AND THE NEW DEAL
For women, the New Deal only helped a little. In government jobs, women were hardly ever paid as much as men, and New Deal programs tried to get women to stay home and leave jobs open for men. This was normal at that time in history.
The WPA became the first New Deal agency to hire women, but the chance to get a job was only for widows, single women, and the wives of disabled husbands. While they did not take part in construction projects, women did join sewing projects to make blankets and clothing for hospitals and relief agencies. Also, several women took part in art projects. Even though they did not have all the same chances as men, many women liked Roosevelt’s New Deal. They liked the new chances they had to have jobs, but they also liked the New Deal because of the jobs men in their families could get. One such woman was Mary (Molly) Dewson. An activist in the women’s suffrage movement, Dewson. Dewson and Mary McLeod Bethune knew things were hard for everyone so it was not a good time to get people to support new rights for women. Rather than being mad about what Roosevelt could not or would not do, they felt that Roosevelt would do more than most to help women and African Americans have a piece of the new America he was building.
Among the few, but important, women who directly changed Roosevelt’s ideas was Frances Perkins, who as Secretary of Labor was the first woman member of any presidential cabinet, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a strong and public supporter for social causes. Perkins, one of only two original cabinet members to stay with Roosevelt for his entire presidency, helped with the CCC, PWA, NRA, and the Social Security Act.
However, Eleanor Roosevelt, more so than any other person, had the most influence on the president. She had always supported her husband in all of his elections and she used her position to fight for several changes for women, African Americans, and the poor of the countryside.
When she discovered letters that showed her husband had an affair, their marriage became less about love and more of a political partnership.
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Marian Anderson performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform in their hall. Eleanor Roosevelt helped plan this famous performance.
Historians agree that the first lady was smart about using her position to fight for things she cared about. Sometimes she spoke up about things FDR could not. From newspaper and magazine articles she wrote, to a busy travel schedule that saw her regularly cross the country, the first lady tried to remind Americans that their problems were important to the people working in the White House.
Eleanor Roosevelt saw racial problems while she traveled, and she tried to get FDR to make changes to help African Americans. In 1934, she gave speeches about an anti-lynching bill that the president liked but could not fight for in public without angering Southern White leaders he needed to support him.
Breaking with tradition, the first lady often invited African American leaders to eat with her and the president. The most famous was when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let the famous black opera contralto Marian Anderson sing in Constitution Hall, their theater, Eleanor quit the DAR and arranged for Anderson to sing at a public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a dinner at the White House. When it came to race relations, Eleanor Roosevelt was able to do what her husband, for political reasons, could not and she became the White House’s public voice for civil rights.
A FINAL ANALYSIS
No final look of the New Deal is complete without thinking about Roosevelt himself. He was a leader like no other. Hard times called for new ideas, and FDR had new ideas that just might have saved the capitalist system and perhaps the American democracy. During the Depression, some countries in Europe turned to fascism, communism, dictatorship, and in the end they all failed. FDR’s New Deal didn’t change the basic ideas America was built on. People still had choices about where to work, what to buy and who they voted for. The government never took over businesses, and the social safety net created by Social Security was not as big as the programs created in Europe. He did things to keep liberals happy, but not so much that he changed the basic way America works.
FDR believed things would work out, and he made other people think this also. His ability to use radio showed other presidents how important it is to communicate with people. On the other hand, people who think FDR was not a good president say that he tried to take too much power and showed future presidents that they can usually get away with things they should not.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoon shows FDR as a president who answered every question with the same answer: make a program to spend government money. The growth of government and the waste that was part of the New Deal were both things people did not like about FDR’s ideas.
The New Deal created millions of jobs all over the country. Federal protection of money in banks ended bank runs. Bad acting by people buying and selling of stocks was mostly stopped. The Social Security system is still one of the most popular government programs ever. For the first time in peacetime history the government started to take care of the economy and protect the basic welfare of all people.
The lives of workers got better when their unions got stronger. But life was not better for everyone. FDR did not try his hardest to improve civil rights or women’s rights.
However big the New Deal seemed, it did not meet its main goal: ending the Depression. In 1939, 19% of people still could not get a job. In the end, it was all the money the government spent on World War II and the jobs the war created that ended the Depression, not Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Conservatives did not like it that the New Deal created over a million government jobs. They said that Roosevelt more than doubled the national debt in eight short years. Some liberals also did not like the New Deal. They said that the difference between the rich and poor barely changed.
Even though it was not perfect, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal helped America get through the dark times and still be strong enough to take on the even greater job of the 1940s: winning a war against Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Many liberals remember the New Deal as the time when they had the most power and could do the most in government. But a closer look can change this idea about the past. Even FDR could not do much to give minorities equal rights. The New Deal programs were meant to fix the broken economy, not make big changes the way Huey Long or Europeans wanted.
So, what do you think? Was FDR a liberal? Or do we just remember it that way now?
BIG IDEA: Later in the 1930s, FDR tried to fix long-term problems such as chronic poverty, security for seniors and racial inequality. Although the New Deal was generally popular, it didn’t solve all of the problems of the Depression and there were critics of FDR and his ideas.
FDR supported unions. The Wagner Act guaranteed the right of unions to organize. It was the first time that government firmly sided with workers in their struggle with company owners. The 1930s was a time of growth for labor union membership and power.
Social Security is the most important program to come out of the New Deal. It provides benefits for retired Americans. The money is taken from working younger people and redistributed to the elderly.
Not everyone liked the New Deal. Some liberals thought that it did not do enough to redistribute wealth down to the lower classes. Republicans thought that too much government intervention in the economy and in people’s lives would stifle entrepreneurship, innovation, and self-reliance.
The Supreme Court ruled that many of the New Deal programs were unconstitutional because the Constitution did not give the government the authority to intervene in the economy by dictating prices, wages, etc. FDR tried to add justices to the Court, but was blocked by Congress, which correctly saw it as an attempt by one branch of government to inappropriately influence another.
Native Americans and African Americans were helped by the New Deal. FDR had a group of African American advisors, and the Indian New Deal ended a policy of assimilation that was destroying Native American culture and communities.
Women also benefited from the New Deal. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt especially championed civil rights and women’s rights while her husband was in office.
Ultimately, the New Deal did not end the Great Depression, but it helped. It also gave the federal government more power and gave Americans the idea that it is the job of their government to look out for the people and protect them from economic hardship.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
John L. Lewis: President of the CIO during the 1930s. He took advantage of the pro-labor sentiment in government at the time to strengthen his union.
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO): Labor union formed in 1935 by John Lewis. It incorporated the United Mine Workers with other non-skilled laborers who were not able to join the American Federation of Labor.
Frances Perkins: Secretary of Labor during the New Deal. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position and was responsible for creating and implementing Social Security.
Robert Taft: Republican Senator during the 1930s who opposed the New Deal. He believed the New Deal was giving too much power to the government and programs designed to help the needy would eventually lead to a reduction in people’s work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit.
Charles Coughlin: Catholic priest who had a popular radio show during the 1930s. He criticized Roosevelt’s New Deal because he thought the government should talk over major industries. He later lost popularity because of his anti-Semitic ideas.
Huey “Kingfish” Long: Senator from Louisiana during the 1930s who argued that the government should take money from the rich to redistribute to the poor. He called his idea Share Our Wealth. He may have run against Roosevelt for president except that he was assassinated in 1935.
Black Cabinet: Nickname for a group of African American advisors to President Franklin Roosevelt. They included Dr. Robert Weaver and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Mary McLeod Bethune: African American educator who cofounded a university and was an important advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt as a member of the Black Cabinet.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Wife of President Franklin Roosevelt. She was an important spokesperson for his ideas and was often able to make people feel that she personally cared about them. She championed the concerns of women, minorities and the poor. Later in life she worked to promote human rights with the United Nations.
Marian Anderson: African American opera singer who performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in their theater. The concert was arranged by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Pension: Payment received during retirement from a person’s employer. The amount received each month is usually determined by a person’s salary and time worked at the business.
United States v. Butler, Carter v. Carter Coal Company, Morehead v. New York, and Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States: A collection of Supreme Court Cases in the 1930s in which the Court struck down major New Deal programs including the AAA, WPA and NRA as unconstitutional. In response, President Roosevelt attempted to add members to the Court in order to create a majority favorable to his ideas.
GOVERNMENT AGENCIES & PROGRAMS
Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA): New Deal program that provided jobs to thousands of workers in the Tennessee area building dams along rivers that provided hydroelectric power and regulated flooding.
National Recovery Administration (NRA): New Deal agency that set minimum wages, working hours, abolished child labor, and set minimum prices. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 because the Constitution does not give the federal government the power to regulate private industry in the way the law was written.
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): Government agency created by the Wagner Act during the New Deal that is responsible for protecting the right of unions to collective bargaining and protect workers against unfair labor practices.
Social Security: Government program created in 1935 to provide monthly payments to retired Americans. The money is taken from the paychecks of working Americans and redistributed to those eligible to receive benefits.
LAWS & PROPOSALS
Wagner Act / National Labor Relations Act: New Deal law that guaranteed labor unions the right to collective bargaining. It was a major victory for labor and strengthened labor unions for many decades.
Townsend Plan: Plan proposed by a retired dentist during the New Deal to pay $200 to everyone over the age of 60 so long as they spent it within 30 days. It was rejected by Roosevelt.
Share Our Wealth: Program proposed by Huey Long during the Great Depression. He wanted to take money from the rich to redistribute to the poor.
Court Packing: Nickname for President Franklin Roosevelt’s unsuccessful plan to appoint additional members to the Supreme Court in order to create a majority favorable to his views. The affair was widely seen as an attempt by the Executive Branch to dominate the Judicial Branch and was rejected. Politically, the affair harmed President Roosevelt.
Indian New Deal: Nickname for the Indian Reorganization Act which was passed in 1934 and ended the policies of assimilation that were created by the Dawes Act of 1887. Native Americans were no longer forced to send their children to be educated in boarding schools or adapt to White culture.