Franklin Roosevelt took office during America’s greatest financial crisis. Unemployment was at 25% and the country was in the midst of another wave of bank failures. But was the New Deal really the magic solution to America’s problems? Let’s find out!
The Last Four Years
As president, Roosevelt maintained the optimism from his campaign. He confronted the Great Depression in his inauguration speech with what became one of his most famous quotes, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Using the “analogue of war,” Roosevelt signed a flood of legislation in his first one-hundred days in office. This quick response set a precedent for all future presidents that their first one-hundred days were their most important. One of Roosevelt’s first actions was to declare a bank holiday, a pause in financial business to stop the run of withdrawals that was destroying the system. He also called for an emergency session of Congress to enact his banking plan. Inspections determined if banks could be re-opened if stable, re-organized if savable, or closed if beyond repair. Other major pieces of legislation included the Securities Act, to require corporations to release accurate stock information to investors; the Glass-Steagall Act, to separate commercial and investment banks and create the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC); and the Securities and Exchange Act. to regulate the financial market under the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). President Roosevelt explained all these new complicated laws to the American public over the radio, in what became his regular “Fireside Chats.” His effective communication skills and self-assuring tone helped maintain his popularity throughout his presidency.
The New Deal, once just a catchy campaign slogan with no defined principle, was beginning to take shape. Its programs can be roughly categorized under the “Three R’s:” Relief for the unemployed and poor, Recovery for the economy, and Reform of the financial system, so a depression of this magnitude could never happen again. Dozens of new agencies provided assistance for struggling Americans. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) gave money to states for relief efforts; the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) paid workers to build national parks; the Civil Works Administration (CWA) funded infrastructure projects; the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built dams and provided electricity to rural areas; and the National Recovery Administration (NRA) set codes for industrial competition. Also during Roosevelt’s first year, the 21st Amendment was ratified, nullifying the Prohibition of alcohol!
Two controversial pieces of legislation were the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The AAA paid farmers to cut excess production, but it meant destroying food at a time when many were starving. It also disproportionately hurt share-croppers, who were predominantly African American. The NIRA regulated industry to enforce fair wages and prices. Roosevelt’s administration hoped that public pressure would compel businesses to regulate themselves, but most big companies simply ignored inconvenient rules, which hurt their smaller competitors. Ultimately, the broad powers granted to the federal government under both acts led to their designation as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Roosevelt worried that the Court would invalidate his work.
It’s also worth noting that in order to pass his agenda, Roosevelt needed support from Southern Democrats. They often insisted on state-level administration of the new programs, which allowed them to withhold benefits from African Americans.
In 1935, Roosevelt adjusted his strategy to focus on economic security, rather than direct recovery. Some historians refer to this series of bills as the “Second New Deal.” The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was another jobs program centered on infrastructure, but also included arts incentives; the Wagner Act guaranteed labor the right to organize and collectively bargain; and finally, the Social Security Act established insurance for old-age, unemployment, disabilities, and children. These pieces of legislation were responsible for the biggest shift in the public’s understanding of what the government’s role should be.
Without a doubt, Roosevelt had taken impressive action to combat the Great Depression. But critics called the abundance of confusing and overlapping new agencies “alphabet soup.” Politicians like Al Smith, Roosevelt’s former New York ally and the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, called them radical and un-American.
Conversely, some believed that Roosevelt had not done enough. The loudest voice from this end of the spectrum was Populist Senator Huey Long from Louisiana. Long had initially been a strong supporter of the president, but became disillusioned with the New Deal, as he believed it was not directly helping the poor. He proposed a “Share the Wealth” plan to redistribute the incomes of the rich. Long’s popularity rose when he partnered with Father Charles E. Coughlin, an outspoken “Radio Priest” from Royal Oak, Michigan. Coughlin gained fame as a harsh critic of the KKK and as one of the few remaining supporters of silver currency. Long planned to challenge Roosevelt for the presidency, possibly to split the Democratic vote and run again against a Republican in 1940. However, in September 1935, Long was assassinated outside of the Louisiana state capitol by the son-in-law of a political opponent.
Commenting on the election, Roosevelt told a close advisor, “There’s one main issue in this campaign. It’s myself, and people must be either for me or against me.”
Haters be damned, the Democratic convention was all-in for Roosevelt! Enthusiasm was at an all-time high. Delegates cheered and danced for his re-nomination. As expected, Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner won on their first ballots. Roosevelt condemned “economic royalists” in his acceptance speech, and the party platform called for an expansion of the New Deal.
Still recovering from a rare loss to the Democrats, the Republican Party hoped to recapture Western farmers. The main to contenders for their nomination were Kansas Governor Alfred Landon and Idaho Senator William Borah. The party machine backed Landon and he secured the win on the first ballot. As a former oil man known for balancing his state’s budget, Landon appealed to businessmen and economic conservatives. He also had some clout with progressives as a former supporter of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party. Landon was known for his folksy manner and friends called him the “Kansas Lincoln.” His running mate was Colonel Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, another Bull-Mooser turned conservative. Notably, the party did not select New Hampshire Senator Styles Bridges for the ticket in order to avoid chants of “Landon Bridges falling down!” from the opposition. The Republican platform sent a mixed message on the New Deal. It criticized Roosevelt’s spending, unbalanced budget, and assaults on free enterprise, but endorsed relief for the unemployed, social security for the elderly, farm credits, and the right for labor to organize.
1936 saw the usual third parties of Socialists, Communists, and Prohibitionists. Socialist candidate Norman Thomas refuted accusations that Roosevelt shared his views by joking, “Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher!” The most memorable third party was the Union Party, Father Coughlin’s attempt to advance his anti-Roosevelt agenda without Huey Long. He was supported by Francis Townsend, a Californian famous for promoting an old-age pension fund, and Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, Long’s successor as leader of the Share the Wealth movement. The Union Party nominated Republican Congressman William Lemke, from North Dakota as their presidential candidate. Lemke himself was unexciting. His nickname was “Liberty Bill,” though opponents liked to point out that the actual Liberty Bell was cracked. Instead of Lemke, the campaign’s most prominent faces were Father Coughlin and Reverend Smith, who were known for their aggressive speeches. Coughlin called Roosevelt a “liar,” “betrayer,” and “Franklin ‘Double-Crossing’ Roosevelt,” going so far as to rip off his clerical collar in his rage. He proclaimed, “As I was instrumental in removing Herbert Hoover from the White House, so help me God, I will be instrumental in taking a Communist from the chair once occupied by Washington.” Put simply, Coughlin’s rhetoric did not closely align with the actual policy views of his partners, other than to oppose Roosevelt. Later in life, he became known for anti-Semitic speeches and sympathy towards Nazi Germany, a far cry from his anti-KKK roots.
As with any candidate facing a popular incumbent, Alf Landon was in a tough spot. He couldn’t endorse any parts of the New Deal without losing conservatives, and he couldn’t emphasize his criticisms without risking progressives. To split the difference, he denounced Roosevelt’s spending while agreeing with his social objectives. To make matters worse, Landon was a notoriously bad public speaker and rarely traveled. Luckily, he did receive help from the press, who were still mostly controlled by Republicans, and often openly biased in his favor. As the campaign went on, Republican strategy became increasingly reliant on scare tactics. They emphasized that Social Security was taken as a payroll tax, meaning a pay reduction for workers. They posted bulletins in factories, reading, “YOU’RE SENTENCED TO A WEEKLY PAY REDUCTION FOR ALL YOUR WORKING LIFE. YOU’LL HAVE TO SERVE THE SENTENCE UNLESS YOU HELP REVERSE IT NOVEMBER 3.” The RNC chairman even claimed in a radio address that workers would have to wear metal dog tags listing their Social Security numbers. But Landon still lacked confidence. When a reporter asked him if he could win, Landon replied “No chance,” then had to beg the reporter not to publish the remark, to which he obliged.
On the Democratic side, Roosevelt started the campaign by taking it easy, even embarking on a sailing trip! By October, he was making speeches to large audiences, both in person and over the radio. Bothered by accusations that he had betrayed his 1932 promise to reduce federal spending, Roosevelt decided to make his first major campaign appearance at the same location in Pittsburgh where he gave the speech in question. However, when he asked his speech writer to come up with a convincing explanation for his previous commitment, the writer replied, “Mr. President, the only thing you can say about that 1932 speech is to deny categorically that you ever made it!” Roosevelt made fun of Republicans who insisted that they could do everything he did, but cheaper. He aggressively defended Social Security, pointing out that many Republicans in Congress voted for it. In one speech, he claimed that, “Never before in history have [selfishness and greed] been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”
The magazine Literary Digest was well-known for its accurate presidential polls, conducted via mailers to their subscribers. This year, it predicted a Landon victory. Advertising executive George Gallup also conducted a poll, instead using a more scientific approach for his sampling. He predicted Roosevelt to win.
George Gallup was right! It was a blowout win for Roosevelt. He won every state except Maine and Vermont. The popular saying that “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” was amended to “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” After the election, a sign was hung on a bridge leading from New Hampshire to Maine reading, “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE UNITED STATES.”
Roosevelt continued to expand his coalition. He won farmers in the West and South, workingmen (including immigrants) in urban centers, the middle class, and intellectuals. He also remained popular with African Americans, thanks to the New Deal and new Democratic leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt, who were openly sympathetic to their causes.
Franklin Roosevelt won a second term! At 523-8, it was the biggest electoral landslide of all time (in a contested election), surpassing Teddy Roosevelt’s and Warren G. Harding’s records. Franklin Roosevelt captured over 60% of the popular vote. Alf Landon received only 36%. To no one’s surprise, the Union Party performed poorly and quickly dissolved.
What Did It Say About America?
In 1932, people voted against Hoover; in 1936, they voted for Roosevelt. The New Deal was really popular! But Roosevelt’s huge win also represented a shift towards the “Imperial Presidency.” The role of the Democratic Congress during the Great Depression was overlooked in favor of a romanticism of the Executive Branch. Liberalism was changing from small governments and free markets to government-provided security. To put it simply, as one laborer did, “Mr. Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son-of-a-bitch.”
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes again! Although the New Deal didn’t actually end the Great Depression, Americans needed to feel like the president was doing something. Roosevelt’s confidence and optimism were the only cure for the nation’s woes. His steady hand and reassuring tone made him a father figure to the American public. The Republicans simply weren’t presenting any convincing arguments to the contrary.
During Roosevelt’s first term, the 20th Amendment was passed, which moved Inauguration Day to from March 4 to January 20! Modern technology had made the four-month wait between Election Day and the Inauguration an unnecessary burden. The inconvenience of the “lame duck” period was felt most dramatically as the nation waited for Hoover’s removal in 1933. Now, Roosevelt was the first president to take the oath of office on the earlier date.