Franklin D. Roosevelt - The hundred days

"Rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence," Roosevelt charged in his inaugural address. "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths." With that belligerent battle cry against the bankers, Roosevelt summoned Congress to convene in special session to deal with the banking crisis. By the time the representatives and senators settled into their seats in the Capitol on 9 March, every bank in the nation was closed by presidential order. Rumors flew that the new president intended to take the radical step of nationalizing the banks.

When the emergency banking bill was read aloud to a tense House of Representatives at 1:00 P.M. (it had been drafted too hastily for copies to be distributed), conservatives were greatly relieved. The bill extended the helping hand of government to assist private bankers back to their feet. It authorized the Federal Reserve Board to issue additional currency secured by bank assets; it directed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC)—an agency created in the Hoover administration to provide capital to private businesses—to purchase preferred bank stock; it extended the government's control over gold holdings; and it mandated Treasury Department supervision of the reopening and reorganization of the banks. Less than eight hours after it was introduced, the banking bill swept virtually unexamined through both houses of Congress and was back on the president's desk for his signature.

Conservatives again took heart six days later when the administration pushed through a stringent budget-cutting measure and followed it up with legislation designed to increase federal revenues from the sale of beer and wine. In a fortnight of dazzling political initiative, the supposedly progressive Roosevelt had enacted almost the entire program of the reactionary Raskob wing of his party. "Capitalism," one New Dealer later reflected, "was saved in eight days."

But the president was not finished. He had shored up the private banking system and had moved to restore business confidence in the soundness of his administration's fiscal policies. Now he saw further opportunities. "Things moved so fast," he wrote of the period just after the Emergency Banking Act was launched, "that during the next two days it became obvious that other matters had to be taken up to meet the financial and economic crisis." Some of the matters next taken up addressed the immediate goals of unemployment relief and economic recovery. Others had their origins deep in the history of the progressive reform movement; they aimed at governmental restructuring of broad areas of American life in ways destined to endure well beyond the depression.

In the next three months, Roosevelt induced Congress to pass a dozen additional pieces of major legislation. The Federal Emergency Relief Act funded the unemployment compensation programs of the states, whose treasuries had long since been overwhelmed by the scale of the depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put hundreds of thousands of jobless young men and a handful of young women to work on federally directed projects in reforestation, road building, and flood control. Financial institutions, as well as homeowners and farmers, were further aided by the Homeowners' Loan Act, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, and the Farm Credit Act, all of which provided in various ways for the refinancing of private debts under government auspices. As many as one-fifth of the nation's homes and farms were saved from foreclosure by these measures, securing the lifelong political gratitude of large sections of the middle class. The Glass-Steagall Banking Act created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, insuring bank deposits up to $5,000—a measure that at a single stroke virtually eliminated the prospect of further "runs" on banks by nervous depositors. The Tennessee Valley Authority Act initiated a comprehensive development plan for the vast Tennessee River basin. The Agricultural Adjustment Act sought to stabilize agricultural prices by crop limitation and government subsidy. It also carried an amendment authorizing the president to undertake various steps to inflate the currency. The National Industrial Recovery Act called for the establishment of codes governing production, pricing, and labor practices in major industries; it additionally provided for a $3.3 billion public works program. Other measures promoted the financial reorganization of railroads, as well as tighter federal controls over securities markets and gold.

On 16 June 1933 the special congressional session ended. The famous "Hundred Days" that commenced Roosevelt's presidency left the country somewhat breathless and a bit baffled, but nonetheless bolstered in spirit. The new president had displayed awesome powers of political leadership, though the precise ideological sum of the Hundred Days legislation remained almost impossible to define. Roosevelt seemed to offer something for every-body—but the gift of hope, precious beyond measure at that volatile moment, he offered equally to all.

Roosevelt took extraordinary steps to project his reassuring presence into every American home. He was the first president to master the new electronic medium of radio, with its powerful ability to touch millions of persons instantaneously and simultaneously. He began the second week of his presidency with a radio broadcast explaining in plain, simple language the purpose of his banking program—the first of many such "fireside chats." He cultivated journalists by abolishing the practice of responding only to written questions in press conferences. In studied contrast to President Hoover's treatment of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, Roosevelt provided food and medical services for all the veterans who had remained along the Anacostia River, and sent his wife, Eleanor, to lead them in group singing. This was an early instance of the extraordinary role that Eleanor Roosevelt played in her husband's administrations. A dedicated reformer and humanitarian, she developed an independent public career as an advocate for disadvantaged Americans and served as Franklin Roosevelt's ambassador to such constituencies as blacks, women, farmers, workers, and young people. She was unquestionably the most activist First Lady in American history up to that time.

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