Franklin D. Roosevelt - The second new deal

Other pressures inclining Roosevelt toward the left were also building as the new Congress convened in 1935. Louisiana's flamboyant Senator Huey Long, who had unmistakable presidential ambitions, had founded the national "Share Our Wealth" movement in 1934, advocating sweeping redistribution of national income from the wealthy to the poor. The Reverend Charles Coughlin, Michigan's "radio priest" who claimed a weekly radio audience of some 40 million listeners, increasingly lashed out at Roosevelt for his failure to tame the bankers and unleash an aggressively inflationary program. California physician Francis Townsend championed the cause of the elderly with a warmhearted but actuarially daffy scheme to pay $200 a month to all citizens over sixty years of age. Industrial unionists, led by the president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, pressed with growing ardor and occasional violence to grasp the benefits that the National Industrial Recovery Act's Section 7a had put so tantalizingly within their reach.

All those forces worked to push the president in a more radical direction. In April he approved the enormous Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, allocating some $4.8 billion dollars to create jobs on public projects under the auspices of the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA). Roosevelt named a close confidant, social worker Harry Hopkins, to head the WPA, which emphasized "work relief," rather than the dole, for the unemployed. Under authority provided by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, Roosevelt later created the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electricity to rural areas; the National Youth Administration (NYA) to provide employment and educational benefits to persons under twenty-six years of age; and the National Resources Planning Board to draw up plans for the long-range development of natural resources. (Only the first of these agencies survived World War II.)

Then, on 27 May 1935, the Supreme Court decision that the NRA's code-making activities were unconstitutional removed the centerpiece from Roosevelt's economic program. The Court's action provided the final shove propelling Roosevelt on a fresh round of legislative activity that eventually eclipsed even the formidable achievements of the Hundred Days. The early New Deal had emphasized stabilization and relief, and had made some hesitant efforts to stimulate economic recovery. Roosevelt's legislative program in 1935 emphasized far-reaching social and institutional reforms. It represented a triumphant victory for progressives, who now saw much of their decades-old political agenda finally enacted. And it permanently transformed vast sectors of American society.

The first measure to pass owed more to the new composition of Congress than it did to Roosevelt's leadership. Senator Robert Wagner, whose New York constituents exemplified the urban, working-class elements now rising to dominance in the Democratic party, introduced a bill establishing a permanent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to replace an earlier board that had collapsed under management pressure. It provided for considerably stronger government guarantees than the National Industrial Recovery Act's Section 7a had afforded for the rights of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with employers. Neither the president nor Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the nation's first woman cabinet officer) bothered until the eleventh hour to lift a finger in support of the bill, which was signed into law on 5 July.

The Wagner Act revolutionized the condition of American labor. Union membership doubled in the half dozen years following 1935. Organizers, protected by the government, rallied workers with the slogan "The President Wants You to join a Union." The Wagner Act also contributed to a profound change in the character of the union movement. It speeded the developing schism between the old-line craft-based unions and the much more rapidly growing industry-based unions, which concentrated on recruiting low-skilled workers. The split became official in 1938 when John L. Lewis led his Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) out of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Other legislative landmarks followed in quick succession in the summer of 1935. The Banking Act of 1935 brought the Federal Reserve system under closer government control. In the teeth of fierce opposition from privately owned utility companies, the Public Utility Holding Company Act mandated the elimination of monopolistic practices in the utilities industry. It further enabled the Federal Power Commission to regulate the interstate transmission of electrical power, and the Federal Trade Commission to perform a similar function for natural gas.

Most important of all was the passage of the Social Security Act. It provided for joint federal-state programs of unemployment compensation, financed by a federal tax on payrolls. It also created an exclusively federal system of old-age and survivors' insurance funded by a tax shared equally between employers and employees. Though modest in its initial benefits and regressively financed by a uniform tax on the current earnings of workers, the Social Security Act nevertheless represented a milestone on the road to a comprehensive welfare state. It offered a modicum of protection from the historic scourge of unemployment and guaranteed a minimum level of comfort for workers in their old age. It also created the potential for enormous demands on the public purse, diminished incentives for individuals to save, and reduced the sense of responsibility of families to care for their own elderly members. Probably no other New Deal measure did more in the long run to change the character of American life.

Roosevelt now had a broadly based, thoroughly progressive platform on which to stand for reelection in 1936. A handful of unreconstructed conservatives, including the two previous presidential nominees of his own party, bitterly denounced him as a traitor to his own class, a dangerous experimenter with his country's most sacred traditions, and an architect of permanent bloc divisions in the body politic. ("They are unanimous in their hatred for me," Roosevelt told an election-eve crowd at Madison Square Garden, "and I welcome their hatred!") A ragtag coalition of radical populist groups, badly weakened by the assassination in September 1935 of their ablest leader, Huey Long, fielded a Union party presidential ticket, with pathetic results. The Republican party nominated Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, a sincere but inept campaigner who proved no match for Roosevelt.

The president campaigned as a serenely confi-dent incumbent. Though nearly 9 million Americans were still without work, Roosevelt pointed to the progress that had been made against unemployment since 1933. He reaped the political benefits of his myriad programs to halt foreclosures on homes and farms. Black voters, long loyal to the party of Lincoln, switched their allegiance massively to the party of Roosevelt, who had avoided civil rights initiatives but had provided black Americans with unemployment relief and access to newly created agencies like the NYA. Perhaps most dramatic, Roosevelt harvested the rich crop of political goodwill he had sown in the ethnic, working-class communities of the big industrial cities. Fifty-two of Roosevelt's appointments to the federal bench were Catholics; only eight Catholics had been appointed by his three Republican predecessors. John L. Lewis' CIO contributed more than $770,000 to the campaign, and laborers voted for Roosevelt in overwhelming numbers. Roosevelt carried all but 2 of the nation's 106 cities with populations of a hundred thousand or more. He carried every state except Maine and Vermont, scoring the largest victory margin (523 to 8) in the electoral college since James Monroe in 1820. His share of the popular vote was 27,752,869 to Landon's 16,674,665. Democrats also tightened their grip on Congress, with unassailable majorities of 76 to 16 in the Senate and 331 to 89 in the House.

Roosevelt had thus forged a political coalition that would sustain the Democrats in power for nearly a generation. He had successfully wedded to the traditional southern and agricultural elements in his party the newly potent urban working class, including a variety of ethnic and racial minorities, and large sections of the middle class, grateful for the preservation of their threatened way of life. His party's enormous preponderance in Congress apparently afforded him almost unlimited power. And when he declared in his second inaugural address on 20 January 1937 that I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," there seemed little doubt that he intended to use that power for progressive ends.

User Contributions:

President Roosevelt is a legend. long live president Roosevelt

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: