In the history of the United States, the period between 1929 and the late 1930s is a reminder of the biggest ever economic turmoil. The stock market crush, layoffs/unemployment, industrial sector collapse, homelessness, environmental degradation, foreclosure of farms and more. President Herbert Hoover ran completely out of ideas for initiating an upturn. Americans were drained of hope until Franklin Delano Roosevelt started his campaigns for presidency with the promise of an immediate recovery. He promised America the New Deal. F.D.R’s New Deal became a very popular phrase which was used to mean a set of programs that his government would initiate with a view to restoring the American economy. F.D.R won the presidency and embarked on the New Deal.
The First New Deal took place between 1933 and 1934 and was criticized for not bringing the recovery Roosevelt promised the Americans. A section of Roosevelt’s First New Deal critics described the programs as ‘socialist’. The Second New Deal programs were launched in 1935. The most notable programs of the Second New Deal revolved around Social Security and were thought to be more reasonable and realistic than those of the First New Deal. Roosevelt won the 1936 elections by a landslide, ensuring that the majority of the New Deal programs continued being in place. The programs were faced with missteps and setbacks until national recovery was achieved in the late 1930s, just in time to pave way for military preparations ahead of the Second World War.
Scholars and historians of different times wrote books detailing the New Deal. They agreed on some things about the New Deal, but disagreed on others. The differences in views on and perceptions about the New Deal resulted from the different mindsets shaped by the different times the books were published. Richard Hofstadter is the architect of the consensus school of thought on issues surrounding the New Deal and the Great Depression. He alongside other consensus historians believed that that the American past was largely shaped by unity which implies things like homogeneity, shared national interest and stability. In his book, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR (1955), he described the New Deal to be more of a reaction of an economic emergency than a clear framework for reform. He said the New Deal was very different from the progressive era reforms, meaning Roosevelt was very different from the progressive era reformers. He said that whereas the New Deal was not based on any clear reform philosophies, but were rather meant to fix short-term economic and social problems, the Progressive Era reforms ensured that the government was more representative alongside eliminating the influence of monopolies. William Leuchtenburg, in Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), agrees with Hofstadter that the New Deal hardly ever had anything in common with Progressive Era reforms because it was largely a knee-jerk response to the Great Depression, which called for a dramatic response. Paul Conkin like Leuchtenburg, in The New Deal (1967), reckons that the New Deal initiatives were short-term and were only meant for expediency. Conkin and Hofstadter agree that Roosevelt was more a largely a politician, and would probably be too incompetent for the American recovery needs. Both Hofstadter and Conkin agree on Roosevelt’s ineptitude. They say Roosevelt and the people who surrounded him underestimated the severity of the Great Depression, and that he only banked on his charisma to keep instilling hope in the Americans. Conkin says Roosevelt made promises that he was incapable of converting into tangible reforms.
Richard Hofstadter looked at Roosevelt’s New Deal policies as a necessary experimentation in the face of unique and unprecedented economic situation. Hofstadter’s book recognizes that the American Great Depression challenges that Roosevelt inherited from Hoover were extraordinary and as such, required extraordinary experimentations. There is a recognition by Hofstadter that Roosevelt was faced with a task no other American leader before him ever had. He cites Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson as some of the presidents who took over presidency when the economy was in a good shape, but in the course of their administrations, the economy had slump for which they didn’t take the full responsibility like F.D.R had to; rather, they shared the existing economic prosperity among the various social classes. By citing the past administrations and the economic problems they faced, Hofstadter argues that Roosevelt committed to do something very tricky, an enterprise whose end result couldn’t be predicted. He uses Roosevelt’s own statement to think that the New Deal was a gamble in “you tried one thing and if it didn’t work, you dropped it and picked another”. This, he says, caused many people had their share of doubts as to whether Roosevelt was the person to save the ailing American economy. Roosevelt was more of a politician than a professional who could singlehandedly save America. Additionally, Hofstadter says Roosevelt did not do anything to end corruption and bossism. He ignored the two serious problems and continued to work with the bosses where he could.
William E. Leuchtenburg gives insight into how low the American economy sunk, looking at unemployment, industrial sector shutdown, the stock market turmoil, cooking gas and electricity rationing, deplorable living standards, homelessness, collapse of the banking industry and more. He says the New Deal was “half-way revolution” which helped to revive the groups that lacked fair representation like farmers and industrial workers, but did nothing to save the sharecroppers and the African American groups. Leuchtenburg highlights both the achievements and failure of the New Deal.
According to Leuchtenburg, the New deal came along with a number of positives such as economic recovery, the social programs and greater federal connection to the American peoples. He depicts Roosevelt positively for always trying to reach out to the Americans through media such as radio and press, and also for his use of presidential power to create and adapt a vision for recovery of the economy through the New Deal. He says the New deal initiatives were driven solely by economic motives, totally ignoring human sentimentality and sympathy. He also argues that the New Deal programs weren’t the only things that resulted in recovery after a decade-long economic disaster.
Paul Conkin, in his book, delves a lot into the personality of Roosevelt. He generally depicts Roosevelt as the most inept person that American entrusted with recovery of the economy in the wake of the Great Depression. He recognizes that the Great Depression was a making of Herbert Hoover’s bad spending policies, but insists more damage happened when Roosevelt took over. The New Deal, he says, was Roosevelt’s personal enterprise to mean the idea was primarily Roosevelt’s. He faults his every policy decision with regards to American economic recovery. Conkin also talks about the establishment of a welfare state. He points out and takes a critical look at some of Roosevelt’s programs that resulted in a welfare state such as reliefs for the unemployed, empowering labor forces, tax reforms and social security.
He says the New Deal “offered solution to a few problems, ameliorated others, obscured many, and created many unanticipated ones. The book portrays Roosevelt as a cunning politician who knew nothing other than politics, and used his oratory ability to instill false hope. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, Conkin says, did not go by any known economic principles, and blamed it on Roosevelt’s ineptitude and incompetence which made him rely more on intellectuals and bureaucrats, and hardly ever listened to radicals, social activists and political critics. He criticized Roosevelt’s administration for denying Americans the opportunity to influence change and be part of policy decisions. Instead, Roosevelt used some few lawyers to control America from Washington.
Of the four, Anthony Badger’s book is the latest and he is the youngest. He thinks The New Deal had a lot of start-stops that made it difficult to achieve recovery. He talks about the continued suffering of Americans, which he says was not ameliorated by the New Deal. He points out problems such as diseases, suicide and numerous deaths that didn’t stop even after Roosevelt took over American leadership. Badger gives some history of the definitive activities in the country courtesy of the New Deal. He doesn’t say anything suggesting that the New Deal enterprise was a total failure, but insists that it is the Second World War that marked the turning point for the American economy. He says the New Deal did not do enough to take the credit. The issues include agriculture, politics and welfare. Some of the New Deal failures that Badger points out include alienation of civil liberties, poor wealth distribution, low purchasing power due to unemployment and more. Badger also says that the New Deal social programs were a break from government-sponsored reforms that had been common, but insists that most of the New Deal initiatives were frustrated by some forces at the state and regional levels. He points out an example of the South where the New Deal programs had to conform to the existing employment and labor laws, such the Jim Crow Laws and the non-unionism hiring systems.
Historians and scholars had different schools of thoughts on the New Deal enterprise because they looked at it from different vantage positions. There are those that existed and were conscious of the things that surrounded the Great Depression and the New Deal programs that followed. Others like Badger and Conkin were born around the time the Great Depresson happened or much later on. At the beginning, historians were more sympathetic to the New Deal programs, but the latter-day scholars and historians carried out evaluation of the New Deal achievements. The different schools of thought were also an outcome of the fact that the scholars based their inquests on different sources, research methods and a number of generational factors that influenced their opinion.
Anthony Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-40. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
Mary Norton et al. A people and a Nation: A history of the United States since 1865. New York: Cengage, 2009.
Paul Conkin, The New Deal, The American History Series, 3rd ed. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1992.
Richard Hofstadter. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
William Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal 1932-1940, 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.