The Democratic nominee Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered the White House on March 4, 1933. The former New York governor had won the 1932 election by a landslide to become the thirty-second president of the United States. Once in office, he immediately began enacting a series of wide-ranging domestic measures known as the New Deal. These reforms were designed to address the Great Depression, which reached a tipping point after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. From approximately 1933 to 1940, the New Deal fundamentally altered the texture of American history. Political parties realigned, the federal government’s role in society mushroomed, labor and consumers received support against capital, Progressive legislation redefined welfare, and the landscape was redrawn with new infrastructure. As Jason Scott Smith states, the New Deal was nothing short of a revolution in “state-sponsored economic development.” Eric Rauchway adds that, while “The New Deal did not end the Great Depression,” it was instrumental in healing its wounds. Both unemployment and the economy were steadily improving throughout the 1930s.[1]

There is no denying the New Deal broke with American traditions, particularly ideas about non-government interference in private, regional, and local affairs. Yet, paradoxically, the government did so in order to preserve traditions that were even more fundamental to American history. As Richard Hofstadter explains, these values included “a belief in the rights of [private] property, the philosophy of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition.” Contrary to critics, the New Deal program was not driven by hard “economic dogmas” or set “political precedents,” neither was it a “coherent system” as Anthony Badger reminds us. Rather, the New Deal was guided by a patrician-like desire to appease the American public by presenting novel, openly experimental approaches to an extraordinary problem. FDR intended these approaches to revise the game board of the American economy, not to change the game. As Kathryn Olmsted states, “Roosevelt wanted to save capitalism” through reform. And so, while the New Deal was groundbreaking in many ways, its horizons were ultimately limited. The program never embraced wealth redistribution, extreme ideologies, the nationalization of private property, or state-protected racial equality.[2]

What are historians to make of this seeming paradox between the radicalism and conservatism of the New Deal? The following paper will briefly explore this question through an analysis of New Deal history. Ultimately, it portrays the FDR administration as helping the masses navigate the ship of capitalism through a Scylla and Charybdis never before seen in the waters of American history. Following this analogy, if Scylla was the domestic Depression, then Charybdis was international extremism. The end result of the decade was not communism, socialism, or laissez-faire government. Rather, it was something completely unique. It was New Deal liberalism.

To understand the legacy of the New Deal, historians must first grasp what Lizabeth Cohen describes as the extensive disruption of the Great Depression. Unemployment soared in the years following “Black Thursday,” reaching a high-water mark of about 25%; the Gross National Product was halved; and unregulated marketplace competition—joined by declining purchasing power and a lack of consumer confidence—created a situation of unprecedented deflation. Banks were failing; factories were closing; local governments were defaulting; city and state treasuries were depleting; farmers were over-producing; industries were cutting wages, reducing hours, and laying off employees; consumers were not purchasing; and the wealth gap was yawning. Everyday people were struggling to make ends meet. As Cohen demonstrates, they were falling back on traditional institutions of family, neighborhood, union, and religious and ethnic solidarity. But even these “informal networks” of welfare were no longer sufficient.[3]

The Depression pervaded all aspects of American life. Families in urban environments underwent new pressures and tensions as a result of underemployment and unemployment. As Cohen summarizes, “When the male breadwinner suffered…traditional authority relationships within the family, between husbands and wives and between parents and children, began to break down.” Disastrous conditions in the city were mirrored in the countryside by falling farm prices, unpayable debt and land dispossession, a glutted market, droughts, storms, and chronic homelessness. Rauchway writes that a total of 11.5 million workers, representing the income of about 30 million Americans, lost their jobs. Perhaps two million people hit the road as tramps.[4]

Meanwhile, European nations turned to radical forms of government like bolshevism, fascism, and communism. As Harvard Sitkoff writes, the effects of the Depression increased the likeliness that people would accept these ideologies at home. Both union participation and Communist affiliation increased throughout the 1930s. Cohen writes one out of three Chicago workers unionized, while Sitkoff states that Communist Party membership reached its peak by 1940. Indeed, the 1930s saw both the potential for a “New Left” as well as a slide into extremism. Radicals promised “state socialism that would control national economies and restore stability.” This reality was epitomized by the fate of the Popular Front coalition, “which terminated with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in the summer of 1939.” Both FDR and the masses wanted to end the Depression and reform the economy so that it would not happen again, but neither wanted to embrace dictatorship.[5]

One way to approach the novelty of the New Deal is to understand the system it was reacting against: that of the Hoover administration. The mounting crises of the Depression were initially exacerbated by a conservative president, a Republican Congress, and an economic profession that favored soft, ‘top-down’ responses. From 1928 to 1933, the government universally opposed direct state intervention and public relief. It helped to decrease the flow of products through the erection of tariff barriers with the Smoot-Hawley Act. Also, instead of lending credit, the Federal Reserve remained largely paralyzed. Hoover did pass a bit of reform legislation, like the Federal Employment Stabilization Board and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. But all of this legislation was designed to save the economy by aiding lenders. For example, the RFC was set up to redistribute money to local treasuries, but Hoover would do so through loans, not grants. As Rauchway states, Hoover “did nothing immediate for non-banker Americans.”[6]

The failures of Hoover’s administration to halt the quickening slide of the Depression culminated in the Bonus Army Riots of 1932. Out-of-work veterans and their families camped near the Capitol in hopes of receiving an early redemption for their service certificates. General Douglas MacArthur used the United States’ own army to violently evict them. The “debacle,” as Olmsted tells us, was the “lowest point” of Hoover’s presidency. It spelled his defeat in the 1932 election against Roosevelt. Simultaneously, the vote-of-confidence for Roosevelt signaled a changing opinion for the American people. What they desperately wanted was something new, something unlike the non-statist strategies of Hoover. As Cohen summarizes, “In the election of 1932, people voted against Herbert Hoover” rather than for Roosevelt.[7]

But if the American people were ready for change, they were not ready to embrace extreme ideologies like state-sponsored communism. As Rauchway characterizes the veterans of 1932, they “were Americans down on their luck, but by no means ready to overthrow their government.” So too does Cohen describe Chicago industrial workers. These laborers turned to unions led by Communists in hopes of unifying against employers for higher wages and better conditions, but, “In all likelihood, only a fraction of the city’s population, at the most fifty thousand, considered themselves loyal rank-and-file members” of Communist and Socialist parties. Olmsted focuses on Communist ideologues of the 1930s, both labor leaders like Pat Chambers and artists like Ella Winters. However, she clarifies that the majority of the American people did not want “a Leninist utopia,” but “immediate, concrete gains like 5¢ more an hour.” In this sense, their desires were aligned with FDR. Both parties wanted a middle path between poverty and totalitarianism.[8]

As Badger demonstrates, FDR and his largely academic Brain Trust utilized the metaphor of a wartime emergency to set the tone for the New Deal. The administration made prolific changes in its first hundred days and continued to do so until momentum was shifted with the mobilization of war production in 1940. The reforms are broken in two periods. The ‘first New Deal’ took place from 1933 to 1934, and the ‘second New Deal’ from 1935 to 1938. Scholars typically summarize the legislation with three R’s: Relief, Recovery, and Reform. It is also described as “alphabet soup” because most programs were known by acronyms. These include the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Public Works and Works Progress Administrations (PWA and WPA), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), National Recovery Administration (NRA), and many more. New Deal programs rescued banks, allocated federal money and circulated credit, created jobs, developed the countryside, and reformed aspects of the capitalist system. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Social Security Act, Wagner Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act were just a few pieces of legislation in this final category.[9]

Perhaps the best way to explore the continuity of the 1930s is to demonstrate the conservative tendencies of the New Deal program. This can be done through a discussion of industry and labor. First, as Badger states, one of FDR’s initial goals was to establish price controls in industry. He might have utilized his “wartime” powers to nationalize industries or pass an executive order setting prices. Instead, he worked with the heads of existing corporations, gathering them together to determine industry prices amongst themselves. This was the National Recovery Administration, and it was given authority to determine “codes of fair competition” in the form of minimum wages and maximum hours. The NRA was ruled unconstitutional, and many of its provisions were reproduced in the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act). But the point here is that Roosevelt was eager to work within existing systems rather than appropriate private property.[10]

Collaborating with existing systems was a New Deal theme from the beginning. As Badger observes, “Ten days to reopen the banks dictated that the existing banking system would be only shored up rather than radically transformed.” Olmsted clarifies, Roosevelt “never wanted the government to take over the nation’s factories, farms, or banks.” In fact, when he was presented with real opportunities to support radical alternatives—like during the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of the socialist Upton Sinclair—he chose not to. Roosevelt refused to support Sinclair in the election. Also, like the situation with the NRA, FDR worked within an existing framework for allocating funds to public works projects with the PWA. Scott puts this into perspective as he writes, “Indeed, one week into the Special Board’s existence, the PWA was working almost entirely through existing federal departments.” The lion’s share of the funding was allocated to local, state, and federal contracts that were already in the pipeline, rather than new, collectivist inventions of the federal government. Some even believed that funds were spent almost exclusively on “western hydroelectric projects and various military endeavors,” since the military had personnel and experience and agribusiness had both power in Congress and the need for development.[11]

The architects of the New Deal were not against bolstering corporate power or agribusiness to clot the Depression. As Olmsted shows, factory-style growers benefited from New Deal legislation, just as they had historically benefited from government intervention. These rich landowners received subsidies through the Agricultural Adjustment Act, loans through the Farm Credit Administration, and investment through the Public Works Administration and Bureau of Reclamation. In fact, the only aspect of the New Deal that supported migrant labor against wealthy landlords, never intended to do so! FDR and his Brain Trust excluded agricultural workers from the NRA, and New Deal representatives like George Creel and Pelham D. Glassford tried to mitigate disputes but never expressed interest in supporting communist ideologies. “In reality,” Olmsted writes, “the New Dealers on the Labor Board had no sympathy for Communism.” Similarly, the New Deal exempted both farm associations and corporate industries from anti-trust laws.[12]

The New Deal broke from tradition in that the federal government began taking direct lead of development. However, since the government had little manpower, this lead usually amounted to putting money right back into the hands of existing business leaders and contractors. Such was the case with the NRA and PWA. Even when the government did get into the business of production, it did so primarily to create a “yardstick” for gauging private charges. In the case of the TVA, for example, the government forced private energy companies in the South to check their runaway costs. Never did it consider state-ownership of existing companies or pushing them out of business. Although many private companies complained about TVA projects, they ultimately received more customers as a result of modernization in the region. Rather than expropriate the business of private enterprise, the New Deal expanded their markets by pushing modernization.[13]

FDR’s conservative desire to work within existing systems of power had profound social consequences. In specific, the government had no intention of dismantling established agricultural powers by protecting non-white sharecroppers or pickers. Northern Democrats catered to racial minorities only when they moved north and began voting or when the crops were on the brink of waste. Even if readers believe Sitkoff that the Depression decade was a necessary period of “planting” for civil rights, the movements of César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr. did not occur in those years for a reason. Catering to existing powers meant continuity through upholding racism.[14]

The designers of the New Deal presented no challenge to the endemic racism of the Southern Democratic Party. Here Ira Katznelson shows that many programs and policies—like the NRA, FERA, Wagner Act, Social Security, AAA, and the Fair Labor Standards Act—directly excluded blacks through exemptions on service, agricultural, and domestic work. Other policies, like the Selective Service Readjustment Act (the GI Bill of Rights), were equal in their language yet discriminatory in application. Southern congressmen and their Democratic allies in the North ensured the administration of these laws were allocated to existing, racist state and local authorities. These authorities were virtually all white and determined to uphold the practices of Jim Crow segregation. Finally, there was a general willingness of the administration to kowtow to the racist interests of Southern allies. This category includes refusing to push an anti-lynching bill, desegregate the military, or enforce equality in various public accommodations. Katznelson states that “any crusade to break out of the [the racist South’s] power restraints would have been doomed to fail, even if the president had been willing.” The point here is that he was not willing.[15]

In terms of continuity, the New Deal era left civil rights for non-white people deferred and the possibility of a radical Left squandered. Sitkoff and Olmsted demonstrate the energies of the Communist Party in attempting to do exactly what New Dealers would not: support racial equality. Whether through advocating for the Scottsboro Boys in 1931, or by organizing migrant laborers in 1933, the actions of Communist leaders stood in sharp relief to the FDR government. Furthermore, with Executive Order 9066, the New Deal demonstrated that its progressive energy could not only be withheld from the project of racial equality, but could be harnessed to work actively against it. As Scott discusses, the War Relocation Authority used the WPA to build eleven Japanese internment camps, an event that “remains an indelible stain on American history.”[16]

The list of ways FDR preserved the American tradition of private property goes on. Instead of appropriating the agricultural produce of farmers to feed the hungry, the administration actually ordered surplus crops destroyed to offset deflation caused by a glutted market. Badger states, “Policy makers…decided not only to sign farmers up to reduce future production, but also to destroy existing production.” They forced farmers to dig up 10.5 million acres of cotton and slaughter 6 million piglets when many Americans were both starving and cold. Meanwhile, FDR was always sensitive that his programs might be seen as forms of state extremism. For this reason, he took out militaristic language from the Civilian Conservation Corps and asked “a reporter not to call the enlistment centers ‘concentration camps’ or even ‘cantonments.’” Likewise, New Deal officials were overly-conscious to investigate all charges of graft and coercion, like in the 1938 primary election in Kentucky, so as to avoid any association with corrupt, fascist governments.[17]

Generally, the New Deal was committed to relative wealth redistribution through only conventional means. Meg Jacobs claims, a “commitment to redistribution through higher wages revealed the limitations of New Deal thinking about a modern welfare state.” In other words, New Dealers advocated distribution through indirect, countervailing measures like “support for a strong union movement.” She adds that, “By appropriating the language of consumers,” Roosevelt convinced large portions of the middle-class that “wage increases” and “collective bargaining” were the acceptable means of leveling wealth, not federal appropriations or increased income taxes on the rich. Similarly, whether Roosevelt was compelled to distribute aid via private contracts with the PWA or “force account” with the WPA, he strongly favored work relief rather than handouts. Smith writes that he was not statist enough to favor a “simple dole.”[18]

FDR approached welfare by strengthening consumer and labor blocs rather than attacking employers. Industrial workers were permitted to unionize with NRA and Wagner, but neither legislation did the work of making unions a reality. Workers had to do this. Initially, protections were so passive that “less than 10 percent of the industries with NRA code-making authorities had a labor member and even fewer had a consumer representative.” In this way, FDR’s welfare lifted consumer and labor groups as a counterweight against employers so the federal government could stay out of the problem. Olmsted writes, the administration supported unionization for “practical advantages,” hoping to “convince workers to support the existing system” of capitalism. Cohen demonstrates how this conservative ethos was echoed by labor, and Jacobs shows how it was echoed by consumers. The “experiences of the Depression and in New Deal Washington made [consumer groups],” she writes, “broadly sympathetic to a purchasing-power agenda of low prices and high wages.” Nonetheless, consumers were “hardly calling for the overthrow of capitalism.”[19]

To write about the continuity of the 1930s is to show how the tenants of capitalism, as laid out by Hofstadter, were preserved from both the ‘top down’ and the ‘bottom up.’ The FDR administration and working-class majorities favored measures that forced employers to act on what Cohen refers to as promises of “welfare capitalism.” Neither party wanted to undermine individualism by making Americans completely dependent on government. Cohen explains that “those who went to the ricoveri (poorhouses)” did so out of shame because they “had no relatives or friends to care for them.” These workers wanted protection but not unqualified welfare. They aimed for a “moral capitalism…born out of the promise of employers’ welfarism.” Similarly, the administration was not about cultivating dependency. FDR disbanded CWA after its first winter and designed Social Security as a contributory program that would not depend on funds from the U.S. Treasury.[20]

Having acknowledged continuity through these fundamentally conservative impulses, the 1930s were nonetheless a time of vast change, both despite and because of the New Deal. First, the New Deal drastically changed the nation’s physical landscape. Scott shows that the New Deal was an infrastructure revolution. Public projects spent money in all but three counties of the United States. These projects resulted in the construction of hospitals, dams, canals, highways, schools, sewers, libraries, public parks, waterworks, power flumes, harbors, viaducts, courthouses, post offices, dock facilities, dog pounds, and more. Public works literally ushered America into the modern age, as workers paved untold miles of road and built “480 airports, 78,000 bridges, and nearly 40,000 public buildings.” By 1939, the PWA had completed 34,448 of its 34,508 construction projects, and the list for the WPA was equally impressive. The development of the South and West particularly surged forward, with projects like “reforestation to prevent floods and erosion [and] railroad modernization.” To Smith, even if the New Deal did not improve the economy or unemployment, it was a resounding, nationwide success “as far as infrastructure was concerned.”[21]

Second, the New Deal era became a “golden age” in American art and culture. For the first time in the nation’s history, the government hired not only American workers, but American artists as well. More importantly, these artists were employed not as tools “to ennoble the New Deal or the nation but simply to give the culture an [historical] record of itself and its people” while simultaneously creating newer culture. Programs like the Federal Writers’ Project, Federal Arts Project, and Federal Theatre Project organized artists to compile older stories of everyday Americans while creating newer pieces of art for reflection. Sharon Ann Musher claims that New Deal “artists and intellectuals used government-funded art to inspire (art as grandeur), enrich (art as enrichment), promote social and political ideas (art as a weapon), and encourage healthy and productive activities (art as experience).” Although this period of state-funded art was short-lived, its memory carries on, notably in artistic and academic communities, as a great legacy of New Deal change.[22]

Third, the role of federal government ballooned during the New Deal period, even though it did so only to preserve capitalism; and, as Olmsted shows through the Department of Agriculture in California, the government was not necessarily small before. Regardless, Badger summarizes this transformation by stating that new programs gave the government:

the power to decide which banks should or should not reopen, to regulate the Stock Exchange, to determine the gold value of the dollar, to prescribe wages and prices, to pay farmers not to produce, to pay money to the unemployment, to plan and regenerate a whole river basin across six states, to spend billions of dollars on public works, and to underwrite credit for bankers, homeowners, and farmers.[23]

All of these changes stood in contrast to pre-1933. Scott declares that, before the New Deal, Americans came into contact with the federal government mostly through the post office. Though we should add the Department of Agricultural to this claim, the point is that the federal government had more limitations before 1933. When FDR cut the dollar loose from the gold standard, he gave the government an unprecedented latitude to reflate the economy with relief monies. Furthermore, bills like the Glass-Steagall Act and the creation of the FDIC reinforced capitalism by expanding the jurisdiction of the state into the banking sector. The government promised to insure investments and reduce risk by separating them from commercial activities. Basically, the government greatly expanded its powers for two purposes: to preempt a future crisis while fixing the current one.[24]

Despite these changes, it is important to reiterate that Washington never intended its programs as permanent competition to private interest. For example, although the WPA became the nation’s largest employer for a while, “employing eight million people,” Badger reminds us that “public works programs of the federal government paled into insignificance beside public construction by the state and local governments or the construction of private industry.” While changes in labor were also profound, the story remains essentially the same. The decade forever altered the relationship between employer, labor, and consumer by creating what Jacobs calls “purchasing power housewives” and what Cohen calls an “activist welfare state” of workers. Left-wing movements and electoral politics taught these groups “to look to the federal government for solutions to their problems,” even though the government never confiscated private property for redistribution or mandated price controls outside of the wartime OPA. This was a profound ideological change. Rauchway elaborates that “the idea [among the American people] that it did a rich country no harm to help even the unworthy poor came out of the New Deal.”[25]

If the survival of capitalism represented the continuity of the New Deal era, then the form in which it survived represented the change. Women’s activists like the social worker Jane Addams and the muckraker Bessie Van Voorst had been advocating for new labor laws, particularly a ban on child labor, since the Progressive era. Jacobs demonstrates that their tradition of advocacy was carried forward by groups like the National Consumers’ League, “one of many national women’s organizations that used their [new] consuming power to call for fair labor standards and better-quality consumer goods.” The NCL took Roosevelt’s promise to empower consumers to a higher level by calling upon middle-class housewives to transform their purchasing power into a weapon of labor reform. Along with unions, their efforts culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which banned child labor and set mandatory limits on wage and working hours. This reform law is still in place today and represents a significant change of the 1930s.[26]

The Fair Labor Standards Act was an intentional and concrete change of the New Deal. In this respect, it may be considered alongside the Security Exchange Commission and Social Security, which still investigates insider trading and guarantees the pensions of Americans today. Both of these laws were capitalistic reform measures that Roosevelt wanted to pass, whether he was the primarily agent responsible for them or not. But an entirely different set of changes from the 1930s refers to those which occurred in spite of the New Deal architects. Here we can touch upon a third and fourth category of change: the re-alignment of political parties and changing attitudes of race.

As previously mentioned, New Deal leaders never intended to be advocates for non-white sharecroppers or pickers. Regardless, Olmsted and Sitkoff demonstrate how the New Deal’s relationship to such groups altered the political landscape in significant ways. In her work, Olmsted traces the origins of the modern conservative movement to the concerted resistance of a California agribusiness coalition against New Deal reforms. She demonstrates how right-wing tactics of emphasizing “cultural threats” through employing “news reels” and “political consultants” were perfected during such cases as the campaign against Sinclair Lewis in 1934 and “the Sacramento conspiracy trial” of 1935. She draws a direct connection between these early California resisters and the political genealogy of the modern Republican Party through Hoover, Nixon, and Reagan. In this case, the major change was not the New Deal itself, but rather the reaction to it by business elites. For example, Jacobs and Cohen show historical changes through the reactions of middle and working-class peoples to their employers and vendors, while Olmsted shows changes through the reactions among business leaders and political opponents. The result is a realignment of the political chessboard, in which resistance to the liberal tradition will emanate from California.[27]

Sitkoff also demonstrates a realignment of political allegiances. During the 1930s, African-Americans abandoned the Republican Party, which possessed their loyalty since the days of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. According to Sitkoff, FDR was largely “above the battle of civil rights,” offering only “symbolic resistance.” Katznelson goes even further, saying that in Roosevelt’s New Deal program “most black Americans were left behind or left out,” and that “black workers were big losers” of the New Deal era reforms. Nonetheless, this fact did not stop African-Americans in the north from voting overwhelming for Roosevelt in 1936, at “an astounding 76 percent.” Switching allegiances like this forced Roosevelt and the Democratic Party to accept that “the black vote could no longer be ignored.” However, embracing this northern black vote created a rift in the Democratic Party, setting in motion “developments [that] aided immeasurably the cause for civil rights.” As in the case of California, the greatest change was the result of unintended consequences by the administration. Reactions of northern and southern factions of the Democratic Party to this shift of black allegiance forced political change. FDR and his supporters were merely responding to changes beyond their control.[28]

Finally, Sitkoff writes that the 1930s was a period of ideological changes, where “cultural and intellectual developments…further incremented the aid given to the black struggle.” A faction of white artists, biologists, social scientists, and psychologists rejected the cultural stereotypes that had gone largely unchallenged in the 1920s. Overall, “the climate of public opinion” changed because of the “gradual accumulation of new data discrediting old explanations and because of the impact of Hitlerism and the Great Depression.” More people began to reject “the notion of innate black inferiority” while emphasizing “the damage done by racism” and the “sickness” of prejudice. In short, Katznelson and Sitkoff can both be right. While the New Deal administration passed laws aiding the continuity of traditional racial discrimination, wider cultural and political changes were already set in motion. Among them was the growth of the NAACP, the emergence of politicians sympathetic to racial equality, and these foundational ideological changes. Taken together, this context would till the metaphorical soil for the harvest of a future generation, even while the failure of the 1937 anti-lynching campaign proved that the time was not yet ripe.[29]

In the end, Roosevelt’s administration set the course for the New Deal but it is often hard to tell who was steering. The authors featured in this essay present cases where intellectuals, workers, organizers, employers, voters, politicians, artists, and even consumers of both rural and urban environments took Roosevelt at his promise and made their own arrangements. And there are moments too where Roosevelt’s administration passed a bill only to find themselves on the receiving end, scrambling to catch up with its implications. Finally, there are moments where FDR’s ambitions were curtailed by interests even more conservative than himself. Overall, perhaps the narrative is as equally about who sets the course for change as it is about who retains faith in its bearings. In the case of the 1930s, only fringe groups strongly advocated for a completely different route.

The 1930s was a sharp break with American traditions. As Badger states, it was “a defining moment” in political history, casting an enormous shadow on the future and giving rise to modern “polarized historical interpretations.” Whether interpreting the New Deal period as a “missed opportunity” to smother capitalism, as the origins of a monolithic federalism, or as the panacea to an unrivaled crisis, commentators rarely doubt the importance of the moment. After all, when juxtaposed to the exceptional anguish of the Depression or the non-statist approach of Hoover, how can anyone deny the changes of the 1930s? The very fact that America has not undergone a comparable Depression since is a testament to FDR’s reforms. And yet, when viewed from a greater distance, with the broad expanse of American history in the background, how can anyone deny Hofstadter’s claim of continuity? How can anyone refute that “for success in attaining his stated goals of prosperity and distributive justice [Roosevelt] was fundamentally dependent upon restoring the health of capitalism?” After all, capitalism was the American flagship before 1933; and, with a significant refitting, it emerged on the far side of the rocks as New Deal liberalism. For the time being, it was more conscious, balanced, and responsible, yet nonetheless invested in preserving the core values of private property, individualism, competition, cautious government, and the free market. [30]


[1]Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 19; Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5. Rauchway indicates that the improving of the economy had one exception during the New Deal era: a small recession from 1937 to 1938.

[2]Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1948), xxxvi, 414; Anthony J. Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days (New York: Hill & Wang, 2008), 167; Kathryn S. Olmsted, Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (New York: The New Press, 2015), 175.

[3]Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919 – 1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990), 214, 218-219; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 1, 38-55. A Graph on page 55 shows the effects of the Great Depression on unemployment and GDP.

[4]Cohen, Making a New Deal, 247; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 40, 44.

[5]Cohen, Making a New Deal, 2, 292; Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 105, 138, 167; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 73.

[6]Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 65, 34, 23-37. Scott shows that the RFC was “roundly criticized” as a “millionaire’s dole” for this very reason. Scott, Building New Deal Liberalism, 27. Badger states that “social workers and progressive critics decried the fact that the bill provided for RFC loans, rather than grants,” among other things. Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 56.

[7]Olmsted, Right Out of California, 23; Cohen, Making a New Deal, 283.

[8]Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 51; Cohen, Making a New Deal, 263; Olmsted, Right Out of California, 24.

[9]Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 34, 166.

[10]Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 9, 151, 96, 104.

[11]Olmsted, Right Out of California, 8, 188-194; Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism, 36, 53. Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 45.

[12]Olmsted, Right Out of California, 2, 37, 69, 147, 130; Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 89; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 78. Olmsted writes that agribusiness benefited from government intervention through either the use of federal troops to break up labor strikes or simply by the government looking the other way when violence was used against workers. We can also think about direct forms of government legislation that aided landholders, going all the way back to the Homestead Act, Pacific Railway Act, and Morrill Act.

[13]Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism, 40-41, 18, 35; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 89-92.

[14]Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, xvii.

[15]Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 28; Sitkoff qualifies that “New Delears would identify themselves with the black struggle for equality, but not to the detriment of their greater concerns,” 103.

[16]Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 109-113; Olmsted, Right Out of California, 24, 243; Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism, 194.

[17]Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 78, 55-56; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 79; Scott, Building New Deal Liberalism, 151.

[18]Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 108, 6, 249-250; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 94.

[19]Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 83; Olmsted, Right Out of California, 32; Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics, 134; Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism, 102. Jacobs writes, “The framers of the Wagner Act saw the right to organize as the middle way between an outdated laissez-faire system and an intrusive, even totalitarians state,” 145.

[20]Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal, 161-162, 57; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 66, 98-99, 129.

[21]Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism, 53, 86, 88, 119.

[22]Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 119; Sharon Ann Musher, Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 5, 213.

[23]Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days (New York: Hill & Wang, 2008), xiii; Olmsted, Right Out of California, 2. Olmsted demonstrates that the idea of small government before the New Deal era was a myth, at least as far as government involvement went in the American West.

[24]Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism, 48; Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 25, 41.

[25]Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism, 222; Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 8; Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics, 44; Cohen, Making a New Deal, 283, 365, 251; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 119. The OPA fit in with the general, New Deal trend of empowering the masses as an alternative to aggrandizing the force of the state. Jacobs writes, “Mobilizing citizens to make price controls work was a Democratic alternative to totalitarian enforcement,” 196.

[26]Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics, 158, 7; Rauchway, The Great Depression & The New Deal, 116; Mrs. John Van Voorst, The Woman Who Toils: Being the Experiences of Two Ladies as Factory Girls (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903), 36, 54; Jane Addams, “The Subtle Problems of Charity,” Atlantic Monthly (1899): 163-178.

[27]Olmsted, Right out of California, 3, 182-185, 204.

[28]Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White, 23; Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 71, 76, 104.

[29]Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 152, 252.

[30]Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days, 162-167; Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition, 440.