New Deal

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Progressive Roots

As a number of books on the New Deal suggest, the New Deal did not emerge from nothing, but had its beginnings in Progressivism. As Jordan A. Schwartz in The New Dealers argues, FDR borrowed politically from Woodrow Wilson and that there was in fact no New Deal. The New Deal reforms were more an effort of FDR using the economic and social ideas of the Progressive movement to address a new set of problems.

Economically, Schwartz suggests that the Southern Progressives, who believed in capitalism but distrusted Wall Street, provided the impetus for the government to provide capital. Christine Bold in The WPA Guides suggests that Washington policy makers were guided by the Progressive belief in labor and achievements of workers, thereby seeking new opportunities to maintain that legacy. Also in the Progressive tradition, though, policy makers had good intentions but also mistakenly thought they knew the best solutions to America’s problems, especially race.

In Black America in the Roosevelt Era, John B. Kirby argues that northern, elite, intellectualism became the 1930s version of Progressivism. These intellectuals expanded the hold of Progressive ideas from the middle class to push for the improvement of the conditions for black Americans in the South, but still had a poor sense of the problems others faced.

The Progressive roots of New Deal reform highlights regionalism as a mode of analysis as important as race, class, gender, and ethnicity for understanding the era. The South and West saw unprecedented government involvement in the New Deal because of the Northeastern intellectual tradition of social betterment. These intellectual Progressives of the Northeast dictated the terms of progress. Some states, like Missouri, valued the legitimacy and wealth that association allowed, but others like Idaho held fast to its own identity and individuality, despite massive investment in Western electricity and water sources (The WPA Guides). New Deal regionalism underscores Progressive influence on policymaking and the process of dissent.

But who were its authors? What was its character? And what was its legacy? For Patrick D. Regan, in this book Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943, these are the important questions from the period. Regan argues that the New Deal was a continuation of Wilsonian ideals which matured during the Progressive Era. These ideals sought to ensure greater social order---which would ensure greater corporate profits---by using governmental authority to secure modest initiatives designed to improve the quality of life for lower classes. The architects of the New Deal came of age during the Progressive Era as businessmen, academics, and social theorists. They were all associated with the Hoover administration in some capacity where they honed their practical policy skills. And practical those shills were, for when Roosevelt established the New Deal, these architects did not seek a utopian state, but rather focused on reorganizing the federal executive branch into an organ which could project governmental authority into all levels of american society. While this projection did not resolve the issue of the Great Depression, it did reform the executive in ways that are still resonating. Regan argues this reform was the greatest legacy of the New Deal.

The Crash

Why did Americans abandon a long tradition of suspicion of central government?

Small, traditional institutions had been threatened even before the Crash. Chain stores put small shops out of business and got people used to dealing with large, impersonal institutions. As Americans moved to cities, they could no longer depend on their own land for subsistence. Lizbeth Cohen, in Making a New Deal, depicts the collapse of neighborhood, ethnic, and municipal systems for dealing with poverty.

Scholars debate the responses of President Herbert Hoover. In his book, Freedom from fear, David M. Kennedy "argues that Hoover was in fact quite aggressive in his attempt to revive the economy once the depression hit and was not the “hands off” president that he has been labeled previously. Instead, Kennedy believes that the Congress that Hoover faced caused much of this lack of action, refusing to act on many of the legislative acts sent to them." Hoover sought to makes reforms and was not blind to the suffering wrought by the Great Depression, he was just politcally inept.

At the same time, though, in Picturing Faith, Colleen McDannell suggests that the New Deal photo project captured the images of depression through a lens reflecting the beliefs of the photographer. This perspective did not always reflect the reality of the lives portrayed.

To be read:

  • Harold Bierman, The Causes of the 1929 Stock Market Crash: A Speculative Orgy or a New Era?
  • Ben S. Bernanke. Essays on the Great Depression. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 2000.

Policies and Programs

What was the New Deal?

According to William Leuchtenberg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940, The New Deal was "the most extraordinary series of reforms in the nation’s history." Leuchtenberg considers as major components legislation fostered government-industry cooperation, relief for millions of farmers, programs of regional planning, billions to save homes and farms from foreclosure, huge public works like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Federal Deposition Insurance Corporation, and federal regulation of Wall Street. Later legislation included the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the Rural Electrification Act. The Banking Act of 1935 that was a "significant shift toward centralization of the banking system and the federal control of banking." Leuchtenberg also sees problems and unforeseen consequences with the New Deal.

David M. Kennedy, in Freedom from fear, is more skeptical. He seems to believe that Roosevelt really did not have a clear plan developed and instead simply stood behind those programs that were most beneficial to him politically. His beliefs would change with what the environment held and or who he was talking to; Roosevelt was not good with direct confrontations. If saying something would make a person happy, he would say it – five minutes later, he may tell someone else something completely contradictorily. Above all else, Roosevelt was a politician. Kennedy highlights how virtually every one of Roosevelt's proposed programs was based in politics.

Kennedy's book covers much the same ground as Leuchtenberg's, but as part of the Oxford History of the United States series it is intended more for a mass popular audience. Kennedy's account of the New Deal relies more on secondary than primary sources. He breaks no new ground, although he is stronger than Leuchtenberg in his defense of Hoover. Both authors conclude that the New Deal, while not effective in ending the Great Depression, did fundamentally change America for the better by instituting needed reforms and tempering the excesses of free enterprise capitalism. Both books mostly ignore the cultural and social history of the era. Neither paya attention to the plight of Native Americans or African Americans, and, except for leaders such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, women are not mentioned.

On the other hand, Colin Gordon argues in New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics in America, 1920-1935, that many of the programs and reforms of the New Deal were simply an extension of earlier private efforts by business and industry leaders who tried, and failed, to control the increasing instability and destructive competition of the economy; the Great Depression marked the failure of their efforts but they continued to follow "rational self-interest" (10) in their efforts to shape the New Deal reforms in what they perceived to be their best interests. Gordon also argues that they were less successful than many radical critics of the New Deal would later come to believe.

Economic Reform

In The end of reform, Alan Brinkley stresses the difference between the relief and recovery programs of the early New Deal and the reform efforts that followed the election of 1936. He argues that “The new liberalism that evolved in response to this changing world wrapped itself in the mantle of the New Deal, but bore only a partial resemblance to the ideas that had shaped the original New Deal.” Brinkley argues that there were two New Deals – the first of which only focused on relief and recovery. It was not until after the 1936 election that saw Roosevelt achieve the overwhelming victory he felt he needed and a Congress dominated by the Democrats friendly to him, that any type of reform could be attempted.

The narrative of Elliot A. Rosen's book, Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and the Economics of Recovery, focuses on the causes of the depression, the conflict between rival responses, and the difficulties the New Deal encountered in stimulating recovery. For Rosen the Depression was the product of several converging agents of mayhem: disorder in the international monetary community, economic deflation, and traditional American economic policy. For Sound-money Hooverites, the solution to the Depression was a gold-based dollar, deflation, a balanced federal budget, and voluntary commercial commitment to Sound-money reforms. The New Deal favored a modified gold-standard that would permit inflation of the dollar, which would raise prices and draw money back into circulation. Deficit spending on make-work and public works, and the application of Federal authority to commercial affairs to promote recovery rounded out the New Deal Agenda. Rosen argues that the New Deal failed to achieve its goal of substantial recovery due to its reoccurring focus on manipulating supply and the profound nature of flaws in American economic institutions.

Policies and programs can be broken down into three distinct categories, each with their own ramifications: race, technology, and job creation. In the area of race, Kirby concludes that policies towards blacks were successful to a degree, but did not help in the long run as they addressed economics, but not the roots of segregation and prejudice. As is made clear in Black America in the Roosevelt Era, FDR was the consummate politician and as such, refused to cross certain lines in order to keep Southern votes.

Public Works

According to Schwartz and Sarah Phillips (This Land, This Nation), the South was also key in government investment in technology. As a prime beneficiary of electrification and hydraulics, the Southern constituency supported technology initiatives and the overriding goals of the New Conservation movement that sought to improve quality of urban life by providing resources to make it comparable to life in industrialized areas. As Schwartz argues of the West, another area changed by New Deal policies, New Deal technology initiatives were successful in that they enabled a population boom and the growth of the defense industry in World War II.

Finally, the government was actively involved in creating jobs for Americans. Beyond massive industrial, technological, and agricultural programs such as the TVA, the government provided employment for professions as diverse as archaeologists (Digging for Dollars), photographers (Picturing Faith), and writers (The WPA Guides).

More specifically, with a A New Deal for the American People. Roger Biles gives a concise history of the New Deal. He discusses the factors which contributed to the Great Depression and looks at the New Deal's successes and failures.

Biles acknowledges the fact that the New Deal "clearly failed to restore economic prosperity."(225) In spite of the aid provided by the federal and state governments the "enormity of the economic problems throughout the country left much of the president's pledge unfulfilled." However, he does not argue that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression as some historians do. One such historian, Professor Gary Dean Best, argues that Roosevelt's regulatory programs created an antibusiness environment, which stunted the United States' economic recovery. Biles argues that in spite of its "minimal reforms and non-revolutionary programs," the New Deal created a limited welfare state that "implanted several stabilizers that have been more successful in averting another such depression."(227) According to Biles, the New Deal’s most important contribution was the implantation of these stabilizers.

Biles identifies these four stabilizers as the following. The first is The Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. Second, is the Wheeler-Rayburn Act, which allowed the Securities and Exchange Commission to do the same with public utilities. Third, The Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which forced the separation of commercial and investment banking and broadened the powers of the Federal Reserve Board to change interest rates and limit loans for speculation. The fourth stabilizer is the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which increased government supervision of state banks and greatly lowered the number of banks that failed.(227) According to Biles, these four “stabilizers” “established a firm economic foundation that performed well for decades thereafter,” thereby making the New Deal a success. (228)

The New Deal was not about the radical overthrow of capitalism or institution of new formats of government. It was far more cautious, even as it shifted the fulcrum of power and participation.

The New Deal included the "Alphabet Soup" programs such as PWA, TVA, CCC, CWA, FERA and WPA. In addition, welfare policies including the Social Security Act and mother's aid known as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) were enacted.


Linda Gordon in Pitied but Not Entitled, began her research with a question, what is welfare? She first defined the term and the ways in which the usage and meaning of this singular term was redefined in only two generations. Initially, around the turn of the twentieth century, the term was a means of inquiring about the health and well-being of a friend, however by 1935 this term was synonymous with poverty and the stigma associated with needing and accepting financial assistance from the government to survive.

Gordon examines the historical transformation of the term welfare between 1890 and 1935. Initially the term welfare was used when you inquired about the “prosperity, good health and good spirits” of a friend or neighbor because you were concerned about their “welfare”. (1) However, over time the term “welfare” became synonymous with “poverty, bad health and fatalism” and grudgingly providing aid to poor and destitute strangers. (1) The welfare system has been shaped by the cultural meanings which have been associated with it over the years. (2) While Gordon discusses a variety of welfare programs, she focuses on those programs which provided relief to “single” mothers and children.

Gordon focuses on single mothers and their children in particular because they have historically been exceptionally poor, leading to the feminization of poverty. (6) The term “single mothers” refers not only to mothers who have never been married, but instead refers to all women who raised children alone including widows, divorced and separated or deserted mothers. (6) “Many Progressive Era reformers were intensely concerned about sexual immorality and women’s sexual victimization” and therefore as they advocated for mother’s aid laws they praised widows as “models of true womanhood” making widows synonymous for the “virtuous mother”. (27-28) Mother’s aid, initially known as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) was inconsistent and insufficient providing conditional assistance based upon the mother’s ability to “demonstrate a class – and race-defined standard of maternal success”. (51-52) In 1962, this program was changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and continued to provide assistance to mothers and their children until its demise in 1997.

In Civilizing Capitalism: The National Comumers' League, Womens Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era Landon R. Y. Storrs takes a look at labor reform through the lens of women, in particular the National Comumers' League, finding they played an integral part in shaping New Deal labor policy.

To be read

  • Gordon, Linda. Pitied but Not Entitled:single mothers and the history of welfare, 1890-1935. New York: Free Press, 1994
  • Lawson, R. Alan. A Commonwealth of Hope: The New Deal Response to Crisis.
  • Reagan, Patrick D. Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943. University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
  • Rosen, Elliot A. Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and the Economics of Recovery. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

In Dealers and Dreamers Joseph Lash says... In The New Dealers Jordan Schwarz says...

Bottom-Up Approaches

How did the New Deal appear to ordinary Americans? Who joined the Democratic party?

In Making a new deal, Lizabeth Cohen looks at the New Deal from the perspectives of the workers. She finds that American workers remained committed to the status quo; that is, they worked through an established political party—the Democrats—and union organization.

American Indians enjoyed a less democratic New Deal. In Organizing the Lakota, Thomas Biolsi argues that while the goal of the Indian New Deal, with the establishment of Tribal Councils, was to bring self-government and autonomy to the Lakota, the end effect was the opposite. Because the Tribal Councils ran counter to traditional Lakota forms of self-government, and because they had little independent authority, the Tribal Councils simply added another form of governmental control of the Lakota people.

Further, the New Deal programs appeared differently to ordinary Americans than to policy makers in Washington. As discussed above, policy makers in Washington believed they understood the problems of the country and how to solve them. While overall the southern constituency accepted the government involvement in agricultural policies, it was because, as Phillips argues in This Land, This Nation, those policies were controlled by the planter elite at the local level. In turn, the policies solidified white power in the south and encouraged black out-migration north into the cities.

In Picturing Faith, McDannell also documents how citizens were sometimes distrustful of the government photographers. The photographs were controversial when they portrayed men as debilitated and when they did not reflect the ideals of individual responsibility. Farmers particularly understood New Deal reforms to be a threat to the notion of individuality. Also in regards to the cultural implications of New Deal programs, it is unclear how receptive citizens were to being told what was legitimate about their local history and art as Bold in The WPA Guides does not elaborate on this topic.

In And A Time For Hope, James R. McGovern examines the reactions of those Americans most adversely affected by the economic catastrophes of the Great Depression. He begins by briefly discussing the events in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life which helped define both his private and public personalities as well as his presidency, but does not focus on the political history of the Great Depression. McGovern stated, “Roosevelt’s caring leadership and New Deal not explain adequately the remarkable stability of American society or the confidence manifested by Americans in the 1930’s.” (x) This is instead a social history which encompasses the experiences of Americans from various regions, social, racial and ethnic groups and how their strengths sustained them during the Depression years.

James R. McGovern takes a new and innovative look at the Great Depression, not from the standpoint of political history, but that of social history. He focuses on the American people and their responses to the Great Depression providing a new interpretation of this era of American history. McGovern’s new interpretation of the Great Depression comes from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

McGovern examined various groups of people and discussed their collective strengths which helped each group endure the hardships of the Depression. Among the groups of people he discussed were farmers, migrant workers, African Americans, union organizers and members, immigrants both first and second generation, and groups of people living in rural and urban areas. For most of these groups of people the “three major institutions that shaped character were family, church and community.” (102) These were the same qualities which drew American’s to faith and trust in their president.

To be read:

  • Brad D. Lookingbill, Dust Bowl, USA: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, 1929-1941. Ohio University Press, 2001.
  • Jacobs, Meg. Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
  • McGovern, James R., And A Time For Hope: Americans in the Great Depression. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2000.
  • Sitkoff, Harvard. A new deal for Blacks: the emergence of civil rights as a national issue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.


Who objected to the New Deal, and how did their criticisms shape policy?

In Voices of protest, Alan Brinkley reminds us that there were alternatives. He draws our attention to two of the most flamboyant critics of the New Deal: Huey Long and Father Coughlin. Ray Clark complains that Brinkley marginalizes a third critic, Townsend.

Not everyone benefitted under the New Deal policies and programs. Blacks, for example, continued to suffer in the sharecropping South. In Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, author Robin Kelley shows how southerners, particularly blacks, were drawn to Communism as a way to have a voice. Although the movement eventually faltered, for a time, blacks held some power and paved the way for future leaders to agitate for civil rights--indeed, a few of the 1930s Communists participated in the later movement.

While the New Deal might have conferred benefits on the local southern economies, these benefits did not always reach blacks. For example, the money promised under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) did not trickle down to the sharecroppers, as local (white) landowners had the power to distibute the checks written by the government to bolster the dying cotton areas. (53) Furthermore, black women were kicked off WPA rolls in 1938 to induce them to fill the demand for domestic household labor (the demand for this sort of labor supposedly indicated an upswing in the economy). (156-7) And the WPA itself was woefully mismanaged in Alabama. As Kelley notes, "the WPA in Alabama was launched with very little direction or planning." (152) Finally, Kelley does not mention this fact, but FDR, afraid of angering powerful southerners, was hardly receptive to an anti-lynching bill. With the number of lynchings in the South of that era, coupled with the lack of benefits from New Deal programs, it would be little wonder that southern blacks were not necessarily impressed by FDR and his D.C. powerbrokers.

As Kirby argues, contrary to popular conception, African Americans generally did not have a great affection for Roosevelt and questioned New Deal reforms. Their dissent via the rise of economic boycotts and other displays of political power laid the framework for the civil rights movement.

Other forms of dissent centered on regional identity. Picturing Faith shows the split between the secular north and the religious south and the ways memory had to be constructed to serve the purposes of the administration and its policies. In The WPA Guides, Bold outlines the efforts of community leaders to resist the formulaic local identities supported by the New Deal policies.

To be read:

  • Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression. University of Illinois Press, 1983.

New Deal Culture

New Deal programs designed to get people working and to inject money into the economy had the side effect of sponsoring major cultural projects in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts. How did federal money shape American culture?

In his book Digging for Dollars, Paul Fagette explains the role that the New Deal played in shaping American Archaeology. He argues that archaeological excavations and other programs set up through New Deal programs such as the Civil Works Administration and later on, the Works Progress Administration played a great role in unifying the discipline and establishing codes of conduct and procedures.

Additionally, Picturing Faith and The WPA Guides illustrate other ways the federal government became involved in cultural production of New Deal America that would standardize popular memory. Both examine how culture was used to lay out the parameters for citizenship to create the image of a nation responding well to New Deal programs and as a nation united on the eve of World War II. However all three of these books miss major cultural features of the time such as music and movies and the government’s censorship of them.

New Deal Foreign Policy

Domestic New Deal reforms tied to foreign policy and international relations addressed communism. As Schwartz argues essentially that capitalism eliminated the extremes of communism and fascism, thereby creating a compromise that made government involvement palatable via state competition for government investment. Despite the government’s capital investment in the South, southern communists were quite active, but as Kirby states were never able to engage blacks (primarily farmers) in a labor movement. In This Land, This Nation, Phillips argues that policymakers sought to use New Deal land policies to build support among agricultural Third World nations for the U.S., the capital marketplace, and anti-communism.

One of FDR's boldest moves was Recognition of the Soviet Union.

  • The juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as wartime statesman, by Warren Kimball.
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