Learning Content: Federal Involvement in the General Welfare

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” —John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961


Promoting the General Welfare

Comparison: How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time?

Principle: Federalism

The twentieth century experienced a remarkable expansion of federal power. Views on the scope of constitutional federal government’s legitimate Constitutional power constantly shifted and debate over the power of the federal government to regulate the everyday affairs of the people intensified, particularly throughout the second half of the century.

In this module you will compare views on the federal role in ensuring the general welfare. From the Progressives through Ronald Reagan, you will review the content and materials with an eye to comparison as well as the constitutional principle of federalism.

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Building Context: 1898-1940

Comparison: How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time?

Principle: Federalism

Adapted from writings by Melvyn Dubofsky, Binghamton University; Michael Parrish, UC San Diego; and Anthony Badger, Cambridge University


By 1898, the United States had become the world’s leading industrial nation and a significant player in world affairs. It was also a nation wracked by conflicts arising from rapid industrialization, mass immigration, urbanization, and the burden of maintaining an overseas empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Industrialization led to mixed results. Increasing life expectancy, real wages, and economic growth benefitted workers, though many workers also toiled long hours in factories in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Industrialization also brought millions of new immigrants from Eastern Europe who sought greater opportunity and filled industry’s insatiable demand for labor. The flood of tens of millions of immigrants created rapidly growing cities and stretched the ability of government and civil society to provide adequate housing and services.

Vast economic, demographic, and social changes led to increased calls for political reforms at all levels, especially the national government. Reformers called Progressives wanted to use the regulatory powers of the national government to bring order and efficiency to what they saw as a chaotic society. They thought educated elites in government agencies and other institutions should manage society scientifically in what they believed to be the public interest.

Progressive Reform at the State and Local Levels

Nearly all sectors of society participated in the waves of reform that swept across the nation between 1898 and 1919. Businesses large and small aimed to tame cutthroat competition that decreased prices and profits, through either voluntary industrial associations or government regulation, though they did not always welcome government intervention. Smaller businesses sought to use government to limit the power of concentrated corporate enterprise. Liberal Protestant ministers promoted the Social Gospel, which held the promise of earthly salvation for those who worked to diminish poverty and social misery. University graduates tried to use knowledge, especially the social sciences, to reform society with efforts to alleviate poverty, overcrowding, and political corruption. Newly credentialled academics offered their knowledge as experts to serve politicians and state governments. Working people built trade unions to bargain with employers, allied themselves with political parties to enact legislative reforms, and, most radically (though in smaller numbers), joined the Socialist Party (of America). Progressivism was a divided movement whose members often acted at cross-purposes and for diverse, conflicting ends. The progressives generally sought to put their expert knowledge to use for the government to achieve their vision of a more ordered and efficient society.

Reform germinated at the state and local levels. The Constitution allowed the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, foreign trade, immigration, and foreign relations and left the regulation of health, safety, and welfare to the states. The states and local municipalities had police powers to regulate working conditions, including hours, safety, and sanitation, and to ensure that corporations did not abuse their power. City officials and reformers faced rapid population growth, demand for housing that outpaced supply, substandard housing, and inadequate sanitation that spread disease among poorer, working-class families. (See The Progressive Movement DBQ Lesson.)

This label, issued by the National Consumers’ League, showed consumers the products they were buying had been made “under clean and healthful conditions.”

Reformers faced the problems of rapid urban growth. The Atlantic Ocean acted as a highway on which people and ideas flowed in both directions. Americans went to Europe to study in universities and brought home European ideas about the welfare state. Florence Kelley, a leading progressive reformer from Philadelphia, had studied in Switzerland, where she adopted European socialist ideas. She returned to the United States and fought for the regulation of working conditions for women and children. Kelley subsequently led the National Consumers’ League, an organization overwhelmingly female in leadership and membership, which used the buying power of consumers to improve working conditions. The League issued white labels for employers to attach to their products certifying that they were made under sanitary working conditions.

Progressives (a) Florence Kelly, shown in 1925, and (b) Lillian Wald (left) and Jane Addams (right), shown in 1916, worked to improve the lives of the urban poor.

Equally notable were Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, who founded settlement houses modeled on those in England. In Chicago, Addams turned an abandoned residence into Hull House, a refuge for the neighborhood’s new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. There, immigrant children learned English and civics, and their parents, especially their mothers, also found a haven. Addams became the city’s leading social reformer. In Manhattan’s densely populated Lower East Side, the most congested neighborhood in the nation, Wald used the Henry Street Settlement House to create a visiting nurse service providing health assistance to tenement dwellers who suffered from tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. The settlement houses also provided childcare, neighborhood playgrounds, social clubs, and artistic events.

The early twentieth century saw social science knowledge used to foster social reform as never before. The alliance between social scientists and reformers achieved the most widespread reforms in the state of Wisconsin. The so-called Wisconsin idea relied on knowledge provided by University of Wisconsin academics, whose students eventually staffed state administrative offices as experts and pioneered social reforms. Governor Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette led Wisconsin to establish workers’ compensation for injured laborers, experiment with unemployment insurance for idled workers, and develop the concept of economic security for elderly citizens.

The fatal Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, helped bring about the first factory inspection laws.

Nearly every northern and western state implemented some form of employers’ liability or workers’ compensation, regulated safety and hours for workers in dangerous trades, and limited the hours of labor for women and child workers. A tragic fire in a New York City garment factory in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, took the lives of 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women. The public response to the blaze brought legislation that established statewide standards for factory safety and sanitation and regulated the conditions under which women and children worked.

Federal and state courts approved the regulation of working conditions in dangerous trades, especially underground mining, and for children. Otherwise, judges ruled that employers and adult workers had a “liberty of contract” to set the terms of employment on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment. This interpretation received its fullest expression in the case of Lochner v. New York (1905), in which a Supreme Court majority declared a law limiting working hours for New York bakers to be an unconstitutional infringement of the right to liberty of contract. However, the Court did not consistently apply the Lochner rule; it sometimes sided with progressive arguments and accepted the use of social science in its decisions. In 1908, for example, the Supreme Court declared constitutional an Oregon law that regulated the hours of adult women workers. The court based its ruling on the “Brandeis brief” (named after Louis Brandeis, the famous attorney, progressive reformer, and, later, associate justice of the Supreme Court), which used sociological and medical evidence of dangerous working conditions and the harmful effects of long hours to argue for regulating the working conditions of women workers.

Progressivism and National Politics

No figure better exemplified Progressivism on the national level than Theodore Roosevelt. Born to old wealth in New York and the beneficiary of an elite education, Roosevelt was an historian, a naturalist, a big-game hunter, and an advocate of the “strenuous life.” Unlike most men from his social circle, he chose a career in politics. As a Republican, he practiced a progressive model of government that favored civic order and social stability. He detested Populist “demagogues,” radical labor leaders, and socialists. He believed the best way to curb radicalism and class conflict was through economic and social reforms. In less than two decades, he rose from a member of the New York State Legislature, to assistant secretary of the Navy in William McKinley’s first term, to a “hero” of the Spanish-American War, to governor of New York, to McKinley’s vice president, to president after McKinley’s assassination.

Theodore Roosevelt, pictured here in 1904, was the first of three Progressive U.S. presidents. His administration facilitated powerful political and social change.

As president, Roosevelt pursued progressive policies. He treated the presidency as a “bully pulpit” from which he could sermonize against the “malefactors of wealth” and the advocates of revolution. Only the president, he believed, had the power to deal effectively with a complex national economy. Only national power centralized in the regulatory agencies of the executive branch could create social stability and, through expert decision-making, avert autocracy from above and revolution from below. Roosevelt claimed that it was “not only [the president’s] right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”

In his first term, Roosevelt consistently appealed to the public interest to justify expanding the regulatory power of federal executive agencies over the economy. He signed the Elkins Act (1904), which authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to outlaw railroad rebates, which were lower rates given to corporations but not to other shippers. Roosevelt authorized the Department of Commerce and its Bureau of Corporations to investigate and publicize the wrongs committed by corporate monopolists. He ordered the Department of Justice in 1902 to sue the Northern Securities Company, a corporate holding company that had eliminated transport competition in the Northwest by bringing the area’s dominant railroads under common management. In 1904, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that Northern Securities had practiced illegal restraint of competition in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. One wag commented that Roosevelt had slain a mosquito as if it were a lion. Yet Roosevelt won a reputation as a “trust buster.”

Roosevelt expanded executive power in other ways to deal with what he perceived as national crises. When, in 1902, anthracite coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania struck to demand union recognition, higher wages, and improved working conditions from the large coal combination that owned the mines, Roosevelt intervened. The mine owners’ leader, George F. Baer, refused to recognize or bargain with the union. Baer’s stubbornness and the miners’ refusal to return to work threatened residents of the Northeast with a winter home-heating crisis that imperiled Republican electoral prospects. Seeking to prove his concern for the welfare of workers, the public interest, and the Republican Party, Roosevelt compelled the mine owners and the union officials to meet with a presidentially appointed commission under threat of government seizure of the mines by 10,000 federal troops. His attorney general and members of Congress raised constitutional objections to the president’s getting involved in the strike, because it was a private matter. Roosevelt admitted he had “no legal or constitutional right in the matter” but proceeded because he thought the national interest trumped constitutional authority. A presidential commission awarded the miners an increase in wages, improved working conditions, and an impartial federal commission that would resolve their grievances.

Elected to the presidency by a substantial popular and electoral college majority in 1904, Roosevelt claimed and exercised even greater presidential powers. He pressured Congress to grant the ICC power to regulate the railroad shipping rates of private companies in the Hepburn Act of 1906. Committed to the conservation of natural and human resources, Roosevelt urged Congress to protect the health of citizens and preserve the environment. He won legislation that regulated the slaughtering of meat and the production of food and drugs. In 1906, Congress passed a Meat Inspection Act and a Pure Food and Drug Act. Roosevelt also used executive power to protect national forests by requiring timber companies to adopt scientific forestry methods. Finally, he created a national park system, designated national monuments as areas closed to future private development, and shut enormous tracts of federal land to mining, lumbering, and other forms of private development.

This painting from the 1970s shows Theodore Roosevelt giving one of his enthusiastic speeches in 1904.

Roosevelt worshipped power and order. With power he would impose order. In his ideal society, organized business, organized agriculture, and organized labor countervailed each other’s power, while the federal government acted as an impartial arbiter to promote the general welfare. The role of government was changing in the early twentieth century, as was the role of the president, which was becoming that of the “steward of the public welfare.”

The Presidency of William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s chosen successor, became president in 1909. Taft’s greatest ambition, however, was to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a goal he achieved in the 1920s. Always more conservative than Roosevelt, Taft sided with old-guard, establishment Republicans, who controlled congressional committees precisely when a bloc of “progressive” Republicans in Congress were demanding more radical reforms to regulate Wall Street (i.e., financial markets) and concentrated corporate power. As insurgent Republicans allied with Southern Democrats, who desired lower tariffs and firmer regulation of the financial sector, Taft was damaged politically when the 1909 Payne-Aldrich Tariff did not significantly lower rates.

This political cartoon shows an “unemployed workingman” writing graffiti on a fence. The acrostic “TAFT” represents the candidate’s reputation during the election of 1908 for supporting big business and trusts a characterization his presidency showed to be undeserved.

Still, Taft’s administration was characterized by progressive reforms. More fully committed to the letter of the law than Roosevelt, Taft acted as the real “trust buster.” He prosecuted twice as many trusts as Roosevelt had, ordering the Justice Department to sue Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, and other corporations for alleged violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Taft’s actions stirred resentment among Republicans supporting the financial sector and corporate interests, and in Roosevelt, who had distinguished between “good” corporations and their “evil” counterparts. In addition, Congress passed the Mann-Elkins Act (1910), which expanded the ICC’s authority to regulate railroad rates and telecommunications. The Republican Party ended up split between conservatives on one side and the progressive insurgency on the other.

The New Freedom vs. the New Nationalism

The election of 1912 created a political earthquake. Former president Roosevelt fought to regain leadership of the Republican Party, challenging Taft for the presidential nomination and campaigning on behalf of a “New Nationalism.” This platform was heavily influenced by intellectual, progressive Herbert Croly’s book The Promise of American Life, which supported centralization. Roosevelt demanded a more active federal government that would rapidly increase federal executive power to regulate the economy and society in the national interest. As a progressive, he believed he needed to strengthen federal power to protect the people against moneyed interests. He promoted policy ideas borrowed from the creation of the welfare states in Germany and Great Britain that sought stricter regulation of working conditions, health benefits, protection against unemployment, and security in old age. And he suggested that if the federal (or state) judiciary hampered the creation of a modern administrative state based on the Constitution, he would reform the courts.

Taft and the Republican old guard controlled the 1912 party convention. They relied on Southern state delegates and conservative delegates, who together formed a majority for Taft’s nomination. Roosevelt delegates declared the nomination stolen, walked out of the convention singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and invited Roosevelt to accept nomination as a third-party candidate. Evoking an evangelical fervor for the progressive vision, Roosevelt declared, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” Declaring himself fit as a bull moose, Roosevelt agreed to run as the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party’s candidate for the presidency.

Woodrow Wilson the Democratic candidate in the 1912 Presidential election became the nominee after a tumultuous Democratic Convention and was regarded as a moderate reformer.

With the Republican party split, the Democrats had an opportunity to return to power. They chose as their candidate Thomas Woodrow Wilson, a son of the South, the author of books about history and government, a former college professor and president of Princeton University, and a successful reformist governor of New Jersey. Wilson answered Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” with a “New Freedom” that featured increased competition (by preventing business from becoming concentrated), a less intrusive federal government, Protestant morality (Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister), and control of Wall Street. However, Wilson envisioned a stronger regulatory state. As he wrote in New Freedom, “Without the watchful interference, the resolute interference, of the government, there can be no fair play between individuals and such powerful institutions as the trusts. Freedom to-day is something more than being let alone. The program of a government of freedom must in these days be positive, not negative merely.” Accordingly, his platform demanded stricter regulation of corporations, more decentralized banking, and reduced tariffs. His electoral base was strong in the Democratic South. Wilson was a Protestant moralist influenced by the Social Gospel who could compete for votes among evangelicals in the north and west and from labor union workers in the urban North, and as a candidate competitive with Roosevelt among professionals and the highly educated.

In the election, nearly three-fourths of all voters chose a reform candidate. Wilson won the presidency with just over 40 percent of the popular vote but an enormous electoral college majority, owing to the split in the Republican vote. Roosevelt won more votes than Taft but trailed in the electoral college in all but six states. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist party candidate, secured almost 6 percent of the vote.

The split in the Republican vote between the incumbent William Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt led to an overwhelming electoral victory for Woodrow Wilson securing him the presidency in 1912. (credit: “Election of 1912” by Bill of Rights Institute/Flickr CC BY 4.0)

Wilson and the Democrats quickly enacted the reforms promised in the New Freedom platform, although his expansion of federal regulatory agencies was more like Roosevelt’s presidency. First came tariff reduction in a bill that included the first federal income tax since the Civil War. The Court had ruled in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loans & Trust (1895) that the income tax was unconstitutional and that enacting it required amending the Constitution. The tax, necessitated by a larger role for the federal government and a decrease in revenue from lower tariffs, was made constitutional by the 1913 ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment. Progressives wanted the new tax law to reduce income inequality by taxing the wealthy, and conservatives thought it pitted the classes against each other.

Next came financial reform, with passage of the Federal Reserve Act, intended to lessen Wall Street’s financial dominance by establishing 12 regional federal reserve banks that made credit available in the south and west. Soon after came the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which strengthened the regulatory power of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and benefited trade unions by declaring they were not trusts under the law. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), praised the Clayton Act as labor’s “Magna Carta.” In 1914, Congress created the Federal Trade Commission to regulate commerce and industry. It both regulated competition (the New Freedom) and enabled corporate concentration (the New Nationalism).

In this 1913 political cartoon President Wilson is “priming the economic pump” with tariff currency and antitrust laws.

As the election of 1916 approached, Wilson and the Democrats enacted additional reforms to win over progressives, because the Republicans had reunited. Other legislation made it easier for farmers to obtain loans and subsidized agricultural and vocational education. In 1916, Congress passed laws to curtail child labor and to provide railroad workers with an eight-hour day (the Adamson Act), even though the courts had taken a mixed view of the constitutionality of regulating workers’ hours and liberty of contract in several decisions over the preceding twenty years. (See the Wilsonian Progressivism Narrative.)

Democratic control of the White House and Congress also brought a darker side to the nation’s capital and to federal policy. Led by a president who embraced segregation and with Southern Democrats in command of Congress, the federal government instituted Jim Crow segregation rules. African Americans who had obtained federal employment and promotions during Republican administrations found themselves denied federal jobs and downgraded rather than promoted. Jim Crow ruled in Washington as it did in the former Confederate states, where even some southern progressives embraced segregation as advancing the social order. Wilson even presented the racist film “Birth of a Nation” in the White House and praised its portrayal of Reconstruction and the “Lost Cause.” (See the Jim Crow and Progressivism Narrative.)

The progressives’ support for the segregation of African Americans sprang from their belief in Social Darwinism, eugenics, and scientific racism, which argued there was a hierarchy of races. Many progressives believed that African Americans were racially inferior and that segregating them and denying them civil rights would maintain a natural racial hierarchy and establish social order. Progressives applied the same principle to immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, and justified immigration restriction on the basis of racial inferiority. This idea influenced foreign affairs in that belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority was used to support expansionism as a duty to help lesser races become civilized. The social engineering of this new “scientific” outlook combined with biological engineering by supporting population control and forced sterilization of the intellectually disabled and “unfit.”

The Wilson administration’s achievements and the president’s ability to keep the nation out of the European war that erupted in August 1914 buoyed Democratic hopes for victory in 1916 against a reunited Republican Party. Running on the accomplishments of the New Freedom platform and more emphatically on the theme, “He kept us out of war,” Wilson eked out a victory over his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes. (See the Did the Progressive Movement Diverge from Founding Principles and Did It Affect the Purpose of Government? Point-Counterpoint.)

President Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression

Herbert Hoover won the presidency in 1928 when he defeated Democrat Al Smith, who represented the solid South and the ethnic enclaves of the Northeast. He thus had the misfortunate of occupying the White House during the 1929 stock market crash and the resulting economic collapse. Hoover was severely criticized for appearing to do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the American people caused by the economic crisis. People called the camps of cardboard hovels in which the homeless lived “Hoovervilles,” empty pockets were “Hoover flags,” and newspapers stuffed in clothing to keep warm were “Hoover blankets.”

More so than earlier presidents faced with a financial panic, a liquidity crisis, and mounting unemployment, Hoover worked with Congress to pass some measures that reflected his reliance on the voluntary cooperation of bankers, industrialists, farmers, charitable organizations, and local governments to effectively act together to overcome the spreading misery. The Agricultural Marketing Act was intended to prop up the income of farmers, but without production controls, prices continued to collapse across the nation’s farms. The National Credit Corporation sought to rescue banks on the brink of insolvency, but the bankers who managed the institution became reluctant to make loans to those who needed aid the most. Cities, counties, and states ran out of tax dollars to aid the unemployed and destitute. Finally, Hoover began to directly use the power of the federal government by instituting the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to make up to $2 billion of financing available to state-run public works projects. The RFC became a key recovery measure of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but it came too late and with too little spending to save Hoover’s presidency. The Roosevelt presidency would see the rapid expansion of the scale and scope of government intervention in the American economy and society with the creation of the New Deal welfare state. (See Should Herbert Hoover Be Considered an Activist President? Point-Counterpoint.)

Hoover’s other policies were economically disastrous and worsened the Depression. The Smoot-Hawley tariff, the largest tariff increase ever passed by Congress, was meant to protect American jobs. However, it strangled world trade, which hurt businesses and raised the price of imports, because of retaliatory tariffs when people were struggling. Hoover also endorsed a substantial income tax increase to cut the rising budget deficit, but then workers had less money to support their families and lost purchasing power needed to buy essentials.

In the election of 1932, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt won a landslide victory over Hoover with 472 electoral votes to 59. Roosevelt had a record of instituting progressive programs as governor of New York during the Depression. In his Commonwealth Club address, he signaled his intention to further expand the scope and scale of the federal government’s intervention in the economy and society. “The day of enlightened administration has come. . . The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon government.” Roosevelt faced a daunting crisis, and it remained to be seen whether his New Deal would achieve its promised results.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as president on March 4, 1933, in front of the U.S. Capitol.

On Saturday, March 4, 1933, newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (see the Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933 Primary Source). However, the economic collapse called the Great Depression meant the American people had every reason to be fearful. On the morning Roosevelt took office, the governors of New York and Illinois had closed the great financial centers of New York City and Chicago, the culmination of six weeks during which state after state had closed its banks to halt the runs as desperate customers lined up to withdraw their money. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) had fallen by one-third since 1929. Between one-quarter and one-third of the industrial work force was out of a job, and many of the rest were working only part-time. Agriculture, which employed one-third of the nation’s workforce, was stricken. World commodity prices had collapsed, and cotton and wheat farmers found themselves with huge surpluses that sold well below the cost of production, if at all. In some areas, conversely, drought had destroyed what crops there were. Everywhere, indebted farmers lost their farms when they could not pay their taxes or repay mortgages. In the cities, 1,000 homeowners a day were losing their homes.

From Hoover to Roosevelt

To this economic calamity, still the worst in the nation’s history, government had had little effective response. President Herbert Hoover was an activist executive with a deserved reputation as a humanitarian for his earlier efforts to alleviate hunger in war-torn Europe. He worked tirelessly to persuade businesses to maintain employment levels, to cajole private citizens to provide relief for the unemployed, to encourage farmers to control their production, and to renegotiate their loans and debts with other nations. But these appeals to voluntarism failed, and the downturn continued remorselessly. Hoover increasingly pinned his faith on a balanced budget as a precondition of securing international stabilization.

Many Americans blamed the president for their suffering during the Great Depression. They were losing their farms, homes, jobs, and life savings. Their need stretched and even exhausted the resources of private charities and local and state governments, and they turned to the national government and the president to provide a solution. In the face of the president’s perceived failings and the ongoing economic catastrophe, voters elected governor of New York Franklin D. Roosevelt president with his promise of bold, persistent experimentation. When he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in July 1932, Roosevelt pledged a “new deal for the American people,” reversing his predecessor’s approach. His progressive faith in the role of government to assist the poor and unemployed appealed to the rural southern and western wings of the Democratic Party and the lower-income immigrant voters of the northern cities. But Roosevelt had few details worked out for his legislative or recovery programs when he took office, despite the four months during the interregnum between the election and his inauguration.

The New Deal and the Hundred Days

Roosevelt and his advisers had no plans to deal with the collapse of the banking system, which was the most immediate and pressing problem they faced. Relying on suggestions from holdover officials of the outgoing Hoover administration, Roosevelt shut the remaining banks and called Congress into special session. On its first day, Congress passed a bill for the phased reopening of the banks. Still, Roosevelt was taking a tremendous gamble. He used the medium of the radio to speak to the American people on Sunday, March 12, 1933, explaining the legislation and appealing for confidence when the banks reopened the next day. The pause calmed people’s fears, and when the banks reopened, customers deposited more than they took out.

The rest of Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed at the goals of relief, recovery, and reform. The administration attempted to provide the American people with direct relief, usually in exchange for work, to ease suffering and prevent mass homelessness and starvation. Roosevelt and his “Brain Trust” of academic advisers also sought economic and business recovery from the depths of the economic depression. The third goal was long-term reform of the American economic system of capitalism through government regulation, because of the belief that it could prevent another economic disaster.

The goals of relief, recovery, and reform often conflicted with each other and produced mixed results, but Roosevelt wanted bold and persistent action and experimentation by the federal government to alleviate the crisis. His strategy coincided with the rise of Keynesian economics, which was the idea that the government needed to control the business cycle to support growth and mitigate recessions through taxing and spending policy. The federal government would encourage growth during recessions by cutting taxes or increasing spending and control inflation during booms by increasing taxes and decreasing spending.

Congress’s willingness to rush through banking legislation that it had had almost no time to scrutinize led Roosevelt to ask the legislators to stay in session. During the next 100 days, Congress passed 16 major pieces of legislation. Among many notable results were the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), headed by reformer Harry Hopkins, which provided money to the states to give relief to the unemployed, and the Public Works Administration (PWA) which, with a budget of $3.3 billion, was responsible for building the Hoover Dam (known as the Boulder Dam at the time it was constructed), the Key West causeway, and New York City’s Triboro Bridge. The PWA budget represented 165 percent of federal government revenues for 1933. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) provided another $400 million in the winter of 1933–1934 for building schools, parks, and roads. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) hired hundreds of thousands of young men to plant trees to prevent soil erosion and work on flood control. These programs often allowed states to distribute aid, which, in turn, allowed southern states to discriminate against African Americans, who received fewer benefits.

Another goal of the Hundred Days was to aid farmers and rural residents devastated by the Great Depression. By 1933, wheat prices had plummeted to 38 cents a bushel from 86 cents in 1929, and corn fell to 32 cents a bushel from 82 cents. Farm income had dropped to one-third of 1929 levels. Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and paid farmers not to plant crops in order to prevent overproduction and, therefore, raise prices. The Department of Agriculture also persuaded farmers to slaughter six million pigs and destroy 10.5 million acres of cotton to increase prices. The animals were slaughtered although Americans were starving, and the move caused consumers to have to pay more for food even though they were out of work. Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to control flooding and build dams for public hydroelectric power to modernize the South and combat poverty. Nevertheless, during the next two years, more than one million white and black tenant farmers were forced by conditions to move off the land in search of jobs. In United States v. Butler (1936), the Supreme Court declared the AAA unconstitutional because it regulated intrastate production, and it was replaced by other agricultural programs that continued price supports and production controls.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Act into law on May 18, 1933, creating jobs supporting farmers and bringing electricity to the valley.

The cornerstone of business recovery was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which was administered by the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The enactment of this legislation was directed by General Hugh Johnson, who had headed government-industrial planning during World War I. On the basis of earlier examples of government-business cooperation in the Progressive Era, World War I, and the 1920s, the NIRA suspended antitrust regulations. It allowed businesses within industries to regulate themselves and create “codes of fair competition” for setting production and price goals. This meant that businesses could legally act as oligopolies and set prices paid by consumers artificially high. Section 7(a) of the act protected workers’ rights to join unions and use collective bargaining. It also set maximum hours and minimum wages (see The National Recovery Administration and the Schechter Brothers Narrative).

The emergency programs of the New Deal were made possible by Roosevelt’s personal political skills and the sheer scale of the economic collapse, which led constituents to demand that their representatives in Congress support the president, whatever their long-standing ideological skepticism of government intervention had been. The White House received millions of letters from impoverished farmers who appreciated New Deal relief programs, even as they were embarrassed to accept government aid because of their persistent belief in American individualism.

Critics of the New Deal

Roosevelt was nevertheless assailed by critics on both sides. Conservatives railed against the unprecedented increase in government spending and power, and radicals criticized the president for not doing enough to combat the lingering depression (see the New Deal Critics Narrative).

Conservatives formed the Liberty League, which protested the centralization of the American state and the perceived threat to liberty they believed it posed (see the Huey Long and the American Liberty League, 1934 Primary Source). Other critics demanded more federal programs. Dr. Francis Townshend was a local California physician who won public attention with a plan to give retired people older than age 60 years a $200 a month pension if they spent the money quickly. Louisiana governor Huey Long proposed the Share Our Wealth program, with steep progressive taxes to be redistributed to needy Americans. Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest,” combined calls for social justice and inflation with overt anti-Semitism. Socialists and Communists called for changes to a capitalist system that had produced worldwide despair. The author of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, ran (unsuccessfully) for governor of California with a plan called End Poverty in California (EPIC), in which the government was to confiscate abandoned factories and farmland for the unemployed to use to form cooperatives. Despite the critics, the Democrats increased their majorities in both houses of Congress to two-thirds in the 1934 congressional elections.

From the start, the New Deal did not merely seek economic recovery. Roosevelt and his New Deal allies also wanted to reform the economy. In financial services, the government guaranteed bank deposits, turned the Federal Reserve into a powerful central bank, and regulated the stock market through the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission. It renegotiated farm and home mortgages and then underwrote both long-term home mortgages and farm credit. New financial regulation virtually eliminated bank closures for half a century. The new mortgage provisions helped increase the rate of homeownership in the United States until it was the highest in the world. Farm foreclosures virtually stopped after 1933.

The Second New Deal

In late 1934, the president delivered one of his so-called fireside chats, using the radio to speak directly to the American people and fostering an intimacy that reassured them that he understood their problems and was working to solve them. He also explained his rationale for the New Deal and the changing purpose of government: “The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”

By 1935, the economy had recovered slightly, and unemployment had dipped from an estimated 25% to 20% with the infusion of billions of dollars by the federal government, but the economy was still deeply entrenched in the Depression. Backed by Democratic majorities in Congress, the Roosevelt Administration, in 1935 and 1936, passed another wave of reforms to achieve its goals; these reforms often are referred to as the Second New Deal.

The Works Progress Administration which issued this poster provided programs like art classes for children and millions of jobs for the unemployed.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created in 1935 and employed three million people to build highways, bridges, and parks; it also funded artists, writers, and theaters (see the Art Analysis: The Art of the New Deal, 1934 Primary Source). The federal government underwrote direct relief for the unemployed administered by state governments, providing, in poorer states, as much as 90 percent of the payments to the poor. But Harry Hopkins, who oversaw the New Deal’s welfare program, always wanted to provide jobs rather than a handout for the unemployed. At their height, New Deal jobs programs employed four million workers—nearly 40 percent of those left unemployed by the Depression. The federal government assumed much of the responsibility for providing jobs for Americans and restoring their economic well-being during the economic downturn.

In 1935, the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in Schechter v. United States because it allowed Congress to regulate intrastate trade and delegate authority to the executive branch. As a result, workers lost the protections of Section 7(a). Partly in response to the Court’s decision, Congress passed the Wagner Act of 1935, which was one of the most important and transformative pieces of legislation of the New Deal era. The Wagner Act outlawed a host of traditional anti-union activities by employers and protected workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively with employers. The act also created an executive agency, the National Labor Relations Board, to enforce the law. This agency provided vital protection for union organizers as they recruited mass-production workers for the first time in 1936 and 1937.

Rank-and-file workers also pushed hard for the recognition and expansion of unions. In 1937, autoworkers launched a series of sit-down strikes at General Motors plants that spread to other industries. These successful strikes increased organizing power and led to the growth of the powerful Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor union. By the end of the decade, union membership had tripled and included almost one-quarter of the industrial workforce. Those unions provided the radical cutting edge of New Deal politics in the late 1930s (see the Labor Upheaval, Industrial Organization, and the Rise of the CIO Narrative).

The 1935 Social Security Act was a core element of the federal government’s increasing assumption of responsibility for individuals’ economic security. The act created a permanent old-age social insurance program funded by employer and employee contributory taxes; that is, those in the labor force would fund those in retirement. It provided for unemployment insurance and aid to single women with dependent children. The Social Security Act had several limitations, including regressive taxes, variations in state provisions, the absence of health insurance, and the lack of coverage for some of the neediest. It also withdrew money from the economy in the form of taxes without paying benefits for the next five years, conflicting with the belief of the administration that government spending stimulated the economy.

The Second New Deal included several other important congressional programs to fulfill the administration’s goals. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) built on the work of the TVA to bring electricity to rural homes. The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act provided an additional $5 billion for relief programs, much of which went to the WPA. The Revenue Act of 1935 significantly increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans, with the top rate going as high as 79 percent. It also raised corporate taxes and hiked estate taxes.

As Roosevelt faced his first reelection campaign, he was riding a crest of popularity. The government had spent billions of dollars during Roosevelt’s first administration and ran large deficits. Although the recovery was meager, it was real and many people were thankful for the relief and that the government was acting. Millions switched their allegiance to the Democratic Party as a result.

Third New Deal

The New Deal’s reforms, jobs programs, and relief measures cemented lower-income voters’ loyalty to the Democratic Party for a generation. By 1936, the popularity of these initiatives had helped Roosevelt and the Democrats forge a new coalition that gave evidence of a realignment in national politics. The New Deal coalition included urban ethnic voters and party bosses, southern Democrats, organized labor, African Americans, Catholics, and Jews, leading to the triumph of modern liberalism from the middle of the twentieth century through the 1960s. However, Roosevelt’s greatest victory, deriving from the strength of this coalition, also contributed to the decline of the New Deal.

Roosevelt ran for president against Republican Alf Landon of Kansas in 1936 and won in a massive landslide, taking 46 states and 523 Electoral College votes. Democrats built on their supermajorities in both houses of Congress. Despite these overwhelming victories, the New Deal faced difficulties.

Between 1933 and 1937, the economy was beginning to recover and unemployment was down to approximately 14 percent of the workforce. Roosevelt was uneasy about the high government spending and increasing budget deficits. He cut spending on relief programs, and the new Social Security taxes took money out of the economy. The economy went into another tailspin as a result of the cuts, and unemployment climbed back to 19 percent during the sharp recession of 1937–1938.

Roosevelt’s popularity also decreased because of his “court-packing” plan. After the Supreme Court invalidated the AAA, NIRA, and other New Deal measures, the president attacked the Court for frustrating reform with what he considered to be an outmoded interpretation of the Constitution. He retaliated with a plan to appoint an additional justice to the Court for every judge older than 70 years up to a total of 15. The political motivation of the plan—to pressure the Court to validate New Deal programs—was transparent, and many critics attacked Roosevelt’s tampering with the Constitution. The plan became superfluous when the Court declared the Wagner Act, Social Security, and other New Deal programs constitutional and thereby upheld several key New Deal programs. Still, the president and his reform program suffered a blow and lost momentum that was not recovered.

By 1938, a conservative coalition had been strengthened by Roosevelt’s missteps. Southern Democrats had enthusiastically supported the emergency New Deal, but they were now skeptical of the nonemergency New Deal, which threatened traditional patterns of racial dependency in the South by providing relief to African Americans. Conservative Republicans were concerned about years of rapidly expanding government spending and programs. After 1938, they combined in a bipartisan coalition to block efforts to expand the New Deal.

Resource Review 1

Comparison: How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time?

Principle: Federalism

There is a wealth of resources available in our Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness digital textbook. The resources are organized into different categories including:

📎 Inquiry Organizer: Summary of chapter objectives and resources

📖 Chapter Introductory Essay: In-depth overview of significant events in the time period

🔎 Narratives: Shorter essays on a dramatic story or individual

📍 Decision Points: Narratives that describe a pivotal decision in history

💬 Point-Counterpoints: Differing sides of an argument presented by scholars or historical figures

✒️ Primary Sources: Firsthand accounts from the time period

📝 Lessons: Instructions and handouts to engage students in the classroom

✏️ Unit Essay Activity: Culminating essay based on AP LEQs to assess chapter objectives

Using the provided reflection questions, review the following resources:

  1. 💬 Was Prohibition a Success or Failure?
  2. ✒️ Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, 1944
  3. 📝 Unit 6 Civic Connection: The Role of Government According to the Founders and the Progressives

Then choose at least two more resources to review. In the discussion, you will be asked to share your reflections of these resources.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do these resources reveal about equality and liberty for African Americans from 1865-1877?
  2. How do these resources help in understanding the causes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century?

Other Resources

For additional resources on this topic, you can also access the following lesson from Bill of Rights Institute’s curriculum Presidents & the Constitution.

Building Context: 1964-1989

Comparison: How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time?

Principle: Federalism

Adapted from writings by Maurice Isserman, Hamilton College; and Andrew Busch, Claremont McKenna College

The Great Society

President Johnson began delivering on his promise of liberal legislation months before his triumph in November. In the spring of 1964, he secured passage of the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in public places. He also secured passage of Kennedy’s tax cut. Then, in August, Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, the fulfillment of his call in his State of the Union address the preceding January for “an unconditional war on poverty” (see the Was the Great Society Successful? Point-Counterpoint).

The resulting programs were certainly nothing on the scale of the public works programs of the 1930s’ New Deal. As Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, put it, Johnson’s were programs designed to offer a “hand up not a handout” to the poor. There were job-training programs and childhood enrichment programs administered by local community action agencies. The war on poverty was separate from the traditional form of welfare programs, like Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC), but it did include one new benefit, the Food Stamp program. There was also VISTA, a kind of domestic Peace Corps, enlisting volunteers for social service work in poor communities.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Former president Harry S. Truman is seated at the table with President Johnson.

In the first six months of 1965, Johnson proposed 87 bills to Congress, which passed 84 of them. These included Medicare (federal health insurance for the elderly) and Medicaid (health insurance for the poor). The Voting Rights Act followed the Civil Rights Act as a key piece of legislation for equal rights in Johnson’s vision of a Great Society. In the fall, Johnson signed into law two important environmental initiatives, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Also that fall, he signed the 1965 Immigration Act, ending the discriminatory quota systems put in place in the 1920s that had allowed only a trickle of immigration from countries other than those in Europe. As a result, legal immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America increased dramatically in decades to come.

The Warren Court

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Supreme Court dramatically broadened the definition of the constitutional rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court’s decisions, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, encouraged and lent legitimacy to new social movements. The court also became embroiled in the divided politics and culture of the 1960s, leading to a public debate about its role and powers.

To give just one example of the long list of landmark decisions to come, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the court struck down the ban in Connecticut on the dissemination of information about contraception. The court reasoned the law was unconstitutional because it interfered with the “right to privacy,” a right nowhere mentioned in the Constitution but one that a majority of justices believed was implied in the Fourteenth Amendment. This expansive definition of rights lay at the base of the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973), which overturned state laws banning abortion. Conservatives considered both cases challenges to traditional morality. The Roe v. Wade decision was particularly divisive and spawned pro-life and pro-choice movements.

In several controversial cases, the court protected the constitutional rights of people accused of crimes. For example, in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the court decided that all accused persons are entitled to representation by an attorney and that the government must provide one to poor defendants. The court also decided in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) that the police must inform the accused of their rights before they are questioned. These cases protected constitutional rights but were controversial. When the homicide rate doubled during the 1960s, some critics argued the court was coddling criminals or preventing police officers from combating crime.

In Baker v. Carr (1962), the court decided it had jurisdiction to decide political questions related to the apportionment of legislative districts. Demographic changes in American society had seen the percentage of the urban population grow while the percentage of the rural population declined throughout the twentieth century. Despite this change, legislative apportionment still favored rural areas. The Court’s decision was confirmed by Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which insisted that districts should be equal in terms of population in accordance with the principle of “one man, one vote.”

The court also helped advance individual liberties and constitutional rights. The justices expected the other branches of government and the public might defer to its decisions as it settled pressing social and political issues. However, the court contributed to polarization and caused some to question the authority of “unelected judges.”

Johnson had triumphed with the Great Society programs, which seemed to achieve his goal of completing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Great Society marked the high point of postwar liberalism. Few observers at the time realized that this liberal consensus was to fracture only a few years later, leading to a conservative ascendancy.

The Conservative Movement and Reaganomics

Reagan’s victory represented a long-term triumph for the conservative movement, which had grown more sophisticated and more powerful since Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential run in 1964. In his campaign, Reagan proposed limiting government, reducing the rate of growth of domestic spending, cutting taxes, and scaling back federal regulation of the economy. He advocated the conservative belief that dependence on welfare was damaging families, discouraging work, and inadvertently trapping people in poverty. He also argued for states’ rights in a federal system and for strict construction of the Constitution. His Cold War foreign policy was predicated on “peace through strength,” promising to rebuild American military power and stop Soviet aggression around the world.

Reagan’s electoral coalition included traditional Republican groups such as middle-class suburbanites and small-business owners. He also broke apart the New Deal coalition, winning substantial support among overlapping groups including Catholics, working-class voters, and ethnic groups such as Italian Americans. Reagan added white evangelical Protestants to the Republican coalition, especially as Republicans gained strength in the Sun Belt. Although recession and inflation turned these groups away from the Democratic Party, they also moved toward Reagan on the basis of patriotism, anti-communism, and cultural issues such as opposition to abortion and banning of school prayer.

As president, Reagan won congressional approval of a package of tax and spending cuts that significantly changed the direction of federal policy. Initially, Congress passed a 25 percent across-the-board personal income tax cut over three years, indexed income taxes so inflation would not push taxpayers into higher tax brackets, and cut taxes on business. Later, Congress passed a comprehensive tax reform supported by Reagan that simplified the tax code and reduced tax rates again. From 1980 to 1990, discretionary domestic spending (e.g., grants to state and local governments) fell by one-third. Reagan’s administration also pursued deregulation and free trade. A final pillar of Reagan’s economic policy was support for anti-inflationary monetary policies enacted by the Federal Reserve Board. Reagan underscored his limited-government approach in 1981 by firing members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) after an illegal strike (federal law prohibits strikes by federal government employees), dealing a major blow to federal public-employee unions.

In July 1981 President Reagan gave a televised speech from the Oval Office to outline his tax plan.

In short, Reagan’s economic policies were held together by a commitment to the view that the economy would perform better if the free market was left to operate with less government intervention. Reagan also believed economic freedom and political freedom went hand in hand. Two schools of economic thought particularly influenced Reagan’s policies. The first was monetarism, which advocated restricting the money supply (and thus the availability of credit) to fight inflation, and the second was supply-side economics, which aimed to promote noninflationary economic growth by reducing taxes and regulations to encourage individuals and businesses to work, invest, and produce. (See the Ronald Reagan and Supply-Side Economics Narrative.)

High interest rates that were part of the Federal Reserve Board’s fight against staggering inflation rates contributed to a deep recession in 1981–1982, the second half of a “double dip” recession that had started under Jimmy Carter in 1979–1980. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, and other members decided to attack rising prices by increasing interest rates, making money more difficult to borrow. Although the strategy was successful, American workers and the economy paid a high price. Unemployment reached nearly 11 percent. The Reagan administration also paid a high political price for its unpopular move, in the form of Democratic gains in the House of Representatives and state governorships in the 1982 midterm elections. However, a strong recovery began in early 1983 as the tax cuts took hold, and it continued for the rest of the decade. Nearly 20 million jobs were created, family incomes rose, and inflation and unemployment both fell dramatically.

Resource Review 2

Comparison: How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time?

Principle: Federalism

There is a wealth of resources available in our Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness digital textbook. The resources are organized into different categories including:

📎 Inquiry Organizer: Summary of chapter objectives and resources

📖 Chapter Introductory Essay: In-depth overview of significant events in the time period

🔎 Narratives: Shorter essays on a dramatic story or individual

📍 Decision Points: Narratives that describe a pivotal decision in history

💬 Point-Counterpoints: Differing sides of an argument presented by scholars or historical figures

✒️ Primary Sources: Firsthand accounts from the time period

📝 Lessons: Instructions and handouts to engage students in the classroom

✏️ Unit Essay Activity: Culminating essay based on AP LEQs to assess chapter objectives

Using the provided reflection questions, review the following resources:

  1. 💬 Was the Great Society Successful?
  2. ✒️ Lyndon B. Johnson Commencement Address at the University of Michigan (“Great Society” Speech), May 22, 1964
  3. 📝 Unit 7 Civics Connection: Modern Liberalism, Limited Government, and Rights
  4. 🔎 Ronald Reagan and Supply-Side Economics
  5. 📝 Herblock, Cartoons of Ronald Reagan, 1984-1987

Then choose at least two more resources to review. In the discussion, you will be asked to share your reflections of these resources.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do these resources reveal about equality and liberty for African Americans from 1865-1877?
  2. How do these resources help in understanding the causes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century?

For additional resources on this topic, you can also access the following lesson from Bill of Rights Institute’s curriculum Presidents & the Constitution.

Instructional Plan

Comparison: How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time?

Principle: Federalism

The following instructional plan is an example of a conceptual teaching approach, centered on an overarching essential question. Not all resources on this topic available in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness have been included. Review the plan using the provided reflection questions.

  • To what extent are the constitutional principles and historical reasoning skills evident in the materials and activities used in the instructional plan?
  • To what extent does the conceptual focus of this instructional plan help students answer the essential question (How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time?)?
  • What adjustments might you make to better address the constitutional principles and/or historical reasoning skills?
  • What adjustments might you make to the timeframe, guiding questions, and/or instructional activities for it to suit your classes?
  • How will these adjustments positively change the student outcome for understanding and using these principles and/or skills?

What’s Next

Before you engage in the assessment for this module, you will participate in a discussion with the course instructor and other course participants.

For our discussion, we will reflect on the following questions:

  • Explain what these resources reveal about federalism and the different approaches to the federal government’s role in promoting the general welfare.
  • Describe how these resources help in understanding the similarities and differences between approaches to the federal government’s role in promoting the general welfare.
  • Which resources do you think helped most in answering the guiding question: How have ideas of the federal government’s role in the welfare of its citizenry compared over time? Why?
  • Explain how you might change or adjust those resources to suit your classes.