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date: 27 November 2022

The New Dealfree

The New Dealfree

  • Wendy L. WallWendy L. WallDepartment of History, SUNY Binghamton


The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state.

The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy.

Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”


  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • Economic History
  • Cultural History
  • Urban History
  • Labor and Working Class History

Defining the “New Deal”

On July 2, 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and pledged himself to a “new deal for the American people.”1 In so doing, he gave a name not only to a set of domestic policies implemented by his administration in response to the crisis of the Great Depression but also to an era, a political coalition, and a vision of government’s role in society. The New Deal has been described as a “potpourri” of sometimes-conflicting policy initiatives, and scholars and popular commentators have long debated its ideological sources, beneficiaries, and legacy.2 Nevertheless, most agree that it marked “a pivotal moment in the making of modern American liberalism.”3 As this suggests, the New Deal cast a long shadow over the remainder of the 20th century, and it remains a touchstone for contemporary political debate.

When Roosevelt took office in March 1933, the nation was more than three years into the greatest economic cataclysm that either the United States or global capitalism had ever experienced. The stock market crash in October 1929 had led to a financial meltdown, prompting a collapse in industrial production that began in the United States but soon spread to other countries. A rise in prices for raw materials—commodities ranging from cotton and wheat to tea, silk, lumber, and steel—soon followed. This prostrated farmers, miners, and loggers, not only in the United States but also around the globe. By the spring of 1933, the U.S. gross national product had fallen to just half of its 1929 level. More than five thousand U.S. banks had failed, and thousands of families across the country had already lost farms and homes to foreclosure. On the day Roosevelt was inaugurated, roughly one-quarter of the American workforce was unemployed. In cities like Chicago and Detroit, home to hard-hit industries like automobiles and steel, the unemployment rate approached 50 percent.4

On the campaign trail, Roosevelt had been vague about precisely how he planned to grapple with the economic crisis: He famously recommended “bold, persistent experimentation.”5 Once in office, the president turned his abundant energy to implementing this pragmatic philosophy. He surrounded himself with advisors who had strikingly different viewpoints and agendas, and set them to work tackling a troika of problems: relief, recovery, and reform.6 The result was one of the greatest outpourings of legislation ever seen in American history. Between 1933 and 1938, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that, among other things, regulated the banking and securities industries, shored up agricultural prices, established vast public works projects, repealed Prohibition, created new mortgage markets, managed watersheds, reversed a half century of American Indian policy, bolstered the power of unions, and provided social insurance to millions of elderly, unemployed, and disabled Americans. As historian David M. Kennedy has written, “Into the five years of the New Deal was crowded more social and institutional change than into virtually any comparable compass of time in the nation’s past.”7

As Kennedy suggests, the term New Deal is most often used to refer to the set of domestic policies implemented by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression. In this narrow sense, the “New Deal” might be seen as paralleling Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” or Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.” Scholars have also used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation that seemed to be animated by the same values and impulses. Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, for instance, argue that the 1944 GI Bill built on specific New Deal policies, while reflecting FDR’s broader desire to use the power of the federal government to extend a safety net to American citizens. For this reason, they dub the GI bill “a New Deal for veterans.”8 Ira Katznelson goes even further, redefining the New Deal as “the full period of Democratic rule” that stretched from Roosevelt’s election in 1932 to the election of Dwight Eisenhower two decades later. Only by looking at this longer time span, he suggests, can historians understand how the New Deal “reconsidered and rebuilt the country’s long-established political order.”9

If some historians have extended the chronology of the New Deal, others have expanded its geographic scope. Scholars have most often applied the term to FDR’s domestic agenda, but Elizabeth Borgwardt argues that there was also a “New Deal for the world.” As World War II drew to a close, she suggests, Roosevelt administration planners translated “the New Deal’s sweeping institutional approaches to intractable problems” to the international arena, establishing a framework of multilateral institutions designed to stabilize the global system and advance human rights. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the charter that set the parameters for the Nuremberg Trials were designed to extend economic and political security to people around the globe, she writes, “much as New Deal programs had redefined security domestically for individual American citizens.”10 In a similar vein, Kiran Klaus Patel argues that the United States “played a major role in redefining the international order by trying to project the principles of the New Deal regulatory state onto the world.”11 Sarah Phillips suggests that the success of New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) convinced many liberals that they had “found the tools for conquering the problem of rural poverty.” The postwar Point Four program of foreign assistance, she argues, drew on these lessons and attempted to “export the New Deal.”12

Neither the domestic nor the global New Deal would have been possible had FDR not mobilized a new political coalition. From 1896 until 1932, the Republican Party dominated national politics; only in the “Solid South,” which had opposed Republicans since the Civil War, did the Democratic Party consistently win elections. In 1932, Roosevelt swept into office largely because of widespread animosity toward President Herbert Hoover, who had failed to end the Depression or significantly ameliorate suffering. Over the next four years, however, Roosevelt won over Catholic and Jewish immigrants and their voting-age children, industrial workers, African Americans, and large segments of the so-called chattering classes. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.”

The New Deal coalition brought together unlikely bedfellows—for instance, African Americans and union members with conservative white Southerners who opposed racial equality and organized labor. Nevertheless, this unwieldy political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. Every president elected between 1932 and 1980 was a Democrat, with the exceptions of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. The Democratic Party also controlled both houses of Congress for all but four of those 48 years. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order” with “an ideological character, a moral perspective, and a set of political relationships among policy elites, interest groups, and electoral constituencies.”13

Battling the Great Depression

Before scholars could reflect on a New Deal “order,” there was what FDR and his contemporaries called simply the New Deal: the set of policies put in place during Roosevelt’s first two presidential terms in direct response to the ravages of the Great Depression. Most of that legislation came in one of two great bursts. The first followed Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933.14 Within days of taking office, the new president called Congress into special session. By the time Congress adjourned precisely one hundred days later, Roosevelt had signed fifteen bills into law. Taken together, they restructured vast swaths of the American economy and authorized billions of dollars in federal spending for everything from dam construction and crop subsidies to unemployment relief. Roosevelt proposed—and Congress passed—so much legislation during this first “Hundred Days” that the time frame became a benchmark for all subsequent U.S. political leaders.

The second burst of legislation came in the first nine months of 1935. The previous November, the president’s party had bucked historical trends by winning, rather than losing, seats in the midterm election. The victory was a landslide: When the new Congress convened in January 1935, Democrats held two-thirds of the seats in both the House and the Senate. The election signaled the political realignment that created the New Deal coalition, and it gave Roosevelt a mandate. This second legislative burst enabled some of the best-remembered policies of the New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration, federal support for organized labor, and the Social Security program.

Contemporary journalists called these two torrents of legislation the First and Second New Deal, and historians have generally followed their lead. For decades, both scholars and popular writers argued that the two phases of the New Deal were ideologically distinct, although they often disagreed on the precise nature of that difference.15 In recent years, historians have suggested that any ideological shift between 1933 and 1935 was exaggerated. Many have embraced the argument made by David Kennedy that New Deal policies were designed, above all, to provide security—security not only for “vulnerable individuals” but also for capitalists, consumers, workers, farmers, homeowners, bankers, and builders. “Job security, life-cycle security, financial security, market security—however it might be defined, achieving security was the leitmotif of virtually everything the New Deal attempted,” Kennedy writes.16

Stabilizing the Financial System

The most urgent matter that Roosevelt confronted when he took office in March 1933 was the banking crisis. The nation’s banking system had been teetering on the edge of collapse since the end of 1930 as fearful domestic and foreign investors scrambled to pull their gold and currency deposits out of U.S. institutions. A new round of panic the month before the inauguration prompted governors in state after state to close their banks to prevent runs. On the morning FDR became president, such “bank holidays” had closed all banks in 32 states. In six more, the vast majority of banks were closed. In the remainder, depositors could withdraw only 5 percent of their funds.17

Some politicians and political observers urged Roosevelt to nationalize the banking system.18 Instead, the new president declared a national bank holiday, called Congress into emergency session, and persuaded them to pass the Emergency Banking Act. That act affirmed the temporary bank closure, authorized the Federal Reserve to issue more currency, and took other steps designed to restore the system’s liquidity. With banks set to reopen on March 13, Roosevelt took to the airwaves, delivering the first of the radio addresses that would become known as “fireside chats.” Using simple language and speaking in an authoritative yet avuncular voice, Roosevelt explained both the workings of the banking system and the steps that the federal government had just taken to preserve it. “I can assure you,” the president told his 60 million listeners, “that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress.”19 Roosevelt’s combination of quick action and calming explanation worked. As his advisor Raymond Moley later wrote, “Capitalism was saved in eight days.”20

New Deal efforts to shore up the banking system did not end with these emergency measures. A few months later, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment from commercial banking in an effort to insure that banks did not speculate with depositors’ savings. The act also established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guaranteed bank deposits up to an initial level of $2,500. (That figure has been raised many times since.) Although FDR initially opposed deposit insurance, it almost immediately halted bank runs. These two moves dramatically stabilized the banking system. Even during the prosperous 1920s, more than six hundred U.S. banks had failed each year. In the early 1930s, that number climbed into the thousands. Beginning in 1934, fewer than a hundred U.S. banks failed annually; by 1943, the number had dropped to under ten.21

Other New Deal financial measures were aimed at steadying the securities markets or strengthening the economy more generally. In the spring of 1933, FDR followed Britain’s lead and took the United States off the gold standard, allowing the exchange value of the dollar to fall. One of the president’s advisors warned that the move would spell “the end of Western civilization,” but it gave New Dealers more flexibility to combat low prices by trying to stimulate inflation. Coupled with political instability in Europe, the end of the gold standard also prompted overseas investors to begin exchanging gold for dollars, further increasing the U.S. money supply and bolstering the banks.22 The Securities Act of 1933 sought to end insider trading in the stock market by requiring publically traded companies to disclose financial information. The following year, Congress created the Securities and Exchange Commission to guard against market manipulation. Finally, the Banking Act of 1935 put the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee—the body that influenced the nation’s money supply and thus the availability of credit—under the direct control of a Board of Governors appointed by the president. This move helped centralize the nation’s banking system, and improved the Federal Reserve’s ability to shape the business cycle.

Relief for the Unemployed

Having stabilized the banking system, FDR turned quickly to the problem of unemployment relief. In the spring of 1933, some 12.4 million men and 400,000 women—roughly one-quarter of the national workforce—were unemployed. Most were their families’ principal breadwinners.23 The collective need of these American families had already overwhelmed the resources of local governments and private charities, as well as family and community support networks. With millions unable to pay rent or buy food, men, women, and children lined up at soup kitchens, grubbed for scraps in garbage cans, hopped freight trains, or moved into makeshift shantytowns that sprang up in parks and open spaces on the edges of American cities.

FDR first focused on the problem posed by young men—a problem captured in a 1933 film entitled The Wild Boys of the Road. Teenagers and men in their twenties had fewer skills and less experience than their older counterparts; thus, they were more likely to be unemployed, to leave home, and to become hobos and vagrants. Events in Europe suggested the threat that such footloose young men might pose to the social order. Roosevelt believed that sending them to work in the countryside would not only improve the nation’s rural infrastructure but also transform the young men into upstanding future citizens. He proposed a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to employ those between the ages of 18 and 35 on a variety of forestry, flood control, and beautification projects. To be selected for the program, men had to be single, healthy, and U.S. citizens and to come from families on relief. Living in military-style camps operated by the War Department, they built roads, firebreaks, trails, and campgrounds. They also planted trees, fought fires, and drained swamps. CCC workers served stints of less than two years and were required to send home $25 of the $30 they earned each month to their families. Between the program’s establishment in 1933 and its expiration nine years later, the CCC put three million young men to work. It quickly became one of the New Deal’s most popular initiatives, and remained popular even in conservative areas.24

Although the CCC kept many young men from taking to the road, it was hardly enough to relieve the distress of American families. Thus, Roosevelt urged establishment of a new agency, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). He persuaded Congress to appropriate $500 million to FERA, and used it to provide direct relief to needy Americans who were able to pass a means test. Some FERA funds were funneled through the states. Others were passed out by Harry Hopkins, the former social worker whom FDR tapped to run the agency. Hopkins had held a similar position in New York State when Roosevelt was governor there. Both men felt great sympathy for the poor, and both also knew how to use FERA to political advantage. By enlarging the federal role in awarding relief, they helped to transfer the political allegiance of America’s unemployed from local officials and political machines to Washington, D.C.

FERA made life marginally easier for many, but it never had sufficient funds. As the United States headed into the fifth winter of the Depression, unemployment remained high. In November 1933, Hopkins persuaded Roosevelt to establish yet another agency to employ people directly. Drawing tools and materials from army warehouses, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) put Americans to work fixing roads, docks, and schools; laying sewer pipe; and installing outhouses for farm families. The CWA paid far more than FERA and did not subject all workers to a means test; it was soon employing more than 4 million men and women. By February 1934, the CCC, FERA, and CWA together were reaching 22 percent of the U.S. population, an all-time high for public welfare in the United States. The president, however, worried both about the escalating costs of such programs and about relief becoming “a habit with the country.” He ordered the CWA to close down at the end of March, noting that nobody would starve when the weather was warm.25

Americans made it through the rest of 1934, but as the new Congress convened in early 1935, the unemployment rate still hovered near 20 percent. Moreover, some 5 million Americans remained on relief. FDR and many of his advisors continued to worry about deficit spending, but they also believed that something had to be done and that only the federal government had “sufficient power and credit” to do it. Work relief cost more than direct payments, but the latter, as FDR declared in his annual message to Congress, was “a narcotic.” “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me,” he added, “show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre.” FDR proposed a massive public employment program to get 3.5 million abled-bodied but jobless Americans off the relief rolls.26

The result was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the most ambitious and best-remembered New Deal programs. Headed by Hopkins, the WPA put more than 3 million people to work in its first year. Roosevelt wanted all projects to be labor intensive and useful, and when possible to come to a natural end. He also wanted WPA to pay more than relief but less than market rates so as not to compete with private enterprise. WPA workers built highways, schools, airports, parks, and bridges. They bound books, supervised recreation areas, ran school lunch programs, and sewed garments for the needy. WPA workers even entered the arena of public health, building hospitals and clinics, conducting mass immunization campaigns, and churning out posters that promoted nutrition and warned against the dangers of tuberculosis and syphilis.

Many of those posters were produced by employees of the Federal Arts Project, part of a massive and unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. Both Hopkins and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt believed that the New Deal should provide work for unemployed artists, musicians, actors, and writers, and so the WPA set up a series of cultural programs known collectively as “Federal One.” The Federal Writers’ Project produced dozens of state and city guidebooks, and conducted thousands of oral histories with former slaves, immigrants, stonecutters, packinghouse workers, Oklahoma pioneers, and others. It also sent folklorists to record the music and stories of Appalachian banjo pickers, southern bluesmen, Mexican American balladeers, and Okies in resettlement camps in the West. The Federal Music Project sponsored symphony orchestras and jazz groups, while the Federal Arts Project commissioned muralists and graphic artists. Both hired individuals to teach music, painting, and sculpture to schoolchildren.

If New Dealers wanted to aid unemployed artists, they also hoped to democratize culture and to generate support for New Deal programs and political values. No New Deal initiative better illustrates this goal—or the controversy it generated—than the Federal Theatre Project, which brought plays, vaudeville acts, and puppet shows to small towns across the country. It also staged controversial shows like Orson Welles’s production of Macbeth, which featured an all-black cast. Finally, the Federal Theatre Project developed a new theatrical genre, the Living Newspaper, to dramatize current events and expose social issues. One Living Newspaper, Power, traced the development of the electrical power industry and urged greater support for public ownership of utilities. Other Living Newspapers dealt with agricultural policy, the shortage of affordable housing, the labor movement, and syphilis.

Not surprisingly, Federal One drew intense criticism from critics on the right: In June 1939, a more conservative Congress dissolved the Federal Theatre Project, charging that it spread New Deal propaganda and encouraged racial mixing in stage productions. Budget cuts to the other cultural programs soon followed. Conservatives warned that all WPA programs were endangering the American way of life by providing jobs for the undeserving. They also complained that the WPA was simply a Democratic Party patronage machine. (FDR did use the program to reward local power brokers who supported the New Deal, although these included progressive Republicans like New York City’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, as well as Democratic political bosses in cities like Chicago and Memphis.)27

Not all criticism of the WPA came from the right. Leftist critics noted that the WPA was chronically underfunded; despite its size, it could provide jobs for only a third of those who needed them in the United States.28 To avoid competing with the private sector, WPA jobs always paid less than the “prevailing wage” in a given community. Since that standard differed by region, gender, and race, it reinforced existing patterns of discrimination. The editors of The Nation complained that the program required workers to toil “at depressed wages in a federal work gang” and was “a morbid substitute for relief.”29 Nevertheless, between 1935 and its dismantling in 1943, the WPA employed some 8.5 million Americans, roughly one-fifth of the nation’s workforce, at a total cost of roughly $11 billion. Many were grateful to have a job rather than a handout. “We aren’t on relief anymore,” the wife of one WPA worker reportedly said. “My husband is working for the Government.”30

Aiding Farmers

Both the crisis in the banking system and the spike in unemployment were problems brought on by the Great Depression. The plight of America’s farmers had deeper roots, however. Rural America had been mired in depression since shortly after the end of World War I, a situation that farmers found particularly vexing given the general economic prosperity of the 1920s.31 The deflationary spiral of the early 1930s pushed farm income down an additional 60 percent.32 Across the country, crops rotted in the field because prices were so low that farmers could not justify harvesting them. Western ranchers slit the throats of livestock they could afford neither to feed nor to market. Dairymen in upstate New York dumped milk into ditches, while growers in California lit mountains of oranges on fire.33 Since taxes and mortgage payments did not fall, farmers across the country lost homes, land, and equipment to foreclosure. Many rebelled, joining “farm strikes,” disrupting auctions, and nearly lynching an Iowa judge who refused to suspend foreclosure proceedings.

New Dealers believed that boosting farm incomes would help not only rural Americans but also the entire U.S. economy. In 1933, farmers still made up roughly one-third of the nation’s workforce, and their purchasing power dramatically lagged that of residents in urban areas. By restoring prosperity to the farm economy, New Dealers argued, they would increase farmers’ ability to buy nonfarm goods, in turn contributing to a more general economic recovery. Such reasoning reflected not only the thought of many in the Roosevelt administration regarding the economy, but also their tendency to romanticize the nation’s pastoral past and their awareness of the continuing political power of rural America.34

The centerpiece of the New Deal’s efforts to raise farm incomes was the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), passed in May 1933. The act charged the federal government with raising the price for key farm commodities in order to bring the prices that farmers received for their products into balance or “parity” with their production and living costs. It pointed to the years just before World War I as the ideal of parity. While the act was vague about the exact mechanism the government should use to achieve this end, it established a new agency and sanctioned a variety of remedies that farm advocates had been battling over for years. To prevent farmers from planting surplus crops, the AAA levied a tax on flour millers and other crop processors and used the proceeds to pay farmers for taking land out of production. At the same time, the agency tried to maintain a floor under prices by keeping harvested crops off the market when prices were low. It did this by offering farmers loans secured by their crops at above-market rates, then storing the surplus. If crop prices rose, farmers could repay the loans, redeem their crops, and sell at the higher prices. Finally, the act established a Farm Credit Administration (FCA) to provide mortgage relief to farmers.

From the beginning, the New Deal’s farm policy proved controversial. Cotton and wheat farmers had already planted their crops by the time the farm bill passed. A severe drought on the plains constrained the wheat supply naturally, but AAA officials paid farmers to plow up 10 million acres of cotton. The agency also bought and slaughtered some 6 million piglets and 200,000 sows to prevent a future glut of hogs.35 While much of this pork eventually fed hungry people, the destruction of crops and livestock angered many Americans. When journalist Lorena Hickok went on a fact-finding tour for the administration in the fall of 1933, people in Minnesota and Nebraska complained to her about the New Dealers’ methods.36 “As long as there are 25 million hungry people in this country, there’s no overproduction,” one Iowa farm leader declared. “For the government to destroy food and reduce crops at such a time is wicked.”37

Considered in the aggregate, rural America benefited from New Deal farm policies. Within 18 months of its establishment, the FCA had refinanced one-fifth of all farm mortgages.38 Prices for crops like corn, wheat, and cotton surged, and net farm income rose by 50 percent between 1932 and 1936.39 Yet these benefits were not evenly distributed, and AAA policies often exacerbated the plight of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. New Deal officials relied heavily on county-level committees to set production quotas, monitor acreage-reduction contracts, and dispense federal payments. Agricultural Secretary Henry Wallace considered this decentralized approach to be “economic democracy in action,” but local committees were often dominated by the largest growers.40 Large planters and landowners frequently pocketed checks for keeping acreage fallow, then pushed out the tenants and sharecroppers who were actually farming the land. In the South, many of these sharecroppers were African Americans, and so they bore the brunt of such policies. In California, where “factory farms” used migratory laborers, growers rarely restored wages to pre-Depression levels, even after prosperity returned. Tenants, sharecroppers, and farmworkers sometimes fought back—joining groups like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union—but such efforts often provoked violent reprisals. Liberals within the Department of Agriculture who pleaded the case of the disempowered were purged.41

Although the Roosevelt administration did little to keep tenants and sharecroppers on their land, it did establish two agencies ostensibly designed to give impoverished farmers a fresh start. The Resettlement Administration (RA), set up in 1935, built three “greenbelt” towns, which were close to big cities and surrounded by countryside. In 1937, it was absorbed into a new agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which established a chain of migrant labor camps and granted low-interest loans to enable some tenants to buy farms. Both agencies, however, faced opposition from farm corporations and southern landlords who wanted to keep their cheap labor. The RA had hoped to move half a million farm families, but ultimately resettled fewer than 5,000.42 Photographers hired by the FSA to document America and build support for New Deal programs provided many of the most iconic pictures of the Great Depression, and the agency’s migrant camps came to public attention when John Steinbeck depicted one in his epic novel The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. Nevertheless, the FSA’s congressional opponents kept its appropriations low, limiting its ability to make a real dent in rural poverty.

Conservation and Regional Change

As FSA photographs and books like The Grapes of Wrath attested, the problems plaguing rural America were not limited to low commodity prices. Across the nation, uncontrolled lumbering had scarred and depleted forests, while intensive farming had ravaged the land. Meanwhile, droughts, wind, and floods depleted the soil. A massive flood on the Mississippi River in 1927 inundated thousands of square miles and displaced some 700,000 people.43 A single dust storm on the Great Plains in May 1934 sucked 350 million tons of topsoil into the air and deposited it as fair east as New York City and Boston.44 New Dealers believed that only by developing more sustainable agriculture—and by distributing natural resources more equitably—could the living standards of Americans in rural areas be brought up to the same level as those of their urban counterparts.

To achieve this, New Dealers undertook a variety of initiatives. They retired land, sought to restore forests and soil, engaged in flood control and irrigation projects, and produced cheap hydropower to fuel farms and new industries. Historian Sarah Phillips has suggested that these projects reflected a “New Conservation,” focused less on the preservation of wild areas or the efficient use of natural resources than on the welfare of rural residents.45 Since the South and West were the most rural parts of the nation, those regions benefited disproportionately. In fact, New Deal land use and energy policies contributed to the emergence of what would eventually become known as the “Sunbelt.”46

The first, most ambitious, and ultimately most successful of these New Deal projects was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), established by Roosevelt during his first Hundred Days. Cutting across seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation, the TVA brought economic progress and hope to a region that had seen little of either since the end of the Civil War. In addition to most of Tennessee, the TVA covered swaths of Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. TVA dams prevented spring floods from displacing residents and washing away topsoil. They also provided ample cheap electricity, which the agency sold to rural co-ops and municipal power systems. TVA experts developed fertilizer, built model towns, upgraded schools and health facilities, planted trees, and restored fish and wildlife habitats. In 1933, 2 percent of farms in this region had electricity; by 1945, 75 percent were electrified. Cheap electricity also attracted new industries to the region, including such corporate behemoths as Monsanto and the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA).47 Through its generation of power, not only did the TVA help to modernize the upper South, but it also inserted the federal government more fully and permanently into the private economy than did any other New Deal agency.

The success of the TVA prompted New Dealers to dive more fully into rural electrification. Private power companies had long argued that they could not afford to provide electricity to isolated farms and small, rural communities. As a result, many Americans were still living without the benefits of running water, indoor toilets, lights, refrigeration, or labor-saving devices. In 1935, over the protests of private utilities, New Dealers convinced Congress to establish the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), a move that profoundly changed rural lives. The REA sponsored the creation of hundreds of nonprofit electric cooperatives and offered them low-cost loans for generating plants and power lines. In the early 1930s, fewer than one in ten American farms had electricity. By 1941, the number had risen to four in ten. By 1950, 90 percent of U.S. farms were electrified.48

Industrial Policy

If rural electrification was one of the New Deal’s greatest successes, industrial policy was one of its biggest failures. When FDR took office, both he and his advisors were convinced that the economy needed a major stimulus, but few agreed on what form that should take. Some businessmen and New Dealers considered the Depression the result of destructive competition. They argued for suspending antitrust laws and forging industry-wide agreements that would allow businesses to stabilize prices, end overproduction, and ultimately raise wages. Others, more distrustful of the business community, argued either for stimulating competition or for engaging in national economic planning. Many advocated federal spending on public-works projects to “prime” the economic pump; yet the president and most around him still hoped to avoid running federal deficits. This policy discord prevented FDR from taking any action until near the end of his first Hundred Days. When the Senate passed a work-sharing bill that the president opposed, he ordered staffers who favored differing plans to shut themselves in a room and develop a compromise.49

The resulting bill, which Roosevelt proposed in May 1933, contained what one of his advisors later called “a thorough hodge-podge of provisions.”50 Declaring a state of industrial emergency, it largely suspended antitrust laws and created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to oversee the development of codes to regulate prices, wages, hours, and working conditions for hundreds of industries. Section 7a of the bill gave industrial workers the right “to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing,” marking a historic reversal of the federal government’s traditional refusal to back unionization. Finally, the bill appropriated $3.3 billion to be spent by a new Public Works Administration (PWA). New Dealers hoped that the public works spending would jump-start the economy, buying time for the industrial codes to take effect.

This unwieldy industrial policy foundered from the start. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who had been charged with overseeing the PWA, moved with great caution in order to avoid accusations of misusing funds. In the agency’s first six months, he spent only $110 million of the billions allocated.51 As a result, the PWA failed to provide any short-term economic stimulus. The cotton textile millers quickly drafted an industrial code, but other industries were slow to follow. Hugh Johnson, the colorful former general appointed to head the NRA, tried to compensate for this sluggish pace by resorting to the tactics of propaganda and community pressure that had been used successfully by the United States during World War I. Employers who agreed to sign a blanket wage-and-hour code were allowed to display NRA signs picturing a stylized Blue Eagle and the slogan “We Do Our Part.” The NRA’s Blue Eagle soon landed in store windows and on delivery trucks, and cities across the nation held “Blue Eagle” rallies and parades. This campaign made the NRA one of the most recognized aspects of the New Deal, but it did little to boost employment or improve incomes.

The code-writing process slowly moved forward. Although Johnson and the NRA had been given formal authority over the enterprise, they had no means to enforce compliance. Thus, the largest producers in each industry tended to dominate the proceedings. Mechanisms to fix prices and control production often hurt smaller operators. Code-making panels were supposed to include labor and consumer representatives, but they rarely did. As a result, price rises tended to outpace wage increases. The law eventually produced so many overlapping industrial codes—more than five hundred—that even businessmen complained about NRA bureaucracy.52 In October 1934, FDR finally secured Johnson’s resignation. The following May a unanimous Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional.

Although slow to get started, the PWA ultimately proved more successful. In contrast to other jobs programs launched by the New Deal, the PWA embodied a “trickle-down” approach. The agency paid higher wages than did other work-relief projects, hired more skilled workers, and drew fewer employees from relief rolls. By focusing on large-scale construction projects, Ickes hoped to stimulate industries that provided materials and components, thus creating jobs indirectly. Between 1933 and 1939, PWA workers built schools, courthouses, city halls, hospitals, and sewage plants. They built the port of Brownsville, Texas; the LaGuardia and Los Angeles Airports; two aircraft carriers; and numerous cruisers, destroyers, gunboats, and planes. The PWA constructed New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel, Virginia’s Skyline Drive, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams in the Pacific Northwest, and the highway that links Key West to the Florida mainland. Surveying this legacy, one scholar compared Ickes to the Egyptian pharaoh who oversaw construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.53

Crafting Social Security

The PWA and the WPA both provided jobs for able-bodied Americans. They did little, however, for the sick, the disabled, or the elderly—those whom one sympathetic House member called “America’s untouchables.”54 Few workers had pensions, and so most worked as long as they were able. Those considered unemployable because of age or health were forced to rely on their families or on local welfare agencies. To help these citizens, to ensure that the elderly did not take jobs away from younger compatriots, and to give all Americans the promise of future “security,” the president proposed a sweeping program of unemployment and old-age insurance. The Social Security Act, which FDR signed into law in August 1935, laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state, reshaping the lives and futures of Americans for generations to come. One Roosevelt biographer called it “the most important single piece of social legislation in all American history, if importance be measured in terms of … direct influence upon the lives of individual Americans.”55

Historians have argued that the Social Security Act in some ways marked a historic reversal of American political values. Politicians and political commentators had long celebrated individualism and self-help, and for most of the nation’s history, the federal government provided little in the way of pensions or insurance to citizens who were not veterans of war. By contrast, the Social Security Act created a national system of old-age insurance, while using federal tax incentives to encourage states to set up their own unemployment insurance plans. The act also provided federal matching funds to states for aid to dependent mothers and children, the blind and the physically disabled. The Social Security Act marked “a tremendous break with the inhibitions of the past,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote in 1958. “The federal government was at last charged with the obligation to provide its citizens a measure of protection from the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”56

If the Social Security Act was revolutionary in some respects, however, it was deeply conservative in others. New Dealers had hoped to include national health insurance in the bill, but dropped these plans in the face of intense opposition from doctors. Southern Democrats, who were key to FDR’s political coalition, worried that giving African Americans too much aid would prompt them to reject backbreaking work at low wages. As a result, the bill’s drafters excluded both domestic workers and agricultural laborers from old-age insurance. They also exempted both groups, plus employees of small firms, from unemployment compensation. The cost of these exclusions fell disproportionately on women and racial minorities. Administration of unemployment insurance was also left up to the states, a move that multiplied the possibilities for discriminatory treatment.

Judged by international standards, one of the most conservative aspects of the Social Security program was its funding mechanism. By the 1930s, most modern industrial nations offered some form of social insurance for the elderly that was funded out of general coffers.57 FDR, however, insisted that the federal pension plan work like private insurance: Workers would contribute to their old-age pension accounts through payroll taxes, and benefits would be tied to the amount that workers paid in. This regressive tax system prevented Social Security from redistributing income, leading to greater levels of income inequality among the U.S. elderly than among the aged in other industrialized nations. FDR, however, insisted that the decision to fund the program this way was political: “We put these payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits,” he declared. “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”58 In this assessment, Roosevelt proved prescient.

A New Deal for Labor

When Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis likened Section 7a—the section requiring management to engage in good-faith collective bargaining with workers—to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. For decades, American workers had been divided along skill, race, and ethnic lines, and government at all levels had generally sided with corporations rather than unions. The 1920s had been a particularly difficult decade for organized labor as unfavorable court rulings, cautious union leadership, corporate use of welfare capitalism and government attacks on those perceived as radical all eroded union ranks. Section 7a appeared to reverse the tide, and Lewis jumped to take advantage of the new legislation. Gambling much of the mineworkers’ treasury on a bold campaign, he sent organizers into the coalfields in the summer of 1933 with instructions to invoke the authority of the New Deal: “The President wants you to unionize,” organizers told miners, adding that not doing so was “unpatriotic.” Within months, the union’s membership quadrupled.59

It soon became clear, however, that Section 7a was not the labor cure-all for which Lewis had hoped. Employers in many industries continued to defy the new law or to evade its requirements by installing company unions that they controlled. The act contained few real enforcement mechanisms, and NRA head Hugh Johnson seemed disinclined to use those that existed. As workers grew increasingly frustrated, industry after industry erupted in strikes. In 1934, a walkout by textile workers stretched across twenty states. In Toledo, Ohio, striking employees of an auto-parts company battled National Guardsmen in the streets. Strikes by Minneapolis teamsters and San Francisco longshoremen touched off general strikes in both cities.

These strikes, in and of themselves, produced only limited gains for labor, but they signaled a new militancy—and unity—on the part of America’s workers. These changes in part reflected the economic strains of the Depression, but as Lizabeth Cohen has shown, they also reflected important shifts in the orientation of working-class Americans during the 1920s and 1930s. Restrictive legislation passed in the early 1920s curbed the flow of new immigrants into the United States, contributing to the maturation of ethnic communities. Mass consumption and mass culture gradually gave workers of different ethnic backgrounds common ground, creating a more unified working-class culture. Meanwhile, employers’ use of welfare capitalism during the 1920s raised workers’ expectations. The Depression destroyed two safety nets that workers had relied on: the wages and benefits once offered by employers, and the webs of assistance rooted in ethnic and religious institutions.60

The labor unrest of late 1933 and 1934 helped persuade FDR to throw his support very belatedly behind a new labor law crafted largely by New York Senator Robert Wagner. Roosevelt and his Labor Secretary Frances Perkins hoped to boost workers’ purchasing power through wage-and-hour legislation and laws affecting pensions and unemployment. They were less concerned about extending workers’ political power by guaranteeing their collective-bargaining rights.61 As a result, Roosevelt initially showed little interest in closing the loopholes that weakened Section 7a. In late May 1935, however, the Supreme Court nullified the National Industrial Recovery Act, thus limiting FDR’s options. With Congress poised to pass the new labor law in any case, the president finally declared it a high priority.

Passage of the National Labor Relations Act (more commonly known as the Wagner Act) in the summer of 1935 helped set the stage for an historic organizing drive. The economy had begun to recover, making companies more vulnerable to shutdowns. Liberal Democrats allied with the New Deal and sympathetic to labor won the governorships of such key industrial states as New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Lewis decided that the time was ripe to organize mass-production workers in industrial unions. In November 1935, he and a handful of allies formed what would become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).62 In the first four months of 1937, CIO unions “conquered the two most significant outposts of the open shop in mass-production industry”: General Motors and U.S. Steel. By the end of the year, organized labor had recruited some 3 million new members and unions represented almost 23 percent of the nonagricultural workforce, the largest proportion to that point in U.S. history.63

Such victories were short-lived. By late 1937, the CIO’s successes had sparked fierce attacks from corporate adversaries, Southern congressmen, craft unionists in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and some New Dealers.64 It would take World War II to again reinvigorate the labor movement. The Wagner Act did, however, help solidify labor support for the Democratic Party. Worker support, in turn, prompted New Dealers to push through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which banned child labor and set minimum wage and maximum hour laws. (Agricultural laborers and domestic workers were exempted from the act, just as they had been from Social Security.) “For generations to come,” one historian has written, “the FLSA would stand as the backbone of U.S. employment law.”65

The Legacies and Limits of the New Deal

Passage of the FLSA in June 1938 marked the end of New Deal reform. Roosevelt won a landslide reelection in 1936, but his second term proved rocky from the start. Some of the wounds were self-inflicted. Unhappy with Supreme Court decisions overturning key pieces of New Deal legislation, FDR proposed a bill allowing the president to appoint one new justice for every justice over the age of 70 who refused to retire; if passed, the bill would have enabled Roosevelt immediately to appoint six additional justices. This transparently political move drew wrath from New Deal opponents and criticism even from many of FDR’s allies. Before Congress could act, the swing justice switched sides and began voting to uphold New Deal laws. His shift, together with the retirement of another justice, ushered in a new, more liberal Supreme Court era, and effectively killed the Court reform bill. Nevertheless, the backlash associated with FDR’s “court-packing” scheme sapped much of the New Deal’s political momentum.66

The president’s political problems were soon compounded by an economic downturn that became known as the “Roosevelt Recession.” For most of FDR’s presidency, the economy had improved steadily, in part because of ample government spending. Roosevelt, however, had never abandoned his belief in a balanced budget, and in early 1937 he decided the time had come for federal belt tightening. He ordered dramatic cutbacks in both the WPA and the PWA, even as the first Social Security taxes pulled $2 billion out of the U.S. economy. All this sent the economy into a tailspin. Stock prices began falling in October 1937 and dropped nearly 50 percent in just seven months. Industrial production cratered, and some 4 million workers lost their jobs.67 Unemployment, which had fallen sharply throughout July 1937, moved upwards until the following June.68

FDR’s court-packing scheme, economic duress, and a wave of sit-down strikes by industrial unionists all weakened support for the New Deal in some quarters. In the latter half of 1937, a group of conservative Democrats, mostly Southerners, joined forces with Republicans to stymie any further New Deal legislation. The FLSA squeaked through, but in the 1938 midterm elections, Republicans made big gains in both houses. In 1939, Congress began scaling back or killing off federal projects, beginning with the WPA’s Federal Theater and Federal Art projects. By the end of 1943, Congress had eliminated the CCC, the WPA, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), and numerous other New Deal programs.69

So what did the New Deal do and whom did it benefit? New Deal policies did not restore the economy to pre-Depression levels—only World War II did that—but between 1933 and 1937, the nation’s real gross national product grew at an annual rate of over 8 percent a year. Growth slowed during the Roosevelt Recession, but averaged over 10 percent a year between 1938 and 1941. As economist Christina Romer has written, these rates are “spectacular, even for an economy pulling out of a severe depression.”70 By strengthening the power of the federal government and extending federal regulation into entirely new areas of the economy, the New Deal helped to “devolatilize” American capitalism.71 It stabilized the farm economy after two decades of depression, and introduced programs like crop subsidies and soil conservation that became staples of federal farm policy for decades to come. New Deal work-relief programs like the CCC, the PWA, and the WPA relieved the misery of millions of Americans, while building a vast public infrastructure that permanently changed the American landscape. Over time, Social Security dramatically reduced the number of elderly poor.

America’s industrial workers helped to “make” the New Deal, and white male workers were among its prime beneficiaries. In earlier decades, many members of the working class—particularly those who were foreign born—had not bothered to vote, and their party loyalties were fickle. Many simply found national party politics irrelevant to their lives. By the end of the 1930s, all this had changed. Many workers had received federal relief checks and jobs. Even more benefited from federal bank deposit and unemployment insurance, long-term low-interest mortgages offered by the HOLC, a nationally set minimum wage, and the promise of Social Security benefits in old age. In return, millions of working-class voters became loyal Democrats, ensuring the dominance of the Democratic Party for decades to come.72

Not all Americans benefited equally from the New Deal, however. Women achieved important symbolic breakthroughs: FDR appointed the first female Cabinet member, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, as well as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Women also played an increasingly important role in the machinery of the Democratic Party. Overall, however, New Deal programs discriminated against women. Most New Dealers, including Perkins and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, saw men as heads of households, who were thus in greater need of work. As a result, federal work-relief programs employed women at a far lower rate than men. Of 1.6 million public-works jobs given out in 1934, only 11 percent went to women. Women held about 12 percent of WPA jobs, even though they made up at least 25 percent of the unemployed.73 New Deal programs generally assigned women to gender-specific jobs—for instance, sewing and canning projects—and paid them a fraction of the wages given to their male counterparts. (Professional women, particularly those employed in the WPA’s arts programs, fared somewhat better.)

If gender inequity was built into most New Deal programs, so too was racial inequality. White Southern Democrats played a key role in the New Deal coalition, and “Dixiecrat” politicians exercised inordinate power in both the House and the Senate.74 As a result, FDR and his advisors went to great lengths to appease them. The CCC established segregated camps for African Americans, often far from population centers. NRA wage codes generally prescribed lower wages for blacks than for whites, while work-relief programs like the WPA often relegated African Americans to the lowest-paying jobs. Federal efforts to promote “grassroots democracy” gave control of the AAA and other New Deal programs to local authorities, who administered them in accordance with local (often racist) mores. Afraid of alienating his southern supporters, FDR refused to support antilynching legislation or a ban on the poll tax.

The New Deal’s social insurance and labor protection programs also discriminated against women and racial minorities. The Social Security Act exempted domestics and agricultural laborers, as well as individuals who worked intermittently and were employed in fields like education and nursing that were heavily female. As a result, more than three-quarters of all female wage earners and at least 65 percent of African Americans were initially denied coverage.75 These rules—together with similar exclusions in the FLSA—also hurt many other racial minorities, as well as poor, rural whites. The Wagner Act helped workers in organized industries like steel, rubber, and automobiles, which were heavily dominated by white men. It did little for agricultural laborers, those in the largely unorganized service sector, or most workers in the South—in other words, for most employed white women and racial minorities.

Despite such rampant inequities, the New Deal did more for African Americans than had any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. As a result, African Americans switched parties en masse, setting the stage for a broader party realignment in the 1960s and beyond. African American voters put civil rights on the Democratic Party’s agenda after World War II, ultimately leading to a widespread defection by white Southerners. The New Deal drew millions of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe into national politics for the first time, but many of these working-class ethnics eventually became “Reagan Republicans.” The industrial labor movement proved to be what Robert Zieger has called a “fragile juggernaut”: Unions gained members and contract rights through the 1950s, but the CIO’s militancy was quickly curbed and union membership as a percentage of the American workforce fell sharply beginning in the 1970s.76

While many New Deal programs and institutions were killed off, others—federal deposit insurance, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, among them—continue to the present day. Social Security gradually expanded to include domestic workers, agricultural laborers, and other excluded groups, making it more nearly universal. All this has left scholars, politicians, and pundits arguing over how to understand the New Deal’s legacy for the 20th century and beyond.

Discussion of the Literature

Few eras in modern American history have been the subject of more sustained scholarship or intense debate among both academics and popular commentators than the New Deal. Most agree that the policies of the Roosevelt administration brought new groups into the political process, laid the foundation for the welfare state, and greatly expanded both the power of the presidency and the reach of the federal government. Beyond this, however, historical judgments have differed markedly. For years, most scholars lauded President Roosevelt and cast the New Deal as a watershed in American history, albeit one consistent with American values and the nation’s reform tradition. Critics on the right and left, however, portrayed Roosevelt as a political opportunist who used the New Deal either to subvert or to preserve the nation’s capitalist system. In recent years, most scholars have acknowledged the New Deal’s achievements, but also stressed its limitations. Many have also deemphasized the role played by Roosevelt, and some have questioned the New Deal’s long-term impact.

Most New Deal scholarship has revolved around a handful of questions: How radical or conservative were Roosevelt’s domestic policies? What or whom did they benefit? When and why did the political “order” created by the New Deal come to an end? And what has been the New Deal’s lasting legacy for American politics, society, and culture? How historians and political scientists have answered these questions has depended on their ideological outlooks, the temper of their times, and their assessment of the possibilities and limits of American political culture. Since the New Deal itself was not always ideologically coherent and it evolved over time, historical assessments have also depended on the aspects of the New Deal that scholars have chosen to emphasize.

The first scholars to offer sustained accounts of the New Deal were those who came of age during the Great Depression. Most were liberals whose political outlooks were shaped by their own experiences during the 1930s and 1940s and by the politics of the Cold War and of McCarthyism that followed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Frank Freidel, Eric Goldman, and others focused on the commanding figure of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, celebrating the dramatic transformation that he and his New Dealers wrought in both American policies and political culture.77 These liberals portrayed the New Deal as a moment of democratic renewal, when the federal government intervened in the nation’s political economy to protect the marginal and exploited from powerful and privileged “interests.” Richard Hofstadter considered the New Deal to be “a drastic new departure.”78 Carl Degler went even further, calling it the “Third American Revolution,” after the War of Independence and the Civil War.79

Even as these liberal historians emphasized the revolutionary nature of the New Deal, most also rooted it in a tradition of American reform. This was partly to blunt the attack of a handful of conservative commentators and scholars who argued that Roosevelt had weakened “the Constitutional system” and hurt the economy by exercising dictatorial powers on behalf of “Socialistic” and un-American objectives.80 Such arguments originated with contemporary critics of the New Deal like Raymond Moley, a member of FDR’s “Brain Trust” who eventually broke with the president and became a conservative Republican.81 For decades, conservative critics of the New Deal were few and far between, but in recent years a new group of right-wing journalists and think-tank scholars have resurrected such arguments.82

By the late 1960s, the classic “liberal” interpretation of the New Deal was also drawing fire from critics in the “New Left.” Scholars like Barton Bernstein, Paul Conkin, and Howard Zinn argued that the New Deal had not transformed corporate capitalism so much as “conserved and protected” it. Bernstein summarized this viewpoint in a widely read essay subtitled “The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform.” He acknowledged that New Deal policies had helped some downtrodden Americans, but argued that Roosevelt and his advisors had spurned more substantive change. They did not question private enterprise or nationalize the banking system. They did not undertake massive public housing construction or use the tax system to fundamentally redistribute income or wealth. They failed to challenge both the southern “race system” and the power of the business class. By co-opting and incorporating the discontented, Bernstein and his allies charged, FDR and his New Dealers had blunted the possibility of more revolutionary change.83

Reassessing the New Deal in the Face of Conservative Resurgence

Both classic liberals and New Leftists wrote during the decades of Democratic Party dominance; thus, they assumed that “the political era ushered in by the New Deal would go on forever.”84 By the 1970s, however, that assumption seemed increasingly untenable. Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency in 1968 signaled the fraying of the New Deal coalition. In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept to victory on the Republican ticket, bringing a Republican House and Senate with him. Reagan’s victory ushered in a period of conservative resurgence, which prompted scholars to conclude that the “New Deal order” had come to an end.85 This realization helped catalyze a shift in both the dominant tone of New Deal scholarship and in the questions asked by historians. Most scholars writing in recent decades have followed the lead of William Leuchtenburg, who declared in a pioneering 1963 work that the New Deal was only a “half-way Revolution.”86 Historians have differed primarily on the relative weights they have assigned to the New Deal’s achievements and limitations, and on how they have explained the demise of the “New Deal order.”

No single book better exemplified this shift in tone and emphasis than the 1989 essay collection entitled The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order. As editors Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser wrote in their introduction, “The witnessing of a political era’s eclipse has imparted to many of these essays a sober and ironic tone, appropriate to political analyses that stress missed opportunities, unintended consequences, and dangerous but inescapable compromises.”87 Many of those who contributed to the volume developed their arguments further in subsequent books. Steve Fraser and Nelson Lichtenstein, for instance, both argued that labor leaders entered the Depression decade with dreams of institutionalizing industrial or social democracy. They gradually gave up on this public-policy vision, however, settling instead for more generous benefits and greater job security gleaned through contracts negotiated with management.88 In a similar vein, Alan Brinkley suggested that between 1937 and 1945, the dominant ideology among New Dealers shifted from an emphasis on regulation in the public interest to a faith in Keynesianism and economic growth as “the surest route to social progress.” The result, he declared, was “the end of reform.”89

While these historians focused broadly on issues of political economy, scholars of race and gender highlighted the limits of New Deal egalitarianism. Ira Katznelson and Mary Poole showed that many New Deal programs discriminated against African Americans, resulting in what Katznelson dubbed “affirmative action for whites.”90 The sociologist Cybelle Fox argued that European immigrants received more generous access to social welfare programs than did African Americans, and Mexican immigrants.91 Linda Gordon, Gwendolyn Mink, Suzanne Mettler, and Alice Kessler-Harris explored what Kessler-Harris called “the gendered limits of social citizenship.” They pointed out that many New Deal programs, including such landmark initiatives as Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act, treated men and women quite differently.92

Still other authors emphasized the contributions of the New Deal, even as they acknowledged its limitations. In his magisterial Freedom from Fear, David M. Kennedy argued that the New Deal not only provided relief and social insurance to many “vulnerable individuals,” but also “erected an institutional scaffolding designed to provide unprecedented stability and predictability” to large segments of the American economy. In doing so, he suggested, the New Deal helped to catalyze postwar prosperity, while giving “countless Americans” a new “sense of security, and with it a sense of having a stake in their country.”93 Ira Katznelson struck a note of both tragedy and triumph in his monumental 2013 book, Fear Itself. Elaborating on a theme he had explored in earlier works, Katznelson described the way that Southern Democrats in Congress built racial inequality into the very foundation of the New Deal. This “Faustian terrible compromise” on the domestic front was the price that FDR had to pay for what Katznelson saw as the New Deal’s most important achievement: its “demonstration that liberal democracy, a political system with a legislature at its heart, could govern effectively in the face of great danger.” At a time when the Depression was destabilizing societies around the globe—a time when fascists and communists were on the march—the New Deal reinvigorated democratic institutions and redefined the role of government, giving liberal democracy renewed and lasting “legitimacy and prestige” around the world.94

Katznelson measured the New Deal’s achievements against the successes of fascism and communism abroad. I have suggested that this same context helped to derail the drive for economic justice that animated industrial unionists and their New Deal allies during the 1930s. Alarmed by the chaos of the Depression years and convinced that internal disunity had undermined democracies abroad, Americans with divergent political outlooks and agendas increasingly emphasized Americans’ common ground. Against the backdrop of war and Cold War, businessmen alarmed by what they saw as the New Deal’s class-based resentments sometimes made common cause with liberals eager to contain religious and ethnic hostilities. In an effort to succor social harmony, both groups sought to define a unifying and distinctive “American Way.” They helped to shape a consensus ethos that privileged civility over equality, delegitimized many forms of dissent, and constrained American politics into the 1960s.95

Most of the authors discussed to this point either imply or explicitly argue that the ultimate demise of the “New Deal order” resulted from flaws in the New Deal’s architecture or from fractures in the Democratic coalition. To paraphrase James T. Kloppenberg, they would say that the New Deal order was not pushed, but rather jumped.96 Recently, however, several historians have focused on those who sought to speed the New Deal order on its way. Kim Phillips-Fein has shown how right-wing businessmen waged continuous and often covert war on New Deal legislation and values from the 1930s through the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in 1980. By funding think tanks and foundations—and recruiting politicians, intellectuals, ministers, and others to their cause—these men worked “to undo the system of labor unions, federal social welfare programs, and government regulation of the economy that came into existence during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s.”97 In One Nation Under God, Kevin M. Kruse elaborates on the coalition of conservative businessmen and religious leaders who united to oppose the New Deal and who helped to transform both American religious and political culture.98

The books of both Phillips-Fein and Kruse reflect a shift in the focus of political history since the turn of the 21st century—a renewed interest in the type of conservatives that the first New Deal historians would have considered “fringe.” Both books call into question the power and legacy of postwar liberalism. Recently, Jefferson Cowie has gone even further, questioning the assumption made by most prior historians that the New Deal marked a turning point in American political culture, even if only a “halfway Revolution.” The New Deal was a “triumph of redistributive policy,” Cowie affirms, at least for “the white, male industrial working class.” Its reform of capitalism, however, could not last. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, a rare convergence of historical circumstances—“changes in the state, immigration, culture and race”—briefly enabled “a limited but powerful sense of working-class unity” that triumphed over America’s long-standing ideology of individualism. When those historical factors subsided, however, the nation’s commitment to overcoming economic inequality frayed. The New Deal order, Cowie argues, “marks what might be called a ‘great exception’—a sustained deviation, an extended detour—from some of the main contours of American political practice, economic structure, and cultural outlook.”99

Primary Sources

Few eras in American history have been as well documented in words and film as the 1930s. Thus the New Deal offers scholars and students a wealth of available published and online primary sources. A number of books capture the human toll taken by the Depression, as well as the response of diverse Americans to the policies proposed by their leaders. In 1933, Harry Hopkins, who headed first the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and then the Works Progress Administration, dispatched the journalist Lorena Hickok to gather information about the day-to-day toll that the Depression was exacting on ordinary citizens. Over the course of two years, Hickok traversed 32 states. The reports she sent back are compiled by Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley in One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression.100 Robert S. McElvaine’s Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man collects nearly 200 letters written by ordinary men, women, and children to those who occupied or worked in the White House during the Great Depression. The letters show the personal connection many Americans felt with FDR, and they display a wide range of emotions toward both the economic cataclysm and government relief.101 Between 1938 and 1942, the Federal Writers Project sent writers across the country to interview individuals of diverse backgrounds, occupations, and circumstances. In First Person America, Ann Banks offers eighty of these life stories, including those of a Polish immigrant, a Chicago jazzman, a retired Oregon prospector, a North Carolina tobacco farmer, and a Bahamian midwife living in Florida.102 Decades after the Depression, the journalist Studs Terkel interviewed dozens of Americans who lived through the 1930s. He recorded their words in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.103

New Dealers had a sense that they were living through and shaping history, and many produced memoirs recording their experiences. One of the first to appear was Harry Hopkins’s Spending to Save.104 Raymond Moley, an original member of FDR’s Brain Trust who eventually became one of the New Deal’s harshest critics, published After Seven Years.105 The many other accounts by New Dealers include these by the only two members of Roosevelt’s Cabinet who served throughout his entire presidency: Frances Perkins’s The Roosevelt I Knew and Harold L. Ickes’s The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes106

Many archives have made extensive collections of New Deal materials available online and can be found in “Links to Digital Materials.” The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has digitized major collections of FDR’s papers, selected correspondence of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; the complete diaries of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.; and other New Deal documents deemed particularly significant. The Library also provides links to videos of FDR and to online versions of two documentary films produced by the government and designed to build support for New Deal programs: Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River. The Library of Congress has also digitized numerous collections relating to the New Deal, including photographs taken by Farm Security Administration photographers; life histories collected by members of the Federal Writers Project; ethnographic materials documenting the lives of migrants living in California work camps run by the FSA; images, posters, and scripts produced by the Federal Theatre Project; and posters designed by graphic artists working for the WPA.

Links to Digital Materials

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum—This link offers access to the digitized collections of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

The American Presidency Project—This searchable document archive contains the addresses, proclamations, news conferences, executive orders, and fireside chats of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as those of the presidents who preceded and followed him.

The Living New Deal—The Living New Deal, developed in part by the Department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley, is a national database of thousands of documents, photographs, and personal stories about public works made possible by the New Deal. The site contains a map, continually under construction, indicating thousands of projects undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, and other New Deal agencies. Projects are searchable by location, New Deal agency, category and artist.

The Library of Congress hosts numerous collections of primary sources related to the New Deal, including:

The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935–1939—This collection contains more than 13,000 images of stage and costume designs, still photographs, posters, scripts for productions, and other materials from the Federal Theatre Project.

Works Progress Administration Posters—This collection consists of 907 digitized posters created from 1936 to 1943 by various branches of the WPA. The posters were designed to publicize health and safety programs, art exhibitions, theatrical and musical performances, travel and tourism, and educational programs in seventeen states and the District of Columbia. The states most frequently represented in the collection are California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Documenting America, 1935–1943: The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photo Collection—This site contains two videos introducing users to the vast collection of images taken by photographers for the FSA (and later the Office of War Information). Many of these pictures—taken by such photographers as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Gordon Parks—are some of the most iconic images of the Depression Era. The Website also includes links to collections of these photographs digitized by the Library of Congress and to other relevant materials.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1940—This collection of life histories consists of about 2,900 documents compiled by some three hundred employees of the Federal Writers’ Project working in twenty-four states. The documents include narratives, dialogues, reports, and case histories. Those interviewed recounted immigrating, undertaking grueling factory work, farming tobacco, and journeying west, among other things. The documents also include tales of meeting Billy the Kid and surviving the 1871 Chicago fire.

Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941—This Website presents materials from an ethnographic field collection documenting the everyday life of residents of ten Farm Security Administration migrant work camps in central California in 1940 and 1941. Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin documented dance tunes, cowboy songs, traditional ballads, play party and square dance calls, camp council meetings, camp court proceedings, conversations, storytelling sessions, and personal experience narratives of the Dust Bowl refugees who inhabited the camps. The digitized collection includes audio recordings, graphic images, and print materials.

Further Reading

  • Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–40. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.
  • Bernstein, Barton J. “The New Deal: The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform.” In Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History. Edited by Barton J. Bernstein, 263–288. New York: Pantheon Books, 1968.
  • Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Knopf, 1995.
  • Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Cowie, Jefferson, and Nick Salvatore. “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History.” International Labor and Working-Class History 74 (Fall 2008): 3–32.
  • Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture. New York: Verso, 1997.
  • Fraser, Steve, and Gary Gerstle, eds. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • Hawley, Ellis W. The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly: A Study in Economic Ambivalence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
  • Jacobs, Meg. Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright, 2013.
  • Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Kessler-Harris, Alice. “In the Nation’s Image: The Gendered Limits of Social Citizenship in the Depression Era.” Journal of American History 86 (December 1999): 1251–1279.
  • Leff, Mark. The Limits of Symbolic Reform: The New Deal and Taxation, 1933–1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
  • Maher, Neil M. Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Mettler, Suzanne. Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Patel, Kiran Klaus. The New Deal: A Global History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Phillips, Sarah T. This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Phillips-Fein, Kim. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.
  • Poole, Mary. The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Roosevelt. 3 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957–1960.
  • Wall, Wendy. Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


  • 1. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago,” July 2, 1932; available online at The American Presidency Project, hosted by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters.

  • 2. William H. Chafe, ed., The Achievement of American Liberalism: The New Deal and Its Legacies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), xiii.

  • 3. Robert Westbrook, “Tragic Deal,” Reviews in American History 43 (March 2015): 1.

  • 4. David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 87, 133, 162–163. For the global causes and reach of the Great Depression, see Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 85–108 and Kiran Klaus Patel, The New Deal: A Global History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 10–44.

  • 5. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Address at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia,” May 22, 1932; available online at The American Presidency Project.

  • 6. Roosevelt famously articulated this “3R” formula in his fireside chat of June 28, 1934, available online at The American Presidency Project.

  • 7. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 363.

  • 8. Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin, The GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Altschuler and Blumin argue, for instance, that the GI Bill’s provision extending low-interest home loans to veterans was built on New Deal policies that restructured the home mortgage market.

  • 9. Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright, 2013), 4–5.

  • 10. Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 7–8.

  • 11. Patel, The New Deal, 274.

  • 12. Sarah T. Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 18, 242–283.

  • 13. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, “Introduction,” in Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), ix–xxv, xi.

  • 14. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, which took effect in 1937, moved the presidential inauguration to January 20 of the year following the election.

  • 15. For brief summaries of this ongoing debate from different perspectives, see William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 162–163; Morton Keller, “The New Deal: A New Look,” Polity 31.4 (1999): 657–663; Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 248, n 54.

  • 16. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 365.

  • 17. Ibid., 132–133.

  • 18. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Coming of the New Deal, vol. 2 in The Age of Roosevelt (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958), 5.

  • 19. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Fireside Chat on Banking,” March 12, 1933. Available online at The American Presidency Project.

  • 20. Raymond Moley, After Seven Years (New York: Harper, 1939), 155.

  • 21. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 60; Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, From New Deal Banking Reform to World War II Inflation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 21.

  • 22. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 50–51; Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression and The New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 60–63.

  • 23. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 163–164.

  • 24. The best account of the CCC to date is Neil M. Maher’s Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 25. James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the 20th Century, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 56–58.

  • 26. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Annual Message to Congress,” January 4, 1935. Available online at The American Presidency Project.

  • 27. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 253–255.

  • 28. Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–40 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 212.

  • 29. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 253–254.

  • 30. Harry L. Hopkins, Spending to Save: The Complete Story of Relief (New York: W. W. Norton, 1936), 114.

  • 31. During World War I, crop production fell in many of the warring European powers. U.S. farmers dramatically expanded production to meet this demand, often borrowing to buy more land and equipment. When the war ended and the demand for exported crops declined, farm production outran demand, pushing prices down.

  • 32. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 141.

  • 33. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 23; “Milk Is Dumped in Rochester War,” New York Times, March 30, 1933. John Steinbeck famously decried the burning of oranges and other crops when migrant families went hungry, see the reissue edition of The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006), 348–349.

  • 34. Senate seats are allocated on a state-by-state basis, a method that overrepresents rural areas. Moreover, as Eric Rauchway has noted, Congress failed to adopt a redistricting scheme after the 1920 Census, the first census to show a majority of Americans living in urban areas. Rauchway, The Great Depression and the New Deal, 74–75.

  • 35. Janet Poppendieck, Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression, updated and expanded ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 112.

  • 36. Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley, eds., One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 54, 106.

  • 37. Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal, 65–66.

  • 38. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 52.

  • 39. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 207.

  • 40. Jess Gilbert, “Agrarian Intellectuals in an Industrializing State,” in The Countryside in the Age of the Modern State: Political Histories of Rural America, edited by Catherine McNicol Stock and Robert D. Johnston, 213–239, 231 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

  • 41. Badger, The New Deal, 184.

  • 42. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 140.

  • 43. John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 357.

  • 44. Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 13.

  • 45. Sarah Philips, This Land, This Nation.

  • 46. For an exploration of these issues focused on the South, see Bruce J. Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development and the Transformation of the South, 1938–1980 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

  • 47. Badger, The New Deal, 175–176.

  • 48. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 157–158.

  • 49. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 150–151.

  • 50. Moley, After Seven Years, 190.

  • 51. Badger, The New Deal, 73.

  • 52. Ibid., 90.

  • 53. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 133.

  • 54. Ibid., 131.

  • 55. Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933–1937 (New York: Random House, 1986), 437.

  • 56. Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal, 315.

  • 57. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 260.

  • 58. Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal, 308–309.

  • 59. Ibid., 138–140.

  • 60. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

  • 61. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 297.

  • 62. Lewis initially founded the Committee for Industrial Organizations within the much older American Federation of Labor. Within a year, however, ideological differences split the two groups and the CIO unions soon formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The two labor federations remained bitter rivals until the 1950s. They finally merged in 1955 as the AFL-CIO.

  • 63. Melvyn Dubofsky, The State and Labor in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 137.

  • 64. Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 34.

  • 65. Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 109.

  • 66. Leuchtenburg, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, 231–239.

  • 67. Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Knopf, 1995), 19, 28–29.

  • 68. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics collected some data on employment in the 1930s, the federal government did not track the unemployment rate as it does today. As a result, scholars have had to reconstruct unemployment rates retrospectively, a process that has been the subject of both methodological and political debate. For a brief introduction to the issues involved, see Eric Rauchway, “New Deal Denialism,” Dissent (Winter 2010): 68–72.

  • 69. Brinkley, The End of Reform, 141.

  • 70. Christina D. Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?” Journal of Economic History 52 (December 1992): 757.

  • 71. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 372.

  • 72. Cohen, Making a New Deal, 252–289.

  • 73. Linda Gordon, “The New Deal Was a Good Idea, We Should Try It This Time,” Dissent (Fall 2009): 33.

  • 74. Because the white South had been “solidly” Democratic since the Civil War and most blacks were disenfranchised, the region’s Democratic politicians had little competition. As a result, they achieved a seniority that gave them powerful control over many House and Senate committees. Ira Katznelson explores the racial repercussions of this Southern committee control on New Deal policy at length in When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in 20th-Century America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), and in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

  • 75. Alice Kessler-Harris, “In the Nation’s Image: The Gendered Limits of Social Citizenship in the Depression Era,” Journal of American History 86 (December 1999): 1262; Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White, 43.

  • 76. Robert H. Zieger, The CIO, 1935–1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 1.

  • 77. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957–1960); Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952–1973); Eric Frederick Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform (New York: Knopf, 1952).

  • 78. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR (New York: Knopf, 1955), 303.

  • 79. Carl Degler, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America (New York: Harper, 1959), 379.

  • 80. Edgar E. Robinson, The Roosevelt Leadership, 1933–1945 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955), 14, 263, 374, 404. See also John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth (New York: Devin Adair, 1948).

  • 81. Moley, After Seven Years.

  • 82. The best recent example is journalist Amity Shlaes’s bestseller, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: HarperCollins, 2007). Shlaes argues that the policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt prolonged the Depression and that even World War II did not lead to economic recovery. Whereas most historians use the nation’s gross domestic product as a measure of the economy, Shlaes bases her case on the lackluster performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. For a powerful critique of Shlaes’s argument, see Eric Rauchway, “New Deal Denialism,” 68–72.

  • 83. Barton J. Bernstein, “The New Deal: The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform,” in Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, edited by Barton J. Bernstein, 263–288 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968),. See also Howard Zinn, ed., New Deal Thought (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), and Paul K. Conkin, The New Deal (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968).

  • 84. Fraser and Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, ix.

  • 85. Ibid.

  • 86. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 347.

  • 87. Fraser and Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, ix–x.

  • 88. While they agreed on much, Fraser and Lichtenstein differed on whether the 1930s or the 1940s were the key conservatizing decade. In addition to Fraser and Lichtenstein’s contributions to The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, see Steve Fraser, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (New York: Free Press, 1991); Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

  • 89. Alan Brinkley, “The New Deal and the Idea of the State,” in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order: 1930–1980, edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, 85–121 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989). See also Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War.

  • 90. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White; Mary Poole, The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

  • 91. Cybelle Fox, Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

  • 92. Alice Kessler-Harris, “In the Nation’s Image: The Gendered Limits of Social Citizenship in the Depression Era” ; Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890–1935 (New York: Free Press, 1994); Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917–1942 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Suzanne Mettler, Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

  • 93. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 365, 376, 379.

  • 94. Katznelson, Fear Itself, 486, 6–7.

  • 95. Wendy L. Wall, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 96. James T. Kloppenberg, “Who’s Afraid of the Welfare State,” Reviews in American History 18 (1990): 398.

  • 97. Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), xi–xii.

  • 98. Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

  • 99. Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 15, 24–25, 9. This book expands on an argument that Cowie and Nick Salvatore first made in “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 74 (Fall 2008): 3–32.

  • 100. Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley, eds., One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).

  • 101. Robert S. McElvaine, Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, 25th anniversary ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

  • 102. Ann Banks, First Person America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

  • 103. Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: The New Press, 2005).

  • 104. Harry Hopkins, Spending to Save (New York: Norton, 1936).

  • 105. Raymond Moley, After Seven Years (New York: Harper, 1939).

  • 106. Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (New York: Viking, 1946); and Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, 2 vols. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953–1954).