The United States found itself in economic and social turmoil during the Great Depression, with little hope being offered from the federal government. When Franklin Roosevelt announced his candidacy for President of the United States, the country was in great need of a new direction and a renewed confidence in itself, after loosing all faith in President Herbert Hoover. As the Democratic challenger to the lame duck President Hoover, Roosevelt disagreed with the economic policies of the incumbent president, and insisted that the government should take firm steps to insure the well-being of the people. With Hoover arguing for only the limited interference from the government in matters of economics, Roosevelt’s ideas granted him an overwhelming victory in the election of 1932, and also gave the Democrats substantial majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. With all these elements in place, Roosevelt was able to propose to the American public a “new deal" that would seek to reverse the failing economic situation in the country.
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The New Deal is remembered by many today as the time that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the American government took initiative to help out underprivileged Americans. Before the sweeping changes proposed by Roosevelt’s “new deal," as well as government interventions into many aspects of American economic life, the federal government largely kept to a line of rule that included as little interference as possible into the lives of its citizens. However, like his distant cousin before him, President “Teddy" Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt used the office of the presidency as an office of moral and political leadership. In his opinion, it was his duty, as well as the duty of the American federal government to make sure that the American people did not continue to suffer as it had during its Great Depression. Through his mastery as a politician and his skills as an orator, Roosevelt encouraged not only his fellow politicians, but also Americans, that federal support was necessary to life the country out of its despair. For a month before his inauguration, Roosevelt observed that depositors, fearful of bank failures, were making “runs" on their banks to withdraw cash, thereby compelling many banks to shut their doors; immediately upon taking office, Roosevelt closed all banks by declaring a “bank holiday," then called Congress into special session and quickly obtained legislation empowering Treasury officials to examine the banks and reopen those that were solvent (Gordon 477). Roosevelt’s vigorous action restored public confidence not only in the banks but also in the federal government, and the earliest inklings of what would become his New Deal began to emerge.
The strength of Roosevelt’s political influence contributed to the implementation of many of his New Deal initiatives. Roosevelt held frequent press conferences and utilized them to present his ideas to the American public and to dominate newspaper headlines. In addition, Roosevelt adeptly used the radio to reach into the American home with his “fireside chats." In an informal manner, Roosevelt addressed his listeners as “my friends" and gained public support for his New Deal programs (478). Roosevelt established himself as a leader concerned with the forgotten man of the American culture and offered help for the average citizen, promising a “new deal for the American people." Roosevelt reestablished the Presidency as a position of leadership, and in doing so created a great deal of controversy as well as admiration for his populist ideals in the New Deal, which is still considered one of the most significant social actions of the twentieth century and credited for helping to end the Great Depression. However, it was also met with harsh criticism by opponents, and looked as if it would be stopped cold in its tracks many times. However, despite the mounting criticism, the New Deal continued and eventually transformed the country.
Some of the first programs initiated officially of the New Deal took part during what became known as the “Hundred Days." The banking act was the first of many laws enacted by Congress during the three months of its special session. Roosevelt proposed many new laws and using his position as party leader and public orator, secured every major proposal. Some of these acts include the Federal Emergency Relief Act, which provided grants to states for relief of destitute persons; the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which raised farm prices by curtailing production; the National Industrial Recovery Act, which sped business recovery by codes of fair competition; and many more proposals got their start during the hundred days (481). While some institutions became permanent, like the Tennessee Valley Authority that provided a massive public works construction project that provided dams and hydroelectricity along seven states in the Tennessee Valley, many of the other agencies created during the hundred days were temporary and designed to counter specific problems of the Depression. Few were completely successful, and the Depression would continue for six more years, but psychologically the nation turned a corner in the spring of 1933, and under Roosevelt the government seemed to be responding to the economic crisis enabling people to look to the future with hope (Divine 775). The programs of the New Deal would continue to be introduced throughout the 1930s, despite opposition within the government.
Even though many in the government opposed the programs enacted in the New Deal, it was making headway in 1934. The National Housing Act passed on June 28, and stimulated home building by setting up an agency that insured loans made for construction (Green 524). The New Deal was also endorsed by the American public during the mid-term elections of 1934, and in January of 1935, Roosevelt introduced his Second New Deal in his annual message to Congress, which included broader social reformers designed to help farmers, workers, the poor, and the unemployed. Roosevelt’s relief for the unemployed included trying to get employed instead of collecting relief benefits while not working. This led to the formation of large-scale public works programs through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which also created the Works Progress Administration (525). The public works programs created by this employed millions, despite criticism that many of the construction projects were unnecessary. However, it went a long way in creating jobs for the unemployed and contributed to America’s recovering economy.
The New Deal also helped farmers, and the Resettlement Administration was created by executive order. The administration’s duty was to find better land for impoverished farmers, as well as loans that would enable small farmers, tenants, sharecroppers, and agricultural workers money to buy land and equipment (526). The Rural Electrification Administration also sought to provide electricity to rural areas that were not served by private electric companies, helping many American farms in the process. While the New Deal also improved labor relations through the National Labor Relations Act, banking reform by increasing the membership of the Federal Reserve Board through the Banking Act, tax Reform through the Wealth Tax Act, which taxed the wealthy, and utilities reform through the Public Utilities Holding Company Act which sought to eliminate utility monopolies, the most lasting and popular reform was the Social Security Act (526). Through the Social Security Act, a national system of old age and survivors’ insurance was established, giving a pension to retired persons over 65 years of age or older; additionally, the act also set up a joint federal-state system of unemployment compensation and authorized grants to states for various social services (526). While some of Roosevelt’s New Deal promises were eventually struck down as unconstitutional, the lasting effects of it and the Second New Deal continue to be felt today.
The importance of Roosevelt’s New Deal was far greater than just pulling the United States out of the throes of the Great Depression. On this matter, the New Deal could be considered a failure, and the United States was not fully out of the Depression until the military industrial production reached a frenzied pitch just before the United States joined the fight against the Nazis. The effects of the New Deal helped strengthen the power of the federal government and proved that it could influence the psychological mindset of the American public. Though the many programs went a long way in improving the situation faced by many Americans, it was the foundation it created for the remainder of the twentieth century. The New Deal restored courage and optimism to the American people and improved the economic status of most Americans. It also provided work relief, which enabled the unemployed to retain their self-respect and which enriched the nation with roads, public buildings, dams, and parks.
The New Deal also increased government spending, thereby offsetting declines in private spending and helped the economy to recover from the Depression. Finally, the many public works programs of the New Deal reduced unemployment by five million and treated the remaining unemployed humanely, successfully regulated capitalism and introduced laws of permanent value, and expanded federal power over our economic system and yet maintained democratic methods and personal freedoms (Gordon 479). The importance of the New Deal to the context of the historical period is that it allowed America to gain economic strength and national confidence that allowed it to become one of the strongest powers in the world.
The effects immediately felt by the New Deal did affect millions of Americans, but its programs would also turn the ultra-capitalism of the early twentieth century and introduce socialist ideals into the government, including things like social security and welfare. This helped America come closer to the true ideals set forth in the founding documents. While it failed to completely eradicate class divisions, or the fact that the haves often have a significantly amount more than the have-nots, it made class consciousness a subject of national awareness. Finally, in more than just political rhetoric or empty promises, the federal government took conscious action to see that the common man was protected and became a focus of the political agenda. The idea of political and economic equality existed since the founding founders, but a strong aristocratic ruling class had persisted in keeping the rich rich and the poor poor, while also keeping the masses relatively ignorant. The New Deal sought to eradicate this mindset, not only in the common man but in the ruling classes. Combined with the events that would follow in World War II, the New Deal could be seen as a direct reason for the equal rights movements that would come to dominate the middle and latter half of the twentieth century. The ideas of equality despite economic disparity, dignity regardless of employment status, and the belief that the federal government truly had the best interests of its people in mind all stem directly from Roosevelt and his efforts. Though the New Deal was borne of the poor economic situation, it went far beyond to create a modern and cosmopolitan America.
The socialist ideals inherent in the New Deal have been attacked by anti-communists for the entire twentieth century, as well as the powerful corporate American structure, but they have persisted because of the support of the American populace. The ideals of the New Deal continue to be controversial, but they are also respected by millions of Americans that cannot imagine a world without social security, public roads, and national parks. In the end, the New Deal did more to improve the confidence of the American citizens in themselves and the government and, through its socialist programs, helped preserve the democratic ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all.
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