23. The Great Depression

"Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California," Library of Congress.

In this famous 1936 photograph by Dorothea Lange, a destitute, thirty-two-year-old mother of seven captures the agonies of the Great Depression. Library of Congress.

*The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

Hard times had hit the United States before, but never had an economic crisis lasted so long or inflicted as much harm as the slump that followed the 1929 crash. After nearly a decade of supposed prosperity, the economy crashed to a halt. People suddenly stopped borrowing and buying. Industries built on debt-fueled purchases sold fewer goods. Retailers lowered prices and, when that did not attract enough buyers to turn profits, they laid off workers to lower labor costs. With so many people out of work and without income, shops sold even less, dropped their prices lower still, and then shed still more workers, creating a vicious downward cycle.

Four years after the crash, the Great Depression reached its lowest point: nearly one in four Americans who wanted a job could not find one and, of those who could, more than half had to settle for part-time work. Farmers could not make enough money from their crops to make harvesting worthwhile. Food rotted in the fields of a starving nation.

The needy drew down whatever savings they had, turned to their families, and sought out charities for public assistance. Soon they all were depleted. Unemployed workers and cash-strapped farmers defaulted on their debts, including mortgages. Already over-extended banks, deprived of income, took savings accounts down with them when they closed. Fear-stricken observers went to their own banks and demanded their deposits. Banks that otherwise might have endured the crisis fell prey to panic, and shut down as well.

With so little being bought and sold, and so little lent and spent, with even bankers unable to lay their hands on money, the nation’s economy ground nearly to a halt. None of the remedies adopted by the president or the Congress succeeded—not higher tariffs, nor restriction of immigration, nor sticking to sound money, nor expressions of confidence in the resilience of the American people. Whatever good these measures achieved, it was not enough.

In the 1932 presidential election, the incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, a Republican, promised that he would stand firm against those who, he said, would destroy the U.S. Constitution to restore the economy. Chief among these supposedly dangerous experimenters was the Democratic presidential nominee, New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who began his campaign by pledging a New Deal for the American people.

The voters chose Roosevelt in a landslide, inaugurating a rapid and enduring transformation in the U.S. government. Even though the New Deal never achieved as much as its proponents hoped or its opponents feared, it did more than any other peacetime program to change how Americans saw their country.


II. The Origins of the Great Depression

“Crowd of people gather outside the New York Stock Exchange following the Crash of 1929,” 1929. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/99471695/.

Crowds of people gather outside the New York Stock Exchange following the crash of 1929. Library of Congress.

On Thursday, October 24, 1929, stock market prices suddenly plummeted. Ten billion dollars in investments (roughly equivalent to about $100 billion today) disappeared in a matter of hours. Panicked selling set in, stock values sank to sudden lows, and stunned investors crowded the New York Stock Exchange demanding answers. Leading bankers met privately at the offices of J. P. Morgan and raised millions in personal and institutional contributions to halt the slide. They marched across the street and ceremoniously bought stocks at inflated prices. The market temporarily stabilized but fears spread over the weekend and the following week frightened investors dumped their portfolios to avoid further losses. On October 29, Black Tuesday, the stock market began its long precipitous fall. Stock values evaporated. Shares of U.S. Steel dropped from $262 to $22. General Motors stock fell from $73 a share to $8. Four fifths of J. D. Rockefeller’s fortune—the greatest in American history—vanished.

Although the crash stunned the nation, it exposed the deeper, underlying problems with the American economy in the 1920s. The stock market’s popularity grew throughout the decade, but only 2.5 percent of Americans had brokerage accounts; the overwhelming majority of Americans had no direct personal stake in Wall Street. The stock market’s collapse, no matter how dramatic, did not by itself depress the American economy. Instead, the crash exposed a great number of factors that, when combined with the financial panic, sank the American economy into the greatest of all economic crises. Rising inequality, declining demand, rural collapse, overextended investors, and the bursting of speculative bubbles all conspired to plunge the nation into the Great Depression.

Despite resistance by Progressives, the vast gap between rich and poor accelerated throughout the early twentieth century. In the aggregate, Americans were better off in 1929 than in 1920. Per capita income had risen 10 percent for all Americans, but 75 percent for the nation’s wealthiest citizens.1 The return of conservative politics in the 1920s reinforced federal fiscal policies that exacerbated the divide: low corporate and personal taxes, easy credit, and depressed interest rates overwhelmingly favored wealthy investors who, flush with cash, spent their money on luxury goods and speculative investments in the rapidly rising stock market.

The pro-business policies of the 1920s were designed for an American economy built on the production and consumption of durable goods. Yet by the late 1920s, much of the market was saturated. The boom of automobile manufacturing, the great driver of the American economy in the 1920s, slowed as fewer and fewer Americans with the means to purchase a car had not already done so. More and more, the well-to-do had no need for the new automobiles, radios, and other consumer goods that fueled gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the 1920s. When products failed to sell, inventories piled up, manufacturers scaled back production, and companies fired workers, stripping potential consumers of cash, blunting demand for consumer goods, and replicating the downward economic cycle. The situation was only compounded by increased automation and rising efficiency in American factories. Despite impressive overall growth throughout the 1920s, unemployment hovered around 7 percent throughout the decade, suppressing purchasing power for a great swath of potential consumers.2

Photograph of an assembly line at a Ford plant.

While a manufacturing innovation, Henry Ford’s assembly line produced so many cars as to flood the automobile market in the 1920s. Wikimedia.

For American farmers, meanwhile, hard times began long before the markets crashed. In 1920 and 1921, after several years of larger-than-average profits, farm prices in the South and West continued their long decline, plummeting as production climbed and domestic and international demand for cotton, foodstuffs, and other agricultural products stalled. Widespread soil exhaustion on western farms only compounded the problem. Farmers found themselves unable to make payments on loans taken out during the good years, and banks in agricultural areas tightened credit in response. By 1929, farm families were overextended, in no shape to make up for declining consumption, and in a precarious economic position even before the Depression wrecked the global economy.3

Despite serious foundational problems in the industrial and agricultural economy, most Americans in 1929 and 1930 still believed the economy would bounce back. In 1930, amid one of the Depression’s many false hopes, President Herbert Hoover reassured an audience that “the depression is over.”4 But the president was not simply guilty of false optimism. Hoover made many mistakes. During his 1928 election campaign, Hoover promoted higher tariffs as a means for encouraging domestic consumption and protecting American farmers from foreign competition. Spurred by the ongoing agricultural depression, Hoover signed into law the highest tariff in American history, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, just as global markets began to crumble. Other countries responded in kind, tariff walls rose across the globe, and international trade ground to a halt. Between 1929 and 1932, international trade dropped from $36 billion to only $12 billion. American exports fell by 78 percent. Combined with overproduction and declining domestic consumption, the tariff exacerbated the world’s economic collapse.5

But beyond structural flaws, speculative bubbles, and destructive protectionism, the final contributing element of the Great Depression was a quintessentially human one: panic. The frantic reaction to the market’s fall aggravated the economy’s other many failings. More economic policies backfired. The Federal Reserve overcorrected in their response to speculation by raising interest rates and tightening credit. Across the country, banks denied loans and called in debts. Their patrons, afraid that reactionary policies meant further financial trouble, rushed to withdraw money before institutions could close their doors, ensuring their fate. Such bank runs were not uncommon in the 1920s, but in 1930, with the economy worsening and panic from the crash accelerating, 1,352 banks failed. In 1932, nearly 2,300 banks collapsed, taking personal deposits, savings, and credit with them.6

The Great Depression was the confluence of many problems, most of which had begun during a time of unprecedented economic growth. Fiscal policies of the Republican “business presidents” undoubtedly widened the gap between rich and poor and fostered a standoff over international trade, but such policies were widely popular and, for much of the decade, widely seen as a source of the decade’s explosive growth. With fortunes to be won and standards of living to maintain, few Americans had the foresight or wherewithal to repudiate an age of easy credit, rampant consumerism, and wild speculation. Instead, as the Depression worked its way across the United States, Americans hoped to weather the economic storm as best they could, hoping for some relief from the ever-mounting economic collapse that was strangling so many lives.


III. Herbert Hoover and the Politics of the Depression

Photograph of unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone,” February 1931. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unemployed_men_queued_outside_a_depression_soup_kitchen_opened_in_Chicago_by_Al_Capone,_02-1931_-_NARA_-_541927.jpg.

Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. February 1931. Wikimedia.

As the Depression spread, public blame settled on President Herbert Hoover and the conservative politics of the Republican Party. In 1928, having won the presidency in a landslide, Hoover had no reason to believe that his presidency would be any different than that of his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, whose time in office was marked by relative government inaction, seemingly rampant prosperity, and high approval ratings.7 Hoover entered office on a wave of popular support, but by October 1929 the economic collapse had overwhelmed his presidency. Like all too many Americans, Hoover and his advisors assumed—or perhaps simply hoped—that the sharp financial and economic decline was a temporary downturn, another “bust” of the inevitable boom-bust cycles that stretched back through America’s commercial history. “Any lack of confidence in the economic future and the basic strength of business in the United States is simply foolish,” he said in November.8 And yet the crisis grew. Unemployment commenced a slow, sickening rise. New-car registrations dropped by almost a quarter within a few months.9 Consumer spending on durable goods dropped by a fifth in 1930.10

When suffering Americans looked to Hoover for help, Hoover could only answer with volunteerism. He asked business leaders to promise to maintain investments and employment and encouraged state and local charities to assist those in need. Hoover established the President’s Organization for Unemployment Relief, or POUR, to help organize the efforts of private agencies. While POUR urged charitable giving, charitable relief organizations were overwhelmed by the growing needs of the many multiplying unemployed, underfed, and unhoused Americans. By mid-1932, for instance, a quarter of all of New York’s private charities closed: they had simply run out of money. In Atlanta, solvent relief charities could only provide $1.30 per week to needy families. The size and scope of the Depression overpowered the radically insufficient capacity of private volunteer organizations to mediate the crisis.11

Although Hoover is sometimes categorized as a “business president” in line with his Republican predecessors, he also embraced a kind of business progressivism, a system of voluntary action called associationalism that assumed Americans could maintain a web of voluntary cooperative organizations dedicated to providing economic assistance and services to those in need. Businesses, the thinking went, would willingly limit harmful practice for the greater economic good. To Hoover, direct government aid would discourage a healthy work ethic while associationalism would encourage the self-control and self-initiative that fueled economic growth. But when the Depression exposed the incapacity of such strategies to produce an economic recovery, Hoover proved insufficiently flexible to recognize the limits of his ideology.12 “We cannot legislate ourselves out of a world economic depression,” he told Congress in 1931.13

Hoover resisted direct action. As the crisis deepened, even bankers and businessmen and the president’s own advisors and appointees all pleaded with him to use the government’s power to fight the Depression. But his conservative ideology wouldn’t allow him to. He believed in limited government as a matter of principle. Senator Robert Wagner of New York said in 1931 that the president’s policy was “to do nothing and when the pressure becomes irresistible to do as little as possible.”14 By 1932, with the economy long since stagnant and a reelection campaign looming, Hoover, hoping to stimulate American industry, created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to provide emergency loans to banks, building-and-loan societies, railroads, and other private industries. It was radical in its use of direct government aid and out of character for the normally laissez-faire Hoover, but it also bypassed needy Americans to bolster industrial and financial interests. New York congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, who later served as mayor of New York City, captured public sentiment when he denounced the RFC as a “millionaire’s dole.”15


IV. The Lived Experience of the Great Depression

A photograph of shacks strewn across a large park.

A Hooverville in Seattle, Washington between 1932 and 1937. Washington State Archives.

In 1934 a woman from Humboldt County, California, wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt seeking a job for her husband, a surveyor, who had been out of work for nearly two years. The pair had survived on the meager income she received from working at the county courthouse. “My salary could keep us going,” she explained, “but—I am to have a baby.” The family needed temporary help, and, she explained, “after that I can go back to work and we can work out our own salvation. But to have this baby come to a home full of worry and despair, with no money for the things it needs, is not fair. It needs and deserves a happy start in life.”16

As the United States slid ever deeper into the Great Depression, such tragic scenes played out time and time again. Individuals, families, and communities faced the painful, frightening, and often bewildering collapse of the economic institutions on which they depended. The more fortunate were spared the worst effects, and a few even profited from it, but by the end of 1932, the crisis had become so deep and so widespread that most Americans had suffered directly. Markets crashed through no fault of their own. Workers were plunged into poverty because of impersonal forces for which they shared no responsibility.

With rampant unemployment and declining wages, Americans slashed expenses. The fortunate could survive by simply deferring vacations and regular consumer purchases. Middle- and working-class Americans might rely on disappearing credit at neighborhood stores, default on utility bills, or skip meals. Those who could borrowed from relatives or took in boarders in homes or “doubled up” in tenements. But such resources couldn’t withstand the unending relentlessness of the economic crisis. As one New York City official explained in 1932,

When the breadwinner is out of a job he usually exhausts his savings if he has any.… He borrows from his friends and from his relatives until they can stand the burden no longer. He gets credit from the corner grocery store and the butcher shop, and the landlord forgoes collecting the rent until interest and taxes have to be paid and something has to be done. All of these resources are finally exhausted over a period of time, and it becomes necessary for these people, who have never before been in want, to go on assistance.17

But public assistance and private charities were quickly exhausted by the scope of the crisis. As one Detroit city official put it in 1932,

Many essential public services have been reduced beyond the minimum point absolutely essential to the health and safety of the city.… The salaries of city employees have been twice reduced … and hundreds of faithful employees … have been furloughed. Thus has the city borrowed from its own future welfare to keep its unemployed on the barest subsistence levels.… A wage work plan which had supported 11,000 families collapsed last month because the city was unable to find funds to pay these unemployed—men who wished to earn their own support. For the coming year, Detroit can see no possibility of preventing wide-spread hunger and slow starvation through its own unaided resources.18

These most desperate Americans, the chronically unemployed, encamped on public or marginal lands in “Hoovervilles,” spontaneous shantytowns that dotted America’s cities, depending on bread lines and street-corner peddling. One doctor recalled that “every day … someone would faint on a streetcar. They’d bring him in, and they wouldn’t ask any questions.… they knew what it was. Hunger.”19 “A man is not a man without work,” one of the jobless told an interviewer.20 The ideal of the “male breadwinner” was always a fiction for poor Americans, and, during the crisis, women and young children entered the labor force, as they always had. But, in such a labor crisis, many employers, subscribing to traditional notions of male bread-winning, were less likely to hire married women and more likely to dismiss those they already employed.21 As one politician remarked at the time, the woman worker was “the first orphan in the storm.”22

American suppositions about family structure meant that women suffered disproportionately from the Depression. Since the start of the twentieth century, single women had become an increasing share of the workforce, but married women, Americans were likely to believe, took a job because they wanted to and not because they needed it. Once the Depression came, employers were therefore less likely to hire married women and more likely to dismiss those they already employed.23 Women on their own and without regular work suffered a greater threat of sexual violence than their male counterparts; accounts of such women suggest they depended on each other for protection24

The Great Depression was particularly tough for nonwhite Americans. “The Negro was born in depression,” one Black pensioner told interviewer Studs Terkel. “It didn’t mean too much to him. The Great American Depression . . . only became official when it hit the white man.”25 Black workers were generally the last hired when businesses expanded production and the first fired when businesses experienced downturns. As a National Urban League study found, “So general is this practice that one is warranted in suspecting that it has been adopted as a method of relieving unemployment of whites without regard to the consequences upon Negroes.”26 In 1932, with the national unemployment average hovering around 25 percent, Black unemployment reached as high as 50 percent, while even Black workers who kept their jobs saw their already low wages cut dramatically.27


V. Migration and the Great Depression

On the Great Plains, environmental catastrophe deepened America’s longstanding agricultural crisis and magnified the tragedy of the Depression. Beginning in 1932, severe droughts hit from Texas to the Dakotas and lasted until at least 1936. The droughts compounded years of agricultural mismanagement. To grow their crops, Plains farmers had plowed up natural ground cover that had taken ages to form over the surface of the dry Plains states. Relatively wet decades had protected them, but, during the early 1930s, without rain, the exposed fertile topsoil turned to dust, and without sod or windbreaks such as trees, rolling winds churned the dust into massive storms that blotted out the sky, choked settlers and livestock, and rained dirt not only across the region but as far east as Washington, D.C., New England, and ships on the Atlantic Ocean. The Dust Bowl, as the region became known, exposed all-too-late the need for conservation. The region’s farmers, already hit by years of foreclosures and declining commodity prices, were decimated.28 For many in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas who were “baked out, blown out, and broke,” their only hope was to travel west to California, whose rains still brought bountiful harvests and—potentially—jobs for farmworkers. It was an exodus. Oklahoma lost 440,000 people, or a full 18.4 percent of its 1930 population, to outmigration.29

This iconic photograph made real the suffering of millions during the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California” or “Migrant Mother,” February/March 1936. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998021539/PP/.

This iconic 1936 photograph by Dorothea Lange of a destitute, thirty-two-year-old mother of seven made real the suffering of millions during the Great Depression. Library of Congress.

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother became one of the most enduring images of the Dust Bowl and the ensuing westward exodus. Lange, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, captured the image at a migrant farmworker camp in Nipomo, California, in 1936. In the photograph a young mother stares out with a worried, weary expression. She was a migrant, having left her home in Oklahoma to follow the crops to the Golden State. She took part in what many in the mid-1930s were beginning to recognize as a vast migration of families out of the southwestern Plains states. In the image she cradles an infant and supports two older children, who cling to her. Lange’s photo encapsulated the nation’s struggle. The subject of the photograph seemed used to hard work but down on her luck, and uncertain about what the future might hold.

The Okies, as such westward migrants were disparagingly called by their new neighbors, were the most visible group who were on the move during the Depression, lured by news and rumors of jobs in far-flung regions of the country. Men from all over the country, some abandoning families, hitched rides, hopped freight cars, or otherwise made their way around the country. By 1932, sociologists were estimating that millions of men were on the roads and rails traveling the country.30 Popular magazines and newspapers were filled with stories of homeless boys and the veterans-turned-migrants of the Bonus Army commandeering boxcars. Popular culture, such as William Wellman’s 1933 film, Wild Boys of the Road, and, most famously, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and turned into a hit movie a year later, captured the Depression’s dislocated populations.

These years witnessed the first significant reversal in the flow of people between rural and urban areas. Thousands of city dwellers fled the jobless cities and moved to the country looking for work. As relief efforts floundered, many state and local officials threw up barriers to migration, making it difficult for newcomers to receive relief or find work. Some state legislatures made it a crime to bring poor migrants into the state and allowed local officials to deport migrants to neighboring states. In the winter of 1935–1936, California, Florida, and Colorado established “border blockades” to block poor migrants from their states and reduce competition with local residents for jobs. A billboard outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, informed potential migrants that there were “NO JOBS in California” and warned them to “KEEP Out.”31

Photograph of a family traveling by foot down a road. A small child is in a wheel barrow packed with blankets.

During her assignment as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Dorothea Lange documented the movement of migrant families forced from their homes by drought and economic depression. This family, captured by Lange in 1938, was in the process of traveling 124 miles by foot, across Oklahoma, because the father was ill and therefore unable to receive relief or WPA work. Library of Congress.

Sympathy for migrants, however, accelerated late in the Depression with the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Joad family’s struggles drew attention to the plight of Depression-era migrants and, just a month after the nationwide release of the film version, Congress created the Select Committee to Investigate the Interstate Migration of Destitute Citizens. Starting in 1940, the committee held widely publicized hearings. But it was too late. Within a year of its founding, defense industries were already gearing up in the wake of the outbreak of World War II, and the “problem” of migration suddenly became a lack of migrants needed to fill war industries. Such relief was nowhere to be found in the 1930s.

Americans meanwhile feared foreign workers willing to work for even lower wages. The Saturday Evening Post warned that foreign immigrants, who were “compelled to accept employment on any terms and conditions offered,” would exacerbate the economic crisis.32 On September 8, 1930, the Hoover administration issued a press release on the administration of immigration laws “under existing conditions of unemployment.” Hoover instructed consular officers to scrutinize carefully the visa applications of those “likely to become public charges” and suggested that this might include denying visas to most, if not all, alien laborers and artisans. The crisis itself had stifled foreign immigration, but such restrictive and exclusionary actions in the first years of the Depression intensified its effects. The number of European visas issued fell roughly 60 percent while deportations dramatically increased. Between 1930 and 1932, fifty-four thousand people were deported. An additional forty-four thousand deportable aliens left “voluntarily.”33

Exclusionary measures hit Mexican immigrants particularly hard. The State Department made a concerted effort to reduce immigration from Mexico as early as 1929, and Hoover’s executive actions arrived the following year. Officials in the Southwest led a coordinated effort to push out Mexican immigrants. In Los Angeles, the Citizens Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief began working closely with federal officials in early 1931 to conduct deportation raids, while the Los Angeles County Department of Charities began a simultaneous drive to repatriate Mexicans and Mexican Americans on relief, negotiating a charity rate with the railroads to return Mexicans “voluntarily” to their mother country. According to the federal census, from 1930 to 1940 the Mexican-born population living in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas fell from 616,998 to 377,433. Franklin Roosevelt did not indulge anti-immigrant sentiment as willingly as Hoover had. Under the New Deal, the Immigration and Naturalization Service halted some of the Hoover administration’s most divisive practices, but with jobs suddenly scarce, hostile attitudes intensified, and official policies less than welcoming, immigration plummeted and deportations rose. Over the course of the Depression, more people left the United States than entered it.34

VI. The Bonus Army

Photograph of shacks, put up by the Bonus Army on the Anacostia flats, Washington, D.C., burning after the battle with the military. The Capitol in the background. 1932. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evictbonusarmy.jpg.

Shacks, put up by the Bonus Army on the Anacostia flats, Washington, D.C., burning after the battle with the military. The Capitol in the background. 1932. Wikimedia.

In the summer of 1932, more than fifteen-thousand unemployed veterans and their families converged on Washington, D.C. to petition for a bill authorizing immediate payment of cash bonuses to veterans of World War I that were originally scheduled to be paid out in 1945. Given the economic hardships facing the country, the bonus came to symbolize government relief for the most deserving recipients. The veterans in D.C. erected a tent city across the Potomac River in Anacostia Flats, a “Hooverville” in the spirit of the camps of homeless and unemployed Americans then appearing in American cities. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or the Bonus Army, they drilled and marched and demonstrated for their bonuses. “While there were billions for bankers, there was nothing for the poor,” they complained.

Concerned with what immediate payment would do to the federal budget, Hoover opposed the bill, which was eventually voted down by the Senate. While most of the “Bonus Army” left Washington in defeat, many stayed to press their case. Hoover called the remaining veterans “insurrectionists” and ordered them to leave. When thousands failed to heed the vacation order, General Douglas MacArthur, accompanied by local police, infantry, cavalry, tanks, and a machine gun squadron, stormed the tent city and routed the Bonus Army. Troops chased down men and women, tear-gassed children, and torched the shantytown.35 Two marchers were shot and killed and a baby was killed by tear gas.

The national media reported on the raid, newsreels showed footage, and Americans recoiled at Hoover’s insensitivity toward suffering Americans. His overall unwillingness to address widespread economic problems and his repeated platitudes about returning prosperity condemned his presidency. Hoover of course was not responsible for the Depression, not personally. But neither he nor his advisors conceived of the enormity of the crisis, a crisis his conservative ideology could neither accommodate nor address. Americans had so far found little relief from Washington. But they were still looking for it.


VII. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the “First” New Deal

This poster shows the kind of work completed by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. The poster shows that 49% of employees worked in the fine arts, 29% in practical arts, 16% in education, and 6% in miscellaneous other tasks.

Posters like this 1936 production showing the extent of the Federal Art Project were used to prove the value of the WPA—and, by extension, the entire New Deal—to the American people. Wikimedia.

The early years of the Depression were catastrophic. The crisis, far from relenting, deepened each year. Unemployment peaked at 25 percent in 1932. With no end in sight, and with private firms crippled and charities overwhelmed by the crisis, Americans looked to their government as the last barrier against starvation, hopelessness, and perpetual poverty.

Few presidential elections in modern American history have been more consequential than that of 1932. The United States was struggling through the third year of the Depression, and exasperated voters overthrew Hoover in a landslide for the Democratic governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt came from a privileged background in New York’s Hudson River Valley (his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, became president while Franklin was at Harvard) and embarked on a slow but steady ascent through state and national politics. In 1913, he was appointed assistant secretary of the navy, a position he held during the defense emergency of World War I. In the course of his rise, in the summer of 1921, Roosevelt suffered a sudden bout of lower-body pain and paralysis. He was diagnosed with polio. The disease left him a paraplegic, but, encouraged and assisted by his wife, Eleanor, Roosevelt sought therapeutic treatment and maintained sufficient political connections to reenter politics. In 1928, Roosevelt won election as governor of New York. He oversaw the rise of the Depression and drew from the tradition of American progressivism to address the economic crisis. He explained to the state assembly in 1931, the crisis demanded a government response “not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty.” As governor he established the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), supplying public work jobs at the prevailing wage and in-kind aid—food, shelter, and clothes—to those unable to afford it. Soon the TERA was providing work and relief to ten percent of the state’s families.36 Roosevelt relied on many like-minded advisors. Frances Perkins, for example, the commissioner of the state’s labor department, successfully advocated pioneering legislation that enhanced workplace safety and reduced the use of child labor in factories. Perkins later accompanied Roosevelt to Washington and served as the nation’s first female secretary of labor.37

On July 1, 1932, Roosevelt, the newly designated presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, delivered the first and one of the most famous on-site acceptance speeches in American presidential history. In it, he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” Newspaper editors seized on the phrase “new deal,” and it entered the American political lexicon as shorthand for Roosevelt’s program to address the Great Depression.38

Roosevelt proposed jobs programs, public work projects, higher wages, shorter hours, old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, farm subsidies, banking regulations, and lower tariffs. Hoover warned that such a program represented “the total abandonment of every principle upon which this government and the American system is founded.” He warned that it reeked of European communism, and that “the so called new deals would destroy the very foundations of the American system of life.”39Americans didn’t buy it. Roosevelt crushed Hoover in November. He won more counties than any previous candidate in American history. He spent the months between his election and inauguration–the twentieth amendment, ratified in 1933, would subsequently move the inauguration from March 4 to January 20–traveling, planning, and assembling a team of advisors, the famous Brain Trust of academics and experts, to help him formulate a plan of attack. On March 4, 1933, in his first inaugural address, Roosevelt famously declared, “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”40

Roosevelt’s reassuring words would have rung hollow if he had not taken swift action against the economic crisis. In his first days in office, Roosevelt and his advisors prepared, submitted, and secured congressional enactment of numerous laws designed to arrest the worst of the Great Depression. His administration threw the federal government headlong into the fight against the Depression.Roosevelt immediately looked to stabilize the collapsing banking system. Two out of every five banks open in 1929 had been shuttered and some Federal Reserve banks were on the verge of insolvency.41 Roosevelt declared a national “bank holiday” closing American banks and set to work pushing the Emergency Banking Act swiftly through Congress. On March 12, the night before select banks reopened under stricter federal guidelines, Roosevelt appeared on the radio in the first of his Fireside Chats. The addresses, which the president continued delivering through four terms, were informal, even personal. Roosevelt used his airtime to explain New Deal legislation, to encourage confidence in government action, and to mobilize the American people’s support. In the first chat, Roosevelt described the new banking safeguards and asked the public to place their trust and their savings in banks. Americans responded and deposits outpaced withdrawals across the country. The act was a major success. In June, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which instituted a federal deposit insurance system through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and barred the mixing of commercial and investment banking.42

Stabilizing the banks was only a first step. In the remainder of his First Hundred Days, Roosevelt and his congressional allies focused especially on relief for suffering Americans.43 Congress debated, amended, and passed what Roosevelt proposed. As one historian noted, the president “directed the entire operation like a seasoned field general.”44 And despite some questions over the constitutionality of many of his actions, Americans and their congressional representatives conceded that the crisis demanded swift and immediate action. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed young men on conservation and reforestation projects; the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) provided direct cash assistance to state relief agencies struggling to care for the unemployed;45  the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built a series of hydroelectric dams along the Tennessee River as part of a comprehensive program to economically develop a chronically depressed region;46 and several agencies helped home and farm owners refinance their mortgages. And Roosevelt wasn’t done.

The heart of Roosevelt’s early recovery program consisted of two massive efforts to stabilize and coordinate the American economy: the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The AAA, created in May 1933, aimed to raise the prices of agricultural commodities (and hence farmers’ income) by offering cash incentives to voluntarily limit farm production (decreasing supply, thereby raising prices).47 The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which created the NRA in June 1933, suspended antitrust laws to allow businesses to establish “codes” that would coordinate prices, regulate production levels, and establish conditions of employment to curtail “cutthroat competition.” In exchange for these exemptions, businesses agreed to provide reasonable wages and hours, end child labor, and allow workers the right to unionize. Participating businesses earned the right to display a placard with the NRA’s Blue Eagle, showing their cooperation in the effort to combat the Great Depression.48

The programs of the First Hundred Days stabilized the American economy and ushered in a robust though imperfect recovery. GDP climbed once more, but even as output increased, unemployment remained stubbornly high. Though the unemployment rate dipped from its high in 1933, when Roosevelt was inaugurated, vast numbers remained out of work. If the economy could not put people back to work, the New Deal would try. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) and, later, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put unemployed men and women to work on projects designed and proposed by local governments. The Public Works Administration (PWA) provided grants-in-aid to local governments for large infrastructure projects, such as bridges, tunnels, schoolhouses, libraries, and America’s first federal public housing projects. Together, they provided not only tangible projects of immense public good but employment for millions. The New Deal was reshaping much of the nation.49

VIII. The New Deal in the South

This poster advertises a meeting for "Working people of Washington Negro and White Student and Intellectuals" to defend the Scottsboro Boys. A photo of the boys and their attorney is included.

The accusation of rape brought against the so-called Scottsboro Boys, pictured with their attorney in 1932, generated controversy across the country. Wikipedia.

The impact of initial New Deal legislation was readily apparent in the South, a region of perpetual poverty especially plagued by the Depression. In 1929 the average per capita income in the American Southeast was $365, the lowest in the nation. Southern farmers averaged $183 per year at a time when farmers on the West Coast made more than four times that.50 Moreover, they were trapped into the production of cotton and corn, crops that depleted the soil and returned ever-diminishing profits. Despite the ceaseless efforts of civic boosters, what little industry the South had remained low-wage, low-skilled, and primarily extractive. Southern workers made significantly less than their national counterparts: 75 percent of nonsouthern textile workers, 60 percent of iron and steel workers, and a paltry 45 percent of lumber workers. At the time of the crash, southerners were already underpaid, underfed, and undereducated.51

Major New Deal programs were designed with the South in mind. FDR hoped that by drastically decreasing the amount of land devoted to cotton, the AAA would arrest its long-plummeting price decline. Farmers plowed up existing crops and left fields fallow, and the market price did rise. But in an agricultural world of landowners and landless farmworkers (such as tenants and sharecroppers), the benefits of the AAA bypassed the southerners who needed them most. The government relied on landowners and local organizations to distribute money fairly to those most affected by production limits, but many owners simply kicked tenants and croppers off their land, kept the subsidy checks for keeping those acres fallow, and reinvested the profits in mechanical farming equipment that further suppressed the demand for labor. Instead of making farming profitable again, the AAA pushed landless southern farmworkers off the land.52

But Roosevelt’s assault on southern poverty took many forms. Southern industrial practices attracted much attention. The NRA encouraged higher wages and better conditions. It began to suppress the rampant use of child labor in southern mills and, for the first time, provided federal protection for unionized workers all across the country. Those gains were eventually solidified in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a national minimum wage of $0.25/hour (eventually rising to $0.40/hour). The minimum wage disproportionately affected low-paid southern workers and brought southern wages within the reach of northern wages.53

The president’s support for unionization further impacted the South. Southern industrialists had proven themselves ardent foes of unionization, particularly in the infamous southern textile mills. In 1934, when workers at textile mills across the southern Piedmont struck over low wages and long hours, owners turned to local and state authorities to quash workers’ groups, even as they recruited thousands of strikebreakers from the many displaced farmers swelling industrial centers looking for work. But in 1935 the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, guaranteed the rights of most workers to unionize and bargain collectively. And so unionized workers, backed by the support of the federal government and determined to enforce the reforms of the New Deal, pushed for higher wages, shorter hours, and better conditions. With growing success, union members came to see Roosevelt as a protector of workers’ rights. Or, as one union leader put it, an “agent of God.”54

Perhaps the most successful New Deal program in the South was the TVA, an ambitious program to use hydroelectric power, agricultural and industrial reform, flood control, economic development, education, and healthcare to radically remake the impoverished watershed region of the Tennessee River. Though the area of focus was limited, Roosevelt’s TVA sought to “make a different type of citizen” out of the area’s penniless residents.55 The TVA built a series of hydroelectric dams to control flooding and distribute electricity to the otherwise nonelectrified areas at government-subsidized rates. Agents of the TVA met with residents and offered training and general education classes to improve agricultural practices and exploit new job opportunities. The TVA encapsulates Roosevelt’s vision for uplifting the South and integrating it into the larger national economy.56

Roosevelt initially courted conservative southern Democrats to ensure the legislative success of the New Deal, all but guaranteeing that the racial and economic inequalities of the region remained intact, but by the end of his second term, he had won the support of enough non-southern voters that he felt confident confronting some of the region’s most glaring inequalities. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his endorsement of a report, formulated by a group of progressive southern New Dealers, titled “A Report on Economic Conditions in the South.” The pamphlet denounced the hardships wrought by the southern economy—in his introductory letter to the report, Roosevelt called the region “the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem”—and blasted reactionary southern anti–New Dealers. He suggested that the New Deal could save the South and thereby spur a nationwide recovery. The report was among the first broadsides in Roosevelt’s coming reelection campaign that addressed the inequalities that continued to mark southern and national life.57


IX. Voices of Protest

A photograph of Huey Long giving a speech. Also an inset image of a button that says "Share Our Wealth Society Every Man a King"

Huey Long was an indomitable force who campaigned tirelessly for the common man during the Great Depression. He demanded that Americans “Share the Wealth.” Wikimedia.

Despite the unprecedented actions taken in his first year in office, Roosevelt’s initial relief programs could often be quite conservative. He had usually been careful to work within the bounds of presidential authority and congressional cooperation. And, unlike Europe, where several nations had turned toward state-run economies, and even fascism and socialism, Roosevelt’s New Deal demonstrated a clear reluctance to radically tinker with the nation’s foundational economic and social structures. Many high-profile critics attacked Roosevelt for not going far enough, and, beginning in 1934, Roosevelt and his advisors were forced to respond.

Senator Huey Long, a flamboyant Democrat from Louisiana, was perhaps the most important “voice of protest.” Long’s populist rhetoric appealed to those who saw deeply rooted but easily addressed injustice in the nation’s economic system. Long proposed a Share Our Wealth program in which the federal government would confiscate the assets of the extremely wealthy and redistribute them to the less well-off through guaranteed minimum incomes. “How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what’s intended for nine-tenths of the people to eat?” he asked. Over twenty-seven thousand Share the Wealth clubs sprang up across the nation as Long traveled the country explaining his program to crowds of impoverished and unemployed Americans. Long envisioned the movement as a stepping-stone to the presidency, but his crusade ended in late 1935 when he was assassinated on the floor of the Louisiana state capitol. Even in death, however, Long convinced Roosevelt to more stridently attack the Depression and American inequality.

But Huey Long was not alone in his critique of Roosevelt. Francis Townsend, a former doctor and public health official from California, promoted a plan for old-age pensions which, he argued, would provide economic security for the elderly (who disproportionately suffered poverty) and encourage recovery by allowing older workers to retire from the workforce. Reverend Charles Coughlin, meanwhile, a priest and radio personality from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, gained a following by making vitriolic, anti-Semitic attacks on Roosevelt for cooperating with banks and financiers and proposing a new system of “social justice” through a more state-driven economy instead. Like Long, both Townsend and Coughlin built substantial public followings.

If many Americans urged Roosevelt to go further in addressing the economic crisis, the president faced even greater opposition from conservative politicians and business leaders. By late 1934, complaints increased from business-friendly Republicans about Roosevelt’s willingness to regulate industry and use federal spending for public works and employment programs. In the South, Democrats who had originally supported the president grew more hostile toward programs that challenged the region’s political, economic, and social status quo. Yet the greatest opposition came from the Supreme Court, filled with conservative appointments made during the long years of Republican presidents.

By early 1935 the Court was reviewing programs of the New Deal. On May 27, a day Roosevelt’s supporters called Black Monday, the justices struck down one of the president’s signature reforms: in a case revolving around poultry processing, the Court unanimously declared the NRA unconstitutional. In early 1936, the AAA fell.58


X. The “Second” New Deal (1935-1936)

The New Deal enjoyed broad popularity. Democrats gained seats in the 1934 midterm elections, securing massive majorities in both the House and Senate. Bolstered by these gains, facing reelection in 1936, and confronting rising opposition from both the left and the right, Roosevelt rededicated himself to bold programs and more aggressive approaches, a set of legislation often termed the Second New Deal. It included a nearly five-billion dollar appropriation that in 1935 established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a permanent version of the CWA, which would ultimately employ millions of Americans on public works projects. It would employ “the maximum number of persons in the shortest time possible,” Roosevelt said.59 Americans employed by the WPA paved more than half-a-million miles of roads, constructed thousands of bridges, built schools and post offices, and even painted murals and recorded oral histories. Not only did the program build much of America’s physical infrastructure, it came closer than any New Deal program to providing the federal jobs guarantee Roosevelt had promised in 1932.

Also in 1935, hoping to reconstitute some of the protections afforded workers in the now-defunct NRA, Roosevelt worked with Congress to pass the National Labor Relations Act (known as the Wagner Act for its chief sponsor, New York senator Robert Wagner), offering federal legal protection, for the first time, for workers to organize unions. The labor protections extended by Roosevelt’s New Deal were revolutionary. In northern industrial cities, workers responded to worsening conditions by banding together and demanding support for workers’ rights. In 1935, the head of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, took the lead in forming a new national workers’ organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), breaking with the more conservative, craft-oriented AFL. The CIO won a major victory in 1937 when affiliated members in the United Automobile Workers (UAW) struck for recognition and better pay and hours at a General Motors (GM) plant in Flint, Michigan. Launching a “sit-down” strike, the workers remained in the building until management agreed to negotiate. GM recognized the UAW and granted a pay increase. GM’s recognition gave the UAW new legitimacy and unionization spread rapidly across the auto industry. Across the country, unions and workers took advantage of the New Deal’s protections to organize and win major concessions from employers. Three years after the NLRA, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, creating the modern minimum wage.

Photograph of striking workers guarding the entrance to a factory.

Unionization was met with fierce opposition from owners and managers, particularly in the manufacturing belt of the Mid-West. In this 1937 image, strikers guard the entrance to a Flint, Michigan, manufacturing plant. Library of Congress.

The Second New Deal also oversaw the restoration of a highly progressive federal income tax, mandated new reporting requirements for publicly traded companies, refinanced long-term home mortgages for struggling homeowners, and attempted rural reconstruction projects to bring farm incomes in line with urban ones.60 Perhaps the signature piece of Roosevelt’s Second New Deal, however, was the Social Security Act. It provided for old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and economic aid, based on means, to assist both the elderly and dependent children. The president was careful to mitigate some of the criticism from what was, at the time, in the American context, a revolutionary concept. He specifically insisted that social security be financed from payroll, not the federal government; “No dole,” Roosevelt said repeatedly, “mustn’t have a dole.”61 He thereby helped separate social security from the stigma of being an undeserved “welfare” entitlement. While such a strategy saved the program from suspicions, social security became the centerpiece of the modern American social welfare state. It was the culmination of a long progressive push for government-sponsored social welfare, an answer to the calls of Roosevelt’s opponents on the Left for reform, a response to the intractable poverty among America’s neediest groups, and a recognition that the government would now assume some responsibility for the economic well-being of its citizens.62 Nevertheless, the act excluded large swaths of the American population. Its pension program excluded domestic workers and farm workers, for instance, a policy that disproportionately affected African Americans. Roosevelt recognized that social security’s programs would need expansion and improvement. “This law,” he said, “represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”63


XI. Equal Rights and the New Deal

Black Americans faced discrimination everywhere but suffered especially severe legal inequality in the Jim Crow South. In 1931, for instance, a group of nine young men riding the rails between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee, were pulled from the train near Scottsboro, Alabama, and charged with assaulting two white women. Despite clear evidence that the assault had not occurred, and despite one of the women later recanting, the young men endured a series of sham trials in which all but one were sentenced to death. Only the communist-oriented International Labor Defense (ILD) came to the aid of the “Scottsboro Boys,” who soon became a national symbol of continuing racial prejudice in America and a rallying point for civil rights–minded Americans. In appeals, the ILD successfully challenged the boys’ sentencing, and the death sentences were either commuted or reversed, although the last of the accused did not receive parole until 1946.64

Despite a concerted effort to appoint Black advisors to some New Deal programs, Franklin Roosevelt did little to specifically address the particular difficulties Black communities faced. To do so openly would provoke southern Democrats and put his New Deal coalition—–the uneasy alliance of national liberals, urban laborers, farm workers, and southern whites—at risk. Roosevelt not only rejected such proposals as abolishing the poll tax and declaring lynching a federal crime, he refused to specifically target African American needs in any of his larger relief and reform packages. As he explained to the national secretary of the NAACP, “I just can’t take that risk.”65

In fact, many of the programs of the New Deal had made hard times more difficult. When the codes of the NRA set new pay scales, they usually took into account regional differentiation and historical data. In the South, where African Americans had long suffered unequal pay, the new codes simply perpetuated that inequality. The codes also exempted those involved in farm work and domestic labor, the occupations of a majority of southern Black men and women. The AAA was equally problematic as owners displaced Black tenants and sharecroppers, many of whom were forced to return to their farms as low-paid day labor or to migrate to cities looking for wage work.66

Perhaps the most notorious failure of the New Deal to aid African Americans came with the passage of the Social Security Act. Southern politicians chafed at the prospect of African Americans benefiting from federally sponsored social welfare, afraid that economic security would allow Black southerners to escape the cycle of poverty that kept them tied to the land as cheap, exploitable farm laborers. The Jackson (Mississippi) Daily News callously warned that “The average Mississippian can’t imagine himself chipping in to pay pensions for able-bodied Negroes to sit around in idleness . . . while cotton and corn crops are crying for workers.” Roosevelt agreed to remove domestic workers and farm laborers from the provisions of the bill, excluding many African Americans, already laboring under the strictures of legal racial discrimination, from the benefits of an expanding economic safety net.67

Women, too, failed to receive the full benefits of New Deal programs. On one hand, Roosevelt included women in key positions within his administration, including the first female cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins, and a prominently placed African American advisor in the National Youth Administration, Mary McLeod Bethune. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a key advisor to the president and became a major voice for economic and racial justice. But many New Deal programs were built on the assumption that men would serve as breadwinners and women as mothers, homemakers, and consumers. New Deal programs aimed to help both but usually by forcing such gendered assumptions, making it difficult for women to attain economic autonomy. New Deal social welfare programs tended to funnel women into means-tested, state-administered relief programs while reserving entitlement benefits for male workers, creating a kind of two-tiered social welfare state. And so, despite great advances, the New Deal failed to challenge core inequalities that continued to mark life in the United States.68


XII. The End of the New Deal (1937-1939)

By 1936, Roosevelt and his New Deal won record popularity. In November, Roosevelt annihilated his Republican challenger, Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, who lost in every state save Maine and Vermont. The Great Depression had certainly not ended, but it appeared to be retreating, and Roosevelt, now safely reelected, appeared ready to take advantage of both his popularity and the improving economic climate to press for even more dramatic changes. But conservative barriers continued to limit the power of his popular support. The Supreme Court, for instance, continued to gut many of his programs.

In 1937, concerned that the Court might overthrow social security in an upcoming case, Roosevelt called for legislation allowing him to expand the Court by appointing a new, younger justice for every sitting member over age seventy. Roosevelt argued that the measure would speed up the Court’s ability to handle a growing backlog of cases; however, his “court-packing scheme,” as opponents termed it, was clearly designed to allow the president to appoint up to six friendly, pro–New Deal justices to drown the influence of old-time conservatives on the Court. Roosevelt’s “scheme” riled opposition and did not become law, but the chastened Court thereafter upheld social security and other pieces of New Deal legislation. Moreover, Roosevelt was slowly able to appoint more amenable justices as conservatives died or retired. Still, the court-packing scheme damaged the Roosevelt administration emboldened New Deal opponents69

Compounding his problems, Roosevelt and his advisors made a costly economic misstep. Believing the United States had turned a corner, Roosevelt cut spending in 1937. The American economy plunged nearly to the depths of 1932–1933. Roosevelt reversed course and, adopting the approach popularized by the English economist John Maynard Keynes, hoped that countercyclical, compensatory spending would pull the country out of the recession, even at the expense of a growing budget deficit. It was perhaps too late. The Roosevelt Recession of 1937 became fodder for critics. Combined with the court-packing scheme, the recession allowed for significant gains by a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans in the 1938 midterm elections. By 1939, Roosevelt struggled to build congressional support for new reforms, let alone maintain existing agencies. Moreover, the growing threat of war in Europe stole the public’s attention and increasingly dominated Roosevelt’s interests. The New Deal slowly receded into the background, outshined by war.70


XIII. The Legacy of the New Deal

By the end of the 1930s, Roosevelt and his Democratic Congresses had presided over a transformation of the American government and a realignment in American party politics. Before World War I, the American national state, though powerful, had been a “government out of sight.” After the New Deal, Americans came to see the federal government as a potential ally in their daily struggles, whether finding work, securing a decent wage, getting a fair price for agricultural products, or organizing a union. Voter turnout in presidential elections jumped in 1932 and again in 1936, with most of these newly mobilized voters forming a durable piece of the Democratic Party that would remain loyal well into the 1960s. Even as affluence returned with the American intervention in World War II, memories of the Depression continued to shape the outlook of two generations of Americans.71 Survivors of the Great Depression, one man would recall in the late 1960s, “are still riding with the ghost—the ghost of those days when things came hard.”72

Historians debate when the New Deal ended. Some identify the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 as the last major New Deal measure. Others see wartime measures such as price and rent control and the G.I. Bill (which afforded New Deal–style social benefits to veterans) as species of New Deal legislation. Still others conceive of a “New Deal order,” a constellation of “ideas, public policies, and political alliances,” which, though changing, guided American politics from Roosevelt’s Hundred Days forward to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—and perhaps even beyond. Indeed, the New Deal’s legacy still remains, and its battle lines still shape American politics.


XIV. Primary Sources

1. Herbert Hoover on the New Deal (1932)

Americans elected a string of conservative Republicans to the presidency during the boom years of the 1920s. When the economy crashed in 1929, however, and the nation descended deeper into the Great Depression, voters abandoned the Republican Party and conservative politicians struggled to in office. In this speech on the eve of the 1932 election, Herbert Hoover warned against Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed New Deal.

2. Huey P. Long, “Every Man a King” and “Share our Wealth” (1934)

Amid the economic indignities of the Great Depression, Huey P. Long of Louisiana championed an aggressive program of public spending and wealth redistribution. Critics denounced Long, who served as both governor and a senator from Louisiana, as a corrupt demagogue, but “the Kingfish” appealed to impoverished Louisianans and Americans wracked by joblessness and resentful of American economic inequality. He was assassinated before he could mount his independent bid for the White House in 1936. In the following extracts from two of his most famous speeches, Long outlines his political program.

3. Franklin Roosevelt’s Re-Nomination Acceptance Speech (1936)

In July 27, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt accepted his re-nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential choice. In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt laid out his understanding of what “freedom” and “tyranny” meant in an industrial democracy.

4. Second Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1937)

After winning a landslide victory in his 1936 quest for a second presidential term, President Franklin Roosevelt championed again the ambitious goals of his New Deal economic programs and their relationship to American democracy.

5. Lester Hunter, “I’d Rather Not Be on Relief” (1938)

Lester Hunter left the Dust Bowl for the fields of California and wrote this poem, later turned into a song by migrant workers in California’s Farm Security Administration camps. The “C.I.O.” in the final line refers to the Congress of Industrial Unions, a powerful new industrial union founded in 1935.

6. Bertha McCall on America’s “Moving People” (1940)

Bertha McCall, general director of the National Travelers Aid Association, acquired a special knowledge of the massive displacement of individuals and families during the Great Depression. In 1940, McCall testified before the House of Representatives’ Select Committee to Investigate the Interstate Migration of Destitute Citizens on the nature of America’s internal migrants.

7. Dorothy West, “Amateur Night in Harlem” (1938)

Amateur night at the Apollo Theater attracted not only Harlem’s African American population but a national radio audience. In this account, written through the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, Dorothy West describes an amateur night at the theater in November 1938 and reflects on the relationship between entertainment, race, and American life.

8. Family Walking on Highway (1936)

During her assignment as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Dorothea Lange documented the movement of migrant families forced from their homes by drought and economic depression. This family was in the process of traveling 124 miles by foot, across Oklahoma, because the father was unable to receive relief or WPA work of his own due to an illness.

9. “Bonus Army Routed” (1932)

This short newsreel clip made by British film company Pathé shows the federal government’s response to the thousands of WWI veterans who organized in Washington DC during the summer of 1932 to form what was called a “Bonus Army.” At the demand of attorney general, the marchers were violently removed from government property.

XV. Reference Material

This chapter was edited by Matthew Downs and Eric Rauchway, with content contributed by Dana Cochran, Matthew Downs, Benjamin Helwege, Elisa Minoff, Eric Rauchway, Caitlin Verboon, and Mason Williams.

Recommended citation: Dana Cochran et al., “The Great Depression,” Matthew Downs, ed., in The American Yawp, eds. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).


Recommended Reading

  1. Balderrama, Francisco E., and Raymond Rodríguez. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
  2. Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Knopf, 1995.
  3. ———. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. New York: Knopf, 1982.
  4. Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  5. 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): 1–32.
  6. Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. New York: Norton, 2009.
  7. Fraser, Steve, and Gary Gerstle, eds. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  8. Gilmore, Glenda E. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950. New York: Norton, 2009.
  9. Gordon, Colin. New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America 1920–1935. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  10. Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. New York: Norton, 2009.
  11. ———. Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890–1935. New York: Free Press, 1994.
  12. Greene, Alison Collis. No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  13. Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Norton, 2013.
  14. Kelly, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  15. Kennedy, David. Freedom from Fear: America in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  16. Kessler-Harris, Alice. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  17. Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
  18. Leuchtenburg, William. Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
  19. Pells, Richard. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
  20. Phillips, Kimberly L. Alabama North: African-American Migrants, Community and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-1945. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  21. Phillips–Fein, Kim. Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal. New York: Norton, 2010
  22. Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  23. Sullivan, Patricia. Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  24. Tani, Karen. States of Dependency: Welfare, Rights, and American Governance, 1935–1972. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  25. Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1986.


  1. George Donelson Moss, The Rise of Modern America: A History of the American People, 1890–1945 (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1995), 185–186. []
  2. Ibid., 186. []
  3. Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1921–1940 (New York: Random House, 1984), 36. []
  4. John Steele Gordon, An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 320. []
  5. Moss, Rise of Modern America, 186–187. []
  6. David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 65, 68. []
  7. Richard Norton Smith, An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). []
  8. Herbert Hoover, “The President’s News Conference of November 15, 1929,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Herbert Hoover, 1929 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1974), 280. []
  9. Christina D. Romer, “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 105, no. 3(1990), 606. []
  10. Peter Fearon, Origins and Nature of the Great Slump, 1929–1932 (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979), 34. []
  11. Ibid. []
  12. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 70–103. []
  13. William E. Leuchtenburg, The American President from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 135. []
  14. “Wagner Puts Party in Progressive Role,” New York Times, May 15, 1931, 2. []
  15. Ibid., 76. []
  16. Mrs. M. H. A. to Eleanor Roosevelt, June 14, 1934, in Robert S. McElvaine, ed., Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 54–55. []
  17. Lester V. Chandler, America’s Greatest Depression, 1929–1941 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 41. []
  18. Chandler, America’s Greatest Depression, 44. []
  19. Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: New Press, 2000), 20–21. []
  20. Mirra Komarovsky, The Unemployed Man and His Family (New York: Arno Press, 1971), 133. []
  21. Claudia Dale Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 34. []
  22. William H. Chafe, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 71. []
  23. Claudia Dale Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 34. []
  24. William H. Chafe, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 71. []
  25. Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 81-82. []
  26. William A. Sundstrom, “Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression,” Journal of American History, 65, no. 1 (1978), 70–71. []
  27. Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–1940 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 15–23. []
  28. Robert S. McElvaine, ed., Encyclopedia of the Great Depression (New York: Macmillan, 2004), 320. []
  29. Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 48. []
  30. James R. McGovern, And a Time For Hope: Americans in the Great Depression, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000), 10. []
  31. James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 22. []
  32. Cybelle Fox, Three Worlds of Relief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 126. []
  33. Ibid., 127. []
  34. Aristide Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (New York: Sage, 2006), 269. []
  35. Ibid., 92. []
  36. Eric Rauchway, Why the New Deal Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 144–146. []
  37. Biographies of Roosevelt include Kenneth C. Davis, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny: 1882–1928 (New York: Rand, 1972); and Jean Edward Smith, FDR (New York: Random House, 2007). []
  38. Outstanding general treatments of the New Deal include Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956–1960); William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (New York: Harper and Row, 1963); Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–1940 (New York: Hill and Wang), 1989; and Kennedy, Freedom from Fear. On Roosevelt, see especially James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956); Frank B. Friedel, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952–1973); Patrick J. Maney, The Roosevelt Presence: A Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York: Twayne, 1992); Alan Brinkley, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Eric Rauchway, Why the New Deal Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021). []
  39. Eric Rauchway, “The New Deal Was on the Ballot in 1932,” Modern American History 2, no. 2 (2019), 202–203. []
  40. Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1933. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=14473. []
  41. Eric Rauchway, Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash over the New Deal (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 140. []
  42. Michael E. Parrish, Securities Regulation and the New Deal (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970). []
  43. See especially Anthony J. Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008). []
  44. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal). []
  45. Neil Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). []
  46. Thomas K. McCraw, TVA and the Power Fight, 1933–1939 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971). []
  47. Ellis W. Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly: A Study in Economic Ambivalence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969); Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1986), 217. []
  48. Theodore Saloutos, The American Farmer and the New Deal (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1982). []
  49. Bonnie Fox Schwartz, The Civil Works Administration, 1933–1934: The Business of Emergency Employment in the New Deal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984); Edwin Amenta, Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933–1956 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Mason B. Williams, City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (New York: Norton, 2013). []
  50. Howard Odum, Southern Regions of the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936), quoted in David L. Carlton and Peter Coclanis, eds., Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: The Report on Economic Conditions of the South with Related Documents (Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1996), 118–119. []
  51. Wright, Old South, New South, 217. []
  52. Ibid., 227–228. []
  53. Ibid., 216–220. []
  54. William Leuchtenberg, The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005), 74. []
  55. “Press Conference #160,” November 23, 1934, 214, in Roosevelt, Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volumes 3–4, 1934 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972). []
  56. McCraw, TVA and the Power Fight). []
  57. Carlton and Coclanis, Confronting Southern Poverty, 42. []
  58. William E. Leuchtenburg, The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Theda Skocpol and Kenneth Finegold, State and Party in America’s New Deal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995); Colin Gordon, New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920–1935 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). []
  59. Alexander J. Field, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 40. []
  60. Mark H. Leff, The Limits of Symbolic Reform: The New Deal and Taxation, 1933–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Sarah T. Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). []
  61. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 267. []
  62. W. Andrew Achenbaum, Old Age in the New Land (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Edwin E. Witte, The Development of the Social Security Act (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963). []
  63. Gareth Davies and Martha Derthick, “Race and Social Welfare Policy: The Social Security Act of 1935,” Political Science Quarterly 112, no. 2 (Summer 1997), 217–235. []
  64. Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1969). []
  65. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 201. []
  66. Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Norton, 2005). []
  67. George Brown Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913–1945 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1967), 491. []
  68. 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); Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890–1935 (New York: Free Press, 1994). []
  69. William E. Leuchtenburg, “The Origins of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Court-Packing’ Plan,” The Supreme Court Review (1966), 347–400. []
  70. Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Knopf, 1995). []
  71. Cohen, Making a New Deal; Kristi Andersen, The Creation of a Democratic Majority, 1928–1936 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Caroline Bird, The Invisible Scar (New York: McKay, 1966). []
  72. Quoted in Terkel, Hard Times, 34. []