Historian H.W. Brands reviews president’s command performance, popular appeal and Depression-era policies
In 1932, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned for the United States presidency, the country was in the darkest days of its deepest depression.
Twenty-five percent of the U.S. workforce was unemployed. Across the country, millions were homeless, farms were failing, industrial production was declining, and banks had shut their doors.
“Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth,” Roosevelt said when he accepted the Democratic party’s nomination. “I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”
Roosevelt, who was reared on Hudson Valley privilege, was quickly becoming the people’s candidate, willing to fight for the underprivileged and challenge the status quo, historian H.W. Brands explains in Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Doubleday, 2008). The book was one of three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize and earned a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
After carrying 42 of the country’s then 48 states, Roosevelt declared the Great Depression a national emergency and distinguished himself from his predecessor Herbert Hoover and the Republicans who, since the 1920s, had left economic recovery to the private sector, believing the business cycle would eventually bring the depression to a close.
“[T]he rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men,” Roosevelt said in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933.
“True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition,” he continued. “They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.”
FDR challenged Americans to come together to solve the common problem of getting people back to work. He also called for stricter supervision of banking and support for public projects in the areas of transportation, communications and other utilities to stimulate and reorganize the economy.
“The challenges FDR faced were enormous, but no one has entered the White House better prepared to become president than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who already had accomplished so much at the local, state and national level,” argues Brands, the university’s Raymond Dickson, Alton C. Allen and Dillon Anderson Centennial Professor.
In addition to serving more than seven years in Woodrow Wilson’s administration, where he was responsible for the Navy and national security, FDR served as a state legislator and as governor of New York, where he dealt with the economic and personal realities of the Depression in the largest state in the union.