In politics, the terms liberal and conservative are opposites. Conservatives usually prefer less change. They want government to be limited and do only what citizens cannot on their own. Liberals see change as a positive and like the idea of using the government to leverage the nation’s collective resources. When conservatives would see government action as infringing on individual liberty, a liberal would view government as an instrument of good making possible things that only can happen with coordinated action.
In modern times, our Republican Party is the party of conservative thinkers, and the Democrats are the party of our liberals. Franklin Roosevelt was a Democrat, and the New Deal certainly was an unprecedented application of governmental power to do things individuals could not have done on their own. But in many ways, Roosevelt stopped short of implementing the dreams of the most liberal leaders. Most notably, he did not force the rich to give up their wealth and give it to the poor. And he did very little to promote equality between genders and races.
So, was FDR a liberal?
THE TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY
Many of the New Deal projects focused on regional concerns and the most famous of these projects was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was a new federal agency tasked with the job of planning and developing the area around the Tennessee River through flood control, reforestation, and hydroelectric power. Employing several thousand Americans on a project that Roosevelt envisioned as a template for future regional redevelopment, the TVA revitalized a river valley that landowners had badly over-farmed, leaving behind eroded soil that lacked essential nutrients for future farming. Under the direction of David Lilienthal, the TVA workers erected a series of dams to harness the Tennessee River in the creation of much-needed hydroelectric power. The arrival of both electric lighting and machinery to the region eased the lives of the people who lived there, as well as encouraged industrial growth. The TVA also included an educational component, teaching farmers important lessons about crop rotation, soil replenishment, fertilizing, and reforestation.
Primary Source: Photograph
The Hiwassee Dam is one of many that are part of the TVA.
The TVA was not without its critics. Most notably were the 15,000 families who were displaced due to the massive construction projects. Although eventually the project benefited farmers with the introduction of new farming and fertilizing techniques, as well as the added benefit of electric power, many local citizens were initially mistrustful of the TVA and the federal government’s agenda. Likewise, as with several other New Deal programs, women did not directly benefit from these employment opportunities, as they were explicitly excluded for the benefit of men who most Americans still considered the family’s primary breadwinner. However, with the arrival of electricity came new industrial ventures, including several textile mills up and down the valley, several of which offered employment to women. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt frequently pointed to the TVA as one of the glowing accomplishments of the New Deal and its ability to bring together the machinery of the federal government along with private interests to revitalize a regional economy. Just months before his death in 1945, he continued to speak of the possibility of creating other regional authorities throughout the country that might replicate the TVA’s work.
MANUFACTURING AND LABOR UNIONS
For generations, labor unions had struggled to protect their members. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s most labor strikes had ended when the government intervened on the side of owners. The New Deal marked a major shift in the relationship between owners and their workers. For the first time in America’s history, the government passed laws designed specifically to protect and support labor unions.
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was central to this plan. It mandated that businesses accept a code that included minimum wages and maximum work hours. In order to protect workers from potentially unfair agreements among factory owners, every industry had its own “code of fair practice” that included workers’ rights to organize and use collective bargaining to ensure that wages rose with prices. Headed by General Hugh S. Johnson, the NRA worked to create over five hundred different codes for different industries. The administration of such a complex plan naturally created its own problems. While codes for key industries such as automotive and steel made sense, Johnson pushed to create similar codes for dog food manufacturers, those who made shoulder pads for women’s clothing, and even entertainment (such as regulating the number of dancers in any one show).
Another unintended consequence of the NRA was that the provision granting workers the right to organize appeared to some as a mandate. In industries that had never seen labor unions, such as oil or rubber, workers sought help from groups that would assist in creating unions, bolstered by the encouragement they now felt from the government. The Communist Party took advantage of the opportunity to assist in the hope of creating widespread support for their cause. The number of strikes nationwide doubled between 1932 and 1934, with over 1.5 million workers going on strike in 1934 alone, often in protests that culminated in bloodshed. A strike at the Auto-Lite plant in Toledo, Ohio, that summer resulted in 10,000 workers from other factories joining in sympathy with their fellow workers to attack potential strike-breakers with stones and bricks. Simultaneously in Minneapolis, a teamsters strike resulted in frequent, bloody confrontations between workers and police, leading the governor to contemplate declaring martial law before the companies agreed to negotiate better wages and conditions for the workers. Finally, a San Francisco strike among 14,000 dockworkers closed the city’s waterfront and eventually led to a citywide general strike of over 130,000 workers, essentially paralyzing the city. Clashes between workers, and police and National Guardsmen left many strikers bloodied, and at least two dead.
Although Roosevelt’s relief efforts provided jobs to many and benefitted communities with the construction of several essential building projects, the violence that erupted amid clashes between organized labor and factories backed by police and the authorities exposed a fundamental flaw in the president’s approach. Immediate relief did not address long-existing, inherent class inequities that left workers exposed to poor working conditions, low wages, long hours, and little protection. For many workers, life on the job was not much better than life as an unemployed American. Employment programs may have put men back to work and provided much needed relief, but the fundamental flaws in the system required additional attention that Roosevelt was unable to pay in the early days of the New Deal.
Primary Source: Photograph
John L. Lewis was the leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The Wagner Act was a tremendous boon for organized labor and Lewis took advantage of the opportunity presented by FDR’s pro-labor policies to strengthen his union.
To the benefit of industrial workers, Roosevelt signed into law the Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act. The act created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which permanently protected American workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively, as well as to provide a federal vehicle for labor grievances to be heard. Although roundly criticized by the Republican Party and factory owners, the Wagner Act withstood several challenges and eventually received constitutional sanction by the Supreme Court in 1937. The law received the strong support of John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) who had long sought government protection of industrial unionism, from the time they split from the American Federation of Labor in 1935 over disputes on whether to organize workers along craft or industrial lines. Following passage of the law, Lewis began a widespread publicity campaign urging industrial workers to join “the president’s union.” The relationship was mutually beneficial to Roosevelt, who subsequently received the endorsement of Lewis’s United Mine Workers union in the 1936 presidential election, along with a sizeable $500,000 campaign contribution. Passage of the Wagner Act marked the beginning of organized labor’s longstanding political support for the Democratic Party.
Since the dawn of the industrial era in the early 1800s when Americans began working for others, the question of retirement had become a part of everyday life. Who should pay retired workers? At what age was retirement reasonable? In the beginning, individuals were expected to save a little of each paycheck for the day they would at last retire. The idea of a pension, money paid by companies to retired workers, was rare. Unfortunately, the majority of working Americans, lived check to check, with little or nothing extra to be saved for the future and many became a drag on the working members of their families upon retirement. The Social Security Act of 1935 aimed to improve this predicament.
Many nations in Europe had already experimented with pension plans and Britain and Germany had found exceptional success. Roosevelt decided that the American plan, called Social Security would be a “contract between generations.” The current generation of workers would pay into a fund while the retirees would take in a monthly stipend. Upon reaching the age of 65, individuals would start receiving payments based upon the amount contributed over the years. In this way, Social Security works as a form of wealth redistribution, taking from working Americans and giving to the elderly, rather than as a savings account in which the money a worker puts in is waiting years later upon retirement.
Roosevelt knew that once Social Security became law, it would be a permanent feature of American life. He guessed that once workers had paid into a system for decades, they would expect to receive their checks. Woe to the politician who tried to end the system once it was in place! He was correct. Social Security remains one of the most popular, and most expensive, things the federal government does for its citizens.
A committee of staffers led by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first female ever to hold a Cabinet position, penned the Social Security Act. In addition to providing for retirees, the legislation created a safety net for other Americans in distress. Unemployment insurance was part of the plan and the federal government offered to match state funds for the blind and for job training for the physically disabled. Unmarried women with dependent children also received funds under the Social Security Act. However, by far the largest group of beneficiaries 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 was critical to the passage and implementation of Social Security.
Roosevelt and his advisers knew that the Social Security Act was not perfect. Like other experiments, he hoped the law would set the groundwork for a system that could be refined over time. Social Security differed from European plans in that it made no effort to provide universal health insurance. The pensions that retirees received were extremely modest — below poverty level standards in most cases. Still, Roosevelt knew the plan was revolutionary. For the first time, the federal government accepted permanent responsibility for assisting people in need. It paved the way for future legislation that would redefine the relationship between the American people and their government.
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Senator Robert Taft was a vocal, conservative critic of FDR and the New Deal. He feared that the expansion of government authority would weaken individual responsibility and lead to bloated and wasteful government.
OPPOSITION TO THE NEW DEAL
While many people supported Roosevelt, especially in the first few years of his presidency, the New Deal did receive significant criticism, both from conservatives who felt that it was a radical agenda to ruin the country’s model of free enterprise, and from liberals who felt that it did not provide enough help to those who needed it most.
Industrialists and wealthy Americans led the conservative criticism against the president. Whether attacking his character or simply stating that he was moving away from American values toward fascism and socialism, they sought to undermine his power and popularity. Most notably, the American Liberty League, comprised largely of conservative Democrats who lamented the excesses of several of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, labeled the AAA as fascist and proclaimed later New Deal programs to be key threats to the very nature of democracy. Additional criticism came from the National Association of Manufacturers, which urged businessmen to outright ignore portions of the NRA that promoted collective bargaining, as well as subsequent labor protection legislation.
The most articulate of the conservative voices against the New Deal was Senator Robert Taft, son of former President William Howard Taft, who criticized what he believed was the inefficiency and waste of many New Deal programs. Taft, like Hoover, believed that the government needed to let private businesses restore the nation’s economy instead of relying upon government programs to end the Great Depression. He condemned the New Deal as socialist and attacked deficit spending, high farm subsidies, governmental bureaucracy, the National Labor Relations Board, and nationalized health insurance. Taft never won his argument, but went on to serve in the Senate for many years as an articulate, thoughtful voice for conservative principles of government and is remembered as one of the greatest senators of the 20th Century.
Meanwhile, others felt that Roosevelt had not done enough. Dr. Francis E. Townsend of California was one who felt that Roosevelt had failed to adequately address the country’s tremendous problems. Townsend, who was a retired dentist, proposed an expansive pension plan for the elderly. The Townsend Plan, as it was known, gained a great deal of popularity. It recommended paying every citizen over 60 who retired from work the sum of $200 per month, provided they spend it in 30 days. Townsend and his followers thought that the money would help boost the economy.
Another figure who gained national attention was Father Charles Coughlin. He was a “radio priest” from Michigan who, although he initially supported the New Deal, subsequently argued that Roosevelt stopped short in his defense of labor, monetary reform, and the nationalization of key industries. The president’s plan, he proclaimed, was inadequate. He created the National Union for Social Justice and used his weekly radio show to gain followers. In the end, Coughlin lost his audience when he began espousing anti-Semitic ideas and argued that America should support the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany.
The biggest threat to the president, however, came from corrupt but beloved Louisiana Senator Huey “Kingfish” Long. His disapproval of Roosevelt came in part from his own ambitions for higher office. Long stated that the president was not doing enough to help people and proposed his own Share Our Wealth program. Under this plan, Long recommended the liquidation of all large personal fortunes in order to fund direct payments to less fortunate Americans. He foresaw giving $5,000 to every family, $2,500 to every worker, as well as a series of elderly pensions and education funds. Long was an outstanding orator and, like the president, was able to articulate complicated ideas in easy-to-understand language. In one speech he said, “We do not propose to say that there shall be no rich men. We do not ask to divide the wealth. We only propose that, when one man gets more than he and his children and children’s children can spend or use in their lifetimes, that then we shall say that such person has his share. That means that a few million dollars is the limit to what any one man can own.” Despite his questionable math, which numerous economists quickly pointed out rendered his program unworkable, Long had a significant following. If he had not been assassinated by the son-in-law of a local political rival, he may well have been a contender against Roosevelt for the 1936 presidential nomination.
In 1935, the Supreme Court dealt the most crushing blow to Roosevelt’s vision in a series of cases. 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 justices declared key pieces of the New Deal unconstitutional, including the AAA, WPA, NRA and both federal and state minimum wage laws. In the opinion of the Court, Roosevelt and the New Dealers had gone too far. The Constitution, the Court found, did not give the federal government the power to regulate prices or dictate how much workers should be paid. The Court’s ruling frustrated Roosevelt greatly.
Despite criticism of his ideas and setbacks in court, Roosevelt entered the 1936 presidential election the next year on a wave of popularity, and he beat his Republican opponent Alf Landon by a nearly unanimous Electoral College vote of 523 to 8. Believing it to be his moment of strongest public support, Roosevelt chose to exact a measure of revenge against the Supreme Court for challenging his programs and to pressure them against challenging his more recent Second New Deal provisions. To this end, Roosevelt created the informally named “Supreme Court Packing Plan” and tried to change the makeup of the court by expanding the number of justices and adding new ones who supported his views. His plan was to add one justice for every current justice over the age of seventy who refused to step down. This would have allowed him to add six more justices, expanding the bench from nine justices to fifteen. Since the Constitution does not specify the size of the Supreme Court, this was technically legal, but President Roosevelt was playing a dangerously political game. The Court has always served as an independent branch of government, checking the power of both Congress and the President. If Roosevelt could manipulate the membership of the court, he could effectively control their decisions.
Opposition was quick and thorough from both the Supreme Court and Congress, including from within his own party and Roosevelt’s idea was never implemented. The retirement of Justice Van Devanter, as well as the sudden death of Senator Joe T. Robinson who had championed Roosevelt’s plan in the Senate effectively put a stop to court packing. In the end, Roosevelt appeared to succeed in politically intimidating the justices into supporting his newer 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 significant elements of his New Deal. However, Roosevelt suffered politically in that Americans became more suspicious of his ideas and more cautious about extending power over their lives to any president.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoonist pointed out the common criticism of FDR as a power-hungry executive who got accustomed to asking Congress to pass legislation that would give him more and more power.
MINORITIES AND THE NEW DEAL
Critics point out that not all Americans benefited from the New Deal. African Americans in particular were left out, with overt discrimination in hiring practices within the federal job programs, such as the CCC, CWA, and WPA. The NRA was oftentimes criticized as the “Negroes Ruined Again” program. As well, the AAA left tenant farmers and sharecroppers, many of whom were African American, with no support. Even Social Security originally excluded domestic workers, a primary source of employment for African American women. Facing such criticism early in his administration, Roosevelt undertook some efforts to ensure a measure of equality in hiring practices for the relief agencies, and opportunities began to present themselves by 1935. The WPA eventually employed 350,000 African Americans annually, accounting for nearly 15% of its workforce. By the close of the CCC in 1938, the program had employed over 300,000 African Americans, increasing the black percentage of its workforce from 3% at the outset to nearly 11% at its close. Likewise, in 1934, the PWA began to require that all government projects under its purview hire African Americans using a quota that reflected their percentage of the local population. Additionally, among several important WPA projects, the Federal One Project included a literacy program that eventually reached over one million African American children, helping them learn to read and write.
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Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent educator and member of FDR’s unofficial group of African American advisors known as the Black Cabinet.
On the issue of race relations themselves, Roosevelt has a mixed legacy. Within his White House, Roosevelt had a number of African American appointees, although most were in minor positions. Unofficially, Roosevelt relied upon advice from the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, better known by its nickname: the Black Cabinet. This group included a young Harvard economist, Dr. Robert Weaver, who later became the nation’s first African American cabinet secretary in 1966, as President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. One key member of the Black Cabinet was Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent African American educator who had helped found Bethune-Cookman University, a major historically black college in Florida. Bethune had been a spokesperson and an educator for years. With this role, she became one of the president’s foremost 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 promote an African American to brigadier general. Most notably, he became the first president to speak out publicly against lynching as a “vile form of collective murder.”
Despite these efforts, Roosevelt also understood the precariousness of his political position. In order to maintain a coalition of Democrats to support his larger relief and recovery efforts, Roosevelt could not afford to alienate White Southern Democrats who might easily bolt should he openly advocate for civil rights. While he spoke about the importance of anti-lynching legislation, he never formally pushed Congress to propose such a law. He did publicly support the abolition of the poll tax, which Congress eventually accomplished in 1941. Likewise, although agency directors adopted changes to ensure job opportunities for African Americans at the federal level, at the local level few advancements were made, and African Americans remained at the back of the employment lines. Despite these limited advancements, Roosevelt deserves credit for acknowledging the importance of race relations and civil rights. At the federal level, more than any of his predecessors since the Civil War, Roosevelt remained aware of the role that the federal government can play in initiating important discussions about civil rights, as well as encouraging the development of a new cadre of civil rights leaders.
Although unable to bring about sweeping civil rights reforms for African Americans in the early stages of his administration, Roosevelt was able to work with Congress to significantly 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. This law formally abandoned the assimilationist policies set forth in the Dawes Act of 1887. Rather than forcing Native Americans to adapt to White culture, the new program encouraged them to develop local self-government, as well as to preserve their artifacts and heritage. John Collier, the Commissioner on Indian Bureau Affairs from 1933 to 1945, championed this legislation and saw it as an opportunity to correct past injustices that land allotment and assimilation had wrought upon Native Americans. Although the re-establishment of communal tribal lands would prove to be difficult, Collier used this law to convince federal officials to return nearly two million acres of government-held land to various tribes in order to move the process along. Although subsequent legislation later circumscribed the degree to which tribes were allowed to self-govern on reservations, Collier’s work is still viewed as a significant step in improving race relations and preserving Native American heritage.
WOMEN AND THE NEW DEAL
For women, Roosevelt’s policies and practices had a similarly mixed effect. Wage discrimination in federal jobs programs was rampant, and relief policies encouraged women to remain home and leave jobs open for men. This belief was well in line with the gender norms of the day. Several federal relief programs specifically forbade husbands and wives both taking jobs or receiving relief payments from the same agency.
The WPA became the first specific New Deal agency to openly hire women, although the opportunities were limited to widows, single women, and the wives of disabled husbands. While they did not take part in construction projects, women did undertake sewing projects to provide blankets and clothing to hospitals and relief agencies. Likewise, several women took part in various art projects. Despite the obvious gender limitations, many women strongly supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, as much for its direct relief handouts for women as for its employment opportunities for men. One such woman was Mary (Molly) Dewson. A longtime activist in the women’s suffrage movement, Dewson worked for women’s rights and ultimately rose to be the Director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party. Dewson and Mary McLeod Bethune, understood the limitations of the New Deal, but also the opportunities for advancement it presented during very trying times. Rather than lamenting what Roosevelt could not or would not do, they felt, and perhaps rightly so, that Roosevelt would do more than most to help women and African Americans achieve a piece of the new America he was building.
Among the few, but notable, women who directly impacted Roosevelt’s policies was Frances Perkins, who as Secretary of Labor was the first female member of any presidential cabinet, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a strong and public advocate for social causes. Perkins, one of only two original cabinet members to stay with Roosevelt for his entire presidency, was directly involved in the administration of the CCC, PWA, NRA, and the Social Security Act. Among several important measures, she took greatest pleasure in championing minimum wage statutes as well as the penultimate piece of New Deal legislation, the Fair Labor Standards Act. Roosevelt came to trust Perkins’ advice with few questions or concerns, and steadfastly supported her work through the end of his life.
However, Eleanor Roosevelt, more so than any other individual, came to represent the strongest influence upon the president, and she used her unique position to champion several causes for women, African Americans, and the rural poor. A strong supporter of her husband’s political ambitions, Eleanor campaigned by his side through the failed vice-presidential bid in 1920 and on his behalf after he was diagnosed with polio in 1921. When she discovered letters of her husband’s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, the marriage became less one of romance and more one of a political partnership that would continue, strained at times, until the president’s death in 1945.
Primary Source: Photograph
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 was critical to arranging this famous performance.
Historians agree that the first lady used her presence in the White House, in addition to the leverage of her failed marriage and knowledge of her husband’s infidelities, to her advantage. She promoted several causes that the president himself would have had difficulty championing at the time. From newspaper and magazine articles she authored, to a busy travel schedule that saw her regularly cross the country, the first lady sought to remind Americans that their plight was foremost on the minds of all working in the White House.
Exposed to issues of racial segregation in her work, Eleanor supported many civil rights causes through her husband’s presidency. When it further became clear that racial discrimination was rampant in the administration of virtually all New Deal job programs, especially in the southern states, she pressed her husband for remedies. In 1934, she openly lobbied for passage of the federal anti-lynching bill that the president privately supported but could not politically endorse. Despite the failure of the Senate to pass such legislation, Eleanor succeeded in arranging a meeting between her husband and then-NAACP president Walter White to discuss anti-lynching and other pertinent calls for civil rights legislation.
White was only one of Eleanor’s African American guests to the White House. Breaking with precedent, and much to the disdain of many White House officials, the first lady routinely invited prominent African Americans to dine with her and the president. Most notably, when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to permit internationally renowned black opera contralto Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall, Eleanor resigned her membership in the DAR and arranged for Anderson to sing at a public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, followed by her appearance at a state dinner at the White House in honor of the king and queen of England. With regard to race relations in particular, Eleanor Roosevelt was able to accomplish what her husband, for delicate political reasons, could not and she become the administration’s face for civil rights.
A FINAL ANALYSIS
No evaluation of the New Deal is complete without an analysis of Roosevelt himself. As a leader, his skills were unparalleled. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and FDR responded with a bold program of experimentation that arguably saved the capitalist system and perhaps the American democracy. Certainly, other nations in Europe turned to fascism, communism, dictatorship, and ultimately disaster. As sweeping as his objectives were, they still fundamentally preserved the free-market economy. There was no nationalization of industry, and the social safety net created by Social Security was much weaker than its European cousins. Observers noted that his plan went far enough to silence the “lunatic fringe,” but not far enough to jeopardize capitalism or democracy.
FDR’s confidence was contagious as millions turned to him for guidance during their darkest hours. His mastery of the radio paved the way for the media-driven presidency we know today. On the other side of the coin, his critics charged that he abused his power and set the trend for an imperial Presidency that would ultimately endanger the office in future decades.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoon criticizes FDR as a president who answered every economic question with the same answer: create a program to spend government money. The expansion of government and the waste that was part of the New Deal were both criticisms of FDR’s program both then and now.
The New Deal itself created millions of jobs and sponsored public works projects that reached most every county in the nation. Federal protection of bank deposits ended the dangerous trend of bank runs. Abuse of the stock market was more clearly defined and monitored to prevent collapses in the future. The Social Security system was modified and expanded to remain one of the most popular government programs for the remainder of the century. For the first time in peacetime history the federal government assumed responsibility for managing the economy and protecting the basic welfare of its citizens.
Laborers benefited from protections and new and more powerful unions emerged, but not everyone benefited. FDR was not fully committed to either civil or women’s rights and both groups received only limited benefits.
However comprehensive the New Deal seemed, it failed to achieve its main goal: ending the Depression. In 1939, the unemployment rate was still 19%, and not until 1943 did it reach its pre-Depression levels. The massive spending brought by the American entry to the Second World War ultimately cured the nation’s economic woes, not Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Conservatives bemoaned a bloated governmental bureaucracy that was nearly a million workers strong, up from just over 600,000 in 1932. They complained that Roosevelt more than doubled the national debt in eight short years, a good deal of which had been lost through waste. Liberals pointed out that the gap between rich and poor was barely dented by the end of the decade.
Regardless of its shortcomings, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal helped America muddle through the dark times strong enough to tackle the even greater task that lay ahead: defeating Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
The New Deal is remembered fondly by many liberals today as the zenith of their time in power and a sort of utopia of liberal government. But a closer inspection can temper this rosy view of the past. FDR himself was able to make little progress in advancing minority rights and the New Deal programs were designed to repair the broken economy, not radically reform it the way Huey Long or Europeans envisioned.
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.