"The New Deal was, all things considered, a distinctly conservative response to the problems of Depression America." Discuss (2000-2500 words.)

"The old formulas, plans, policies, programs and philosophies—the old conservatism, in a word—failed us and failed wretchedly in the depressed days of the past three years. If the New Deal wins, well and good. We will kiss the past good-by without a regret. If this Deal also fails, it can scarcely leave us any worse off than we were on March 4."

These comments by a Washington correspondent of the Baltimore Sun, following the 'hundred days' extended session of congress, might well serve to illustrate how the Roosevelt reforms were perceived by the informed population. The national economy had come to a situation such that no-one could see any attempt to rectify the situation in the same light as Hoover's path of traditional conservatism. There was far too much input of new and revolutionary blood required if anything was to be salvaged.

Roosevelt famously admitted his perceived need for "[An] acknowledgement that man possessed only limited moral and economic independence [and that] economic debacle dragged good and evil men into common ruin", but the New Deal was nevertheless pushed as merely a logical extension of Catholic principles. Religious allusions appealed to the conservative in society, and clothed pleas for reform in a plea to citizens' better natures. It had to be so in order for it to be introduced to a society which struggled to admit any failure. The Depression struck at the heart of everything the American people considered sacred—Keynesian economics, and more importantly, it countered established popular beliefs in the absoluteness of work ethic: "toil to the best of your ability and you will find success". This belief arose post-1865 as industrialisation kicked off, as demonstrated by the popular children's story, "The Little Engine That Could" All of these factors make the New Deal seem revolutionary indeed; to take a culture which at first showed such an extreme reluctance to countenance handouts that many preferred starvation, and persuade it otherwise was a radical achievement, however far its relief went. Edwin Rolfe made accurate summation of the situation in his poem, "The 100 Percenter", writing "Dead workers are dead before they cease to be". Though this was written 1928, it was, importantly, republished in 1933, possible as a stir to those who found the charity to harsh to accept.

When considering the recovery effected by the New Deal, it is necessary to bear in mind just how severe the preceding slump resulting from the Great Depression was. As a result of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, stocks fell from $87 billion in 1929 to just $19 billion in 1933, and whilst raw figures are a very broadly interpretable measure of economic performance, the fact that banks at the time had enjoined commercial banking and the speculative markets, with knock-on effects which wiped out the personal savings of millions (and in 1933, this was one of the areas into which the Federal Administration probed and legislated against.)

Farm prices had virtually ceased to exist. The tallies of starvation, already far too long for any civilised nation, did not include those weakened by malnutrition who easily fell prey to disease. The situation produced "a vicious spiral in which there was less production, hence less wages, hence less income, hence still fewer customers, still less production, and so on down the scale." Against this, Roosevelt felt, and stated, that "security of the home ... livelihood, [and also] ... social insurance [were emphatically a] minimum" which each and every American citizen could expect from a life in their home country. This in itself was not a revolutionary concept, but since the reality often fell short of the ideal, even this sentiment may be viewed as radical.

Despite being described by Roosevelt as not being a serious departure from any traditional measures of responsible government, the New Deal was taken up quickly and positively once put into practise. Those in dire straits discovered that many were in a similar position to themselves, and the universality of the measures of protection offered against unemployment were widely acclaimed by 'votes with feet'. Hoover and the other non-interventionists in the previous administration were proved wrong by the fact that the New Deal did work towards alleviating the problems of widespread unemployment and the social ills which accompanied it. The Deal also served to provoke a decidedly non-conservative shift in voting patterns: the Democrats were seemed to have worked where the Republicans had proved less than radical enough. In particular, the black vote was revolutionised; as high numbers of blacks were employed in the industrialised North, they were hit heavily by the rising levels of unemployment; and so had more to gain from the new measures to combat poverty. A revolutionary government also benefited from the newly enfranchised female population and a burgeoning American population. In 1880 only 10-11 million ballots were cast, compared to 1928 when 36 million went to the polls. This rise not only in population but of extended interest in the political procedure shows how successful Roosevelt and his team had to been in order for such a huge vote of confidence to be cast in him as followed his reforms.

Whether the New Deal ought to be considered conservative is a highly contentious subject amongst historians. Degler opts for a more positively revolutionary reading, pointing to the fact that left-wing historians expected far too much in so short a space of time. Personally I think it also worth remembering that the vast majority of the shake-up took part in a few years of a single decade; an achievement which resulted in a much faster process of than social reform than in England. It marked the end of the laissez-faire attitude, and showed some parallels with similar trends of thinking in England following the 1906 election victory of the great Liberal reformers. After encouraging the economy to recover through forward-thinking and moral-improving projects such as the Blue Eagle Scheme, follow-up legislation sought to guarantee the jobs and safety of employees; the Wagner Act forcing employers to recognise unions, and the National Labour Relations Act preventing employers from the dismissal of employees resulting from an exercising of their rights. These were fundamental shifts in legislation which showed that the government was prepared to put its reputation where its mouth was. As Degler notes, the New Deal may strongly be considered to be revolutionary because of the fact that it was considered necessary in its aftermath to introduce legislation to protect the employers. The bulk of New Deal legislation, that not overturned by the Supreme Court shortly after its passing as Bills, has not been significantly amended, and still remains true to the spirit of protecting future employment to this day

The 1935 Social Security legislation went through, accompanied with the NRLA, giving Americans the same rights that European workers had possessed for decades. In this way it was not an entirely revolutionary sentiment; in another it represented the final push of a gathering momentum of pressure for an end to laissez-faire in no less a dramatic fashion than had been demonstrated in those other countries when their own governments had set an incontestable precedent. The wealth of New Deal legislation was impressive; "Among this whirlwind of reforms the ending of prohibition in 1933 looked like an afterthought" Of these, the Tennessee Valley Authority was the most sweeping of all of the governmental public works schemes, and was widely variously either championed or decried. The building of federally funded dams to generate cheap electricity which could then be used by other small businesses to expand their operations economically, and also drastically improve the quality of life for ordinary American citizens. This was a radical departure from previous form, and arguably a radical departure as much from the constitution, as the government sought to compete with existing providers of electricity. As other historians have noted (in reference to the 'hundred days' which provided so much of this type of legislation), the special congress was "called to pass sweeping reforms that would have been unthinkable in any context other than the present crisis" Because of this, the New Deal faced strong opposition from the Supreme Court. Led by four "implacable conservative justices, the 'Four Horsemen'" (For example, in Jan 36 the Sup Court held "agricultural production was a local matter for state rather than Federal regulation") Roosevelt attempted to raise the number of serving justices by six in order to halt opposition to legislation, if not to push through any further reforms, but his attempt was deemed even by his supporters to be even less constitutional than certain elements of the New Deal process had been ruled. Where Roosevelt was shown to be conservative in his plans for turning America around, it was usually through force.

Certainly non-traditional, the Federal Works programmes were a major undertaking, and significantly included amongst their targets culture and the arts: Despite a solid emphasis on manual labour building projects, "The CWA ... provided projects for 300,000 women, employed 3000 artists to paint murals on public buildings, used 40000 teachers to teach adult illiterates, surveyed coasts, harbours and historic buildings, and established symphony orchestras in New York and Buffalo" This demonstrates a decidedly liberal side to the New Deal; the restoration of moral through cultural roots.

The New Deal might be judged not to be so revolutionary as might be initially imagined because small farmers were wiped out in the initial financial situation, and it was only larger ones who benefited from the federal subsidies and economic schemes. It may be argued that the New Deal was "too little, too late" for many of those afflicted by the economic catastrophes of the Great Depression. The number of active farmers fell by over half in the period between 1930 and 1970, which highlights a trend which has remained prevalent for almost half a century through ongoing market control. Since 1938 the American government spearheaded a trend of buying up surplus good to control the market, following a realisation that a free market cannot be beneficial over long periods of time. However radical a shift in attitudes this shift to the prevailing European way was, it ultimately resulted in the survival only of the most conservative farmers, placing their trust in bulk crops.

Badger notes that "Acutely conscious of continuing racism and poverty in the 1960s [Radical Historians] believed that the New Deal had merely served to sustain the hegemony of corporate capitalism. ... The New Deal did not nationalise the banks or discipline American businessmen" And, since the New Deal legislation was acted out at a state level, the racist prejudices inherent to the system were never contested. "Atlanta gave out monthly relief cheques of $32.66 to whites and $19.29 to blacks." There were many officials in comfortable, stable employment who still adhered to the old tenet that a low man was a product of his own idle recklessness. "In Fairfield County, Ohio, homeless relief clients were sent to sleep in the horse stalls of the county fairground" Resentment of the way in which relief was handled could come in for heavy criticism also:

"the continued distribution of food order rather than cash [made] recipients feel like charity cases. As an unemployed man in Pittsburgh complained, 'Does a man's status change when he becomes unemployed, so that, while he was perfectly able to handle money when he had a job, he can't be trusted when he's out of work.'"

Subsequent generations have also questioned the actual effect of increased unionism and a minimum wage, since through the late 1930s unemployment still stood at a staggering 16-20%, which only fell below 15% with the press for military rearmament in the 1940s. As Jenkins points out—"ultimately only war cured the problem" Aided by the new legislation, in 1937 almost 500 sit-down strike actions were held, which can hardly have benefited productivity, or encouraged employers to increase their work-forces—a possible policy being 'more machinery, less dissent'.

It seems that the subject of the New Deal is not one ever likely to be dismissed by the proponents of American history study. Much of the time the cause of the interest has political roots in the present rather than the past, or relies more upon backwards-thinking ideology for its self-perpetuation than a continued interpretation of events. Overall, I would have to say that I feel Roosevelt's numerous achievements outweigh the arguments of his detractors; that for better or for worse he chose radical, untested policies in a desperate, complex situation.


A History of the United States, Philip Jenkins, Macmillan Essential Histories, 1997

The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two, 3rd Ed., Houghton Miffin, 1998

The New Deal: A Documentary History Edited by W. E. Leuchtenburg, Harper & Row, 1968

Out of our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern American, 3rd Ed., C. Degler, Harper Colophon, 1984

A. J. Badger, The New Deal (reading list)