F.D.R. Didn’t Just Fix the EconomyHistorians in the News
tags: FDR, Great Depression, New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt
The New Deal was more than a recovery program for the economy. It was, as the historian Eric Rauchway argues in his new book, “Why the New Deal Matters,” a recovery program for American democracy.
“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people,” Franklin Roosevelt declared at the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Roosevelt had broken tradition to accept his party’s nomination and deliver a speech in person. And in that speech, he promised a program based on the “simple moral principle” that the “welfare and the soundness of a nation depend first upon what the great mass of the people wish and need” and second on “whether or not they are getting it.”
Aware of the challenge ahead of him should he win the presidency — nearly a quarter of Americans were out of work and the economy was shrinking by double digits — Roosevelt concluded his address with a call to action. “Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage,” he said. “This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”
These days we tend to think of the New Deal as a very large stimulus program. And that was true, to an extent. The Public Works Administration, established under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, spent around $3.3 billion (roughly $65 billion in today’s dollars) on public buildings and infrastructure. The Works Progress Administration, established two years later, went even further, spending almost twice as much over eight years to employ more than 15 percent of the nation’s labor force.
But as Roosevelt suggested in his acceptance speech, the New Deal was bigger than just a recovery program.
Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, writes: “The foundational belief of the New Deal was the conviction that democracy in the United States — limited and flawed through it remained — was better kept than abandoned, in the hope of strengthening and extending it.”