In his Republican party nomination acceptance speech on 11th August 1928, Herbert Hoover claimed ‘[w]e in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land’ . On October 24th 1929 following the collapse of American Stock markets, Hoover’s optimistic reassurances sounded less triumphant as the poorhouse he believed had vanished now appeared to be America’s last profitable enterprise. Hoover’s failure to halt the catastrophic downturn in the economy contributed to his electoral defeat in 1932 and both he and opponent Franklin D. Roosevelt were aware of the task awaiting the victor. In a 1932 election campaign speech, Hoover stated that the campaign was more than a contest between the candidates and their respective political parties; it was ‘a contest between two philosophies of government’ . Roosevelt echoed these sentiments in his own nomination acceptance speech stating ‘this is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms (…) to restore America to its own people’ . The outcome of the 1932 presidential election saw Roosevelt sweep into the Whitehouse heralding a period of unprecedented social, political and economic reform which came to be known as the ‘New Deal’ era.
The New Deal was designed to tackle the effects of the Great Depression which would soon escalate beyond U.S. borders to become a worldwide condition. At a time of global economic depression, people looked for someone to blame for worsening conditions. In Britain and France Conservative governments held power while desperate Germans and Soviets put their faith in the ideologies of tyrants and madmen. With the damage caused by unrestrained capitalism clearly visible in Dorothea Lange’s American landscapes, what Roosevelt sought was an alternative to National Socialism, Fascism and Communism. What he hoped to achieve was relief for the poor, unemployed and disadvantaged, recovery of the economy to stabilised pre-depression levels, and reform of the entire financial regulatory system to prevent a repeat depression. To do so, legislation was introduced granting the federal government greater control of public finances and private projects in an attempt to provide greater regulation and management of the financial institutions considered responsible for the depression. Eric Foner observes that British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to Roosevelt stating that if successful he would become ‘the trustee for those in every country who seek to mend the evils of our condition’ but if he failed, Roosevelt’s only alternatives were ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘revolution’.
Though some may have viewed the New Deal as a cure all for America’s depression-era ills, the policies and projects implemented by the government yielded mixed results. As with all reformation, efforts to improve one section of society inevitably leads to dissatisfaction for another social group. But rather than adopting the laissez faire attitude often attributed to Hoover’s administration, Roosevelt prepared his country for war when in his inauguration address he said ‘I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe’.
Calling for swift retaliation against a common adversary, Roosevelt’s characteristic relaxed political rhetoric gave way to a serious and at times religious tone as he prepared America to combat austerity. A relieved nation listened intently as the newly elected President prepared to shift the balance of governmental power in favour of the ordinary citizen. Despite a privileged background, Roosevelt’s liberal ideas and his easy wit and charm made him a natural communicator who was able to rally his troops from his wheelchair by the fireside; a man able to express grave and complex issues using language ordinary Americans understood. In These Are Our Lives, a work compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project, this perception of President Roosevelt is exemplified by the words of a cotton-mill worker recalling his support for New Deal policy; ‘It’s the first time in my recollection that a President ever got up and said; ‘I’m interested in and aim to do somethin’ for the workin’ man (…) a man that could make what he felt so plain nobody could doubt he meant it’.
Clearly Roosevelt’s character and personality enabled him to repair some of the damage caused by previous administrations whose austerity measures were seen by many as too little too late. Allied to the amicable public figure, the legislative moves which saw the government assume greater responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens went some way to restoring voters’ trust after years of conservative inactivity. Hoover had seen the pioneering spirit of the self-reliant economic individualist as critical to sustained economic growth and as such many Republicans and Democrats believed that Roosevelt’s policies would hinder economic recovery. Those who weren’t completely opposed to the New Deal believed it could yet be adapted and improved upon. Another autobiographical account in These Are Our Lives states simply that Roosevelt allowed the ordinary working classes ‘to dare to hope’ . Roosevelt however believed that many of the poor were trapped in the destructive cycle of self-perpetuating poverty at the mercy of capitalist greed which monopolised markets and fixed prices high. By uplifting the vulnerable sections of society and economically underdeveloped regions with a mix of public and private sector investment and funding, Roosevelt set in motion, the wheels that would transport Western expansion during the 1960s ahead of the arrival of the Great Society.
But if many Americans were swayed by the public character of a man who appeared to be finally acting upon their behalf, then arguably many more were staunchly opposed to Roosevelt’s reforms and programmes. In FDR’s Folly – How Roosevelt And His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression , the author Jim Powell argues that there is considerable evidence that New Deal policies prolonged high unemployment. He further argues that many of those intended to benefit from the New Deal remained largely ignored and isolated, or found their situation worsened rather than improved. To illustrate this point Powell identifies black Americans as ‘the major victims of the New Deal’ (Powell p. XI). In highlighting the effects Roosevelt’s labour policies had in maintaining ‘a persistent increase in African American unemployment’ (Powell p. XI), Powell resorts to a similar mode of argument as many supporters of the New Deal; unemployment statistics. In response to similar criticism of the failings of the Works Progress Administration, the New Republic publication argued that such shortcomings ‘are insignificant beside the gigantic fact that it has given jobs and sustenance to a minimum of 1,400,000 and a maximum of 3,300,000 persons for five years’ .
While others would support Powell’s belief that Roosevelt’s did not immediately fulfil his promise of a New Deal for Negros any more than the Constitution or the Emancipation Proclamation delivered freedom for all Americans, the actions of black Americans spoke louder than words or statistics. Despite Social Security reforms failing to alleviate the poverty of thousands of unemployed or unskilled domestic and agricultural workers, many continued to vote in favour of continued reform. Foner documents the example of increased trade union power under Roosevelt’s administration as proof that African Americans recognised the significance of the New Deal as the beginning of a challenge to inherited political attitudes towards race and gender (p. 732). Foner observes that trade unionists met with little resistance to their efforts to introduce the value of unionisation to black workers who regarded it as ‘a question of freedom’ (p. 732). Roosevelt’s guarantee of ‘a New Deal for All Americans’ had captured the imagination of a culturally diverse nation which identified freedom from economic inequality as a constitutional right.
According to Foner, the New Deal ultimately failed to meet its primary objective; to generate prosperity (p. 734). Yet its overall benefits to wider American society, both short and long-term, as well as some of Roosevelt’s more robust policies, are still evident nearly 80 years later. Not only did Roosevelt the man help to rebuild trust and strengthen the relationship between the government and the people, but as a liberal reformer, he also helped to define the role of government. As Foner demonstrates when he states that the New Deal ‘helped to inspire, and was powerfully influenced by, a popular upsurge which recast the idea of freedom to include a public guarantee of economic security for ordinary citizens’ (p. 734).The greatest perceived threat to this revised version of freedom was economic injustice. (p. 734), an injustice which would later be challenged by the Civil Rights Movement.
Contemporary historic and economic debate over the success of the New Deal remains divided. On one hand Roosevelt is seen as one of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen while on the other, critics view him as the enemy of private enterprise who prolonged the Great Depression. From this perspective and faced with credible arguments both in support of, and against Roosevelt, the absence of Keynes’s revolution appears to be the only indication of success or failure. Clearly, from the many quotes, often unflattering, attributed to him, Herbert Hoover was not a prophetic economist, but his view that the 1932 American Presidential election represented a contest of political philosophies is accurate. Without a definitive position on the benefits of the New Deal, the individual’s belief remains the only scale by which the legacy of Roosevelt’s success or failure can be measured. As Foner concludes ‘different groups of Americans experienced the New Deal in radically different ways’ (p. 721).
Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, (Norton: New York, London, 2006).
Couch, William T., The Federal Writers’ Project, These Are Our Lives: as told by the people and written by members of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939).
Hoover, Herbert, Acceptance Speech For The Renomination For The Presidency, (1928).
Hoover, Herbert, Memoirs, Volume Two: The Cabinet and the Presidency, (Macmillan: New York, 1952).
Powell, Jim, FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt And His New Deal Prolonged The Great Depression, (Three Rivers Press: New York, 2003).
Roosevelt, Franklin D., Acceptance Speech For The Renomination For The Presidency, (1932).