FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE NEW DEAL
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the pre-eminent Twentieth Century U.S. president, perhaps the pre-eminent man of the century, the descendent of Hudson Valley patroons, a privileged aristocrat, whose sympathies lay with the common man. Once a vigorous, young athlete, he was stricken by polio, leaving his legs paralyzed. Throughout his political career, he never permitted his legs, caged in heavy steel braces, to be seen by the public. With his optimism and ebullience, he led the nation through the Great Depression, altering for all time the federal government’s role in the U.S. economy.
One of our greatest political orators, FDR energized the nation with his inspiring speeches and his homey weekly radio broadcasts, known as Fireside Chats. He appeared born for the presidency, manifesting a natural, easygoing, relaxed and folksy demeanor.
The speculative boom of the Roaring Twenties crashed in flames as the stock market plummeted during a few short days in October, 1929, spiraling the United States downward into the worst financial crisis in its history, causing unprecedented unemployment rates, widespread bankruptcies, foreclosures on homes and farms, and the loss of billions in a single day. Previously prosperous men soon found themselves living in hobo jungles and Hoovervilles, hopping freights, rapping on the doors of strangers for handouts. As the cataclysm spread throughout the western world, democratic governments appeared impotent, giving impetus to nascent totalitarian movements in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
FDR, elected by a landslide, along with solid Democratic majorities, promised a New Deal for the American people. His program emphasized the Three R’s: Relief for the unemployed and the poor; Recovery, bringing the economy back to normal; Reform to alter the system in such a way as to prevent a repeat. During his first one hundred days, he ordered a bank holiday, ending a drain that had caused thousands of bank failures and the loss of billions in deposits. The Civilian Conservation Corps was created to provide employment for young men, mortgage relief was provided for farmers and homeowners, the Federal Trade Commission was given stronger regulatory authority, the Tennessee Valley Authority was created to generate hydroelectric power and control floodwaters.
As part of the New Deal, Social Security became a reality, providing a safety net for senior citizens. Other New Deal reforms sought to end intimidation in the workplace and such management practices as blacklisting. The Wagner Act guaranteed employees the right to form, join and support trade unions and to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. The National Labor Relations Board was given authority to correct workplace abuses, act as an arbitrator, and investigate charges of discrimination. The Securities and Exchange Commission was formed to regulate the securities industry, bringing enforcement actions against persons and companies who commit securities fraud. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was created to guarantee the security of people’s bank deposits.
Congressmen forgot to be Democrats and Republicans and joined together to find solutions, in contrast to the rancor and vituperation that characterizes that institution today.
FDR’s National Recovery Act was intended to eliminate cutthroat competition in business and industry by causing labor, business and the government to work together to set wages and prices and to enforce fair practices. The Supreme Court unanimously deemed the NRA unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of powers, causing FDR to propose his “court packing” scheme under which a younger justice would be added whenever a seated justice reached the age of seventy. FDR lost this battle, but many parts of the NRA were subsequently re-enacted through new legislation.
His battle was not over. In his second inaugural address, he observed, “I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-fed.” Foreshadowing a debate that rages to this day, he argued, “The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”
New Deal reforms were essential and long overdue but did not end the Great Depression. With World War II raging elsewhere and our entry into that conflict looming, manufacturing revived and the manpower needs of industry and military service solved the unemployment crisis.
Some still argue that FDR opened the door to socialism, while others maintain that his reforms preserved a corrupt and inefficient system that required a total overhaul. He would have responded, “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt inspired a downtrodden people, initiated long overdue social and economic reforms, and provided unparalleled leadership during a time of crisis and despair.
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