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FDR: The First Hundred Days



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About The Author

Anthony J. Badger

Anthony J. Badger is Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University and Master of Clare College. He is the author of a number of books, including North Carolina and the New Deal and The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–1940.

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EXCERPT

Introduction

 

In the week following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration as president of the United States on March 4, 1933, more than 460,000 Americans wrote to him in the White House. This unprecedented personal communication from ordinary Americans continued. During the rest of his presidency an average of more than six thousand people a day wrote to him. Hoover had had one secretary to handle incoming correspondence that averaged six hundred letters a day. Roosevelt had to bring in fifty people to staff the White House mail room. The volume of correspondence generated led Roosevelt to conclude that neither the National Archives nor the Library of Congress could store this material in Washington. He proposed building a presidential library to house the documents of his presidency on his own estate at Hyde Park. He deeded the land to the federal government and raised the money from his friends and supporters to build the library. In return, Congress agreed to staff and administer it. FDR laid the cornerstone for his library on November 19, 1939. In his speech, he was at pains to highlight the letters of those ordinary Americans who had written to him over the previous six years when he said:

 

Of the papers which will come to rest here, I personally attach less importance to the documents of those who have occupied high public or private office than I do the spontaneous letters which have come to me...from men, from women, and from children in every part of the United States, telling me of their conditions and problems and giving me their own opinions.

 

Within two years of his death, his pre-presidential papers were open to scholars for study. By 1950, 85 percent of the Roosevelt papers had been cleared and could be used. In the battle for historical reputation, Roosevelt had defeated Herbert Hoover just as he had in the 1932 general election. It would not be until 1967 that historians could start scholarly work on the Hoover presidency, when his papers were made available at the Hoover Library, in West Branch, Iowa.

 

By establishing his library, Roosevelt transformed the keeping and status of presidential records. Before 1933 these papers were assumed to be the private property of the incumbents when they left office. Their preservation was haphazard: sometimes they ended up in the Library of Congress; often they remained in private hands or were destroyed. Presidents after Roosevelt have all raised private funds to establish ever grander presidential libraries, whose operation taxpayers fund.

 

Publicly, Roosevelt appeared modest and restrained about memorializing his presidency. He wanted no elaborate memorial in Washington. Instead, he requested a small marble slab, simply inscribed, to be placed outside the National Archives. In fact, Roosevelt was neither modest nor disinterested in shaping his historical legacy. He originally intended to screen all his correspondence personally before it could be transferred to his library. He anticipated three thousand visitors a week coming to the library and museum. What they would be interested in, he believed, was not the documentary record of his presidency but the artifacts of his life: everything that he had collected, from naval prints to stamps to books. He personally scaled down the reading area that would be set aside for scholars.

 

The mere existence of the library shaped the legacy Roosevelt bequeathed to his successors and historians in a substantive way. His plans perpetuated "the presidential synthesis" in which American history is seen largely through the lens of presidential administrations. Roosevelt left his successors a model of a dynamic, activist presidency that could not be ignored. All subsequent presidents, especially liberal Democrats, have labored "in the shadow of FDR." Their presidential accomplishments have been judged by the standards of the strong, charismatic national leadership that Roosevelt displayed in the fight, first, against the Great Depression, then against the Axis powers in World War II.

 

Nowhere was the standard set by Roosevelt more daunting for his successors than in his extraordinary achievements during his first hundred days in office.

 

Taking the reins of government on March 4, 1933, when the banks were closed and the nation paralyzed, Roosevelt warned Americans that, if Congress did not act decisively, he would ask it for "broad executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe." That passage drew the most sustained applause of the day. The cantankerous Congress, which had been gridlocked in bitter recrimination with the outgoing president, responded enthusiastically to Roosevelt’s patriotic appeals. Congressmen laid aside previous divisions, discarded long-held principles, and grasped, both for themselves and for the executive, vast, often unspecified, powers unheard of in peacetime. By June 16, after one hundred days of frenzied activity, sixteen pieces of major legislation gave the federal government the power to decide which banks should or should not reopen, to regulate the Stock Exchange, to determine the gold value of the dollar, to prescribe minimum wages and prices, to pay farmers not to produce, to pay money to the unemployed, to plan and regenerate a whole river basin across six states, to spend billions of dollars on public works, and to underwrite credit for bankers, homeowners, and farmers.

 

Presidents have been expected to follow FDR’s lead. When in 1992 Bill Clinton was elected during a recession, it was predicted that he would "in his first hundred days... take a muscular Franklin Roosevelt–like approach to the slump." As Jimmy Carter’s adviser Stuart Eizenstat noted, since FDR, "the first hundred days of an administration have been closely watched as a sign of what can be expected over the course of the entire administration." The first hundred days of the New Deal have served as a model for future presidents of bold leadership and executive-legislative harmony. Throughout his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson consistently measured his record against that of his political hero, FDR. In April 1965 he pressed his congressional liaison man, Larry O’Brien, to "jerk out every damn little bill you can and get them down here by the 12th" because "on the 12th you’ll have the best Hundred Days. Better than he did!...if you’ll just put out that propaganda...that they’ve done more than they did in Roosevelt’s Hundred Days."

 

Even if The New York Times was right on April 24, 1993, when it announced that "the hundred days test is, of course, fundamentally silly," most presidents have felt themselves held to account by it. Concerned that he would fail the test, Richard Nixon wrote in 1969, "In about five weeks we will have completed 100 days since the Inauguration. I would like to have this week a summary of the legislative proposals we have already sent to the Congress, and a hard analysis of what other legislative proposals will have been sent to the Congress for action before the 100 day period expires." He was certain that departments had not been working fast enough to meet this symbolic deadline. Aware that "after 100 days, the dam against criticism comes crashing down, and 80 days have gone by already," he and his staff created a "Hundred Days Group" and proposed a First Quarter Report that would "get off the hook on quantity of legislation being the first measure of success of the first 100 days." Even in 2006 the notion of a dynamic hundred days of legislative achievement was so beguiling that Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi in November promised that the new Democratic majority would enact major parts of what it had promised in the midterm campaign, not merely in a hundred days, but in a hundred hours.

 

Yet, as Arthur Schlesinger, the masterful narrator of the New Deal, observed, there was a hundred days "trap." Roosevelt’s Hundred Days was a "unique episode which grew out of a unique crisis." My first aim in this book is to analyze what was unique about the success of the first hundred days. There were very particular circumstances that enabled Roosevelt, but not subsequent presidents, to exercise such bold leadership and to command such widespread congressional support during that period.

 

But what did this legislation achieve?

 

For Bill Clinton’s grandfather, Roosevelt brought economic salvation so that when he died he expected to "go to Roosevelt." In the words of one liberal historian, for many Americans "something magical" happened in the Hundred Days. For the first time the federal government took responsibility for the economic welfare of ordinary Americans who had felt helpless in the face of economic catastrophe. For Jonathan Alter in 2006, the Hundred Days was a defining moment that created a new America with a new sense of social obligation, "a country of commitment to one another." Alter told "a story of how at one of the darkest moments in American political history, a political and communicative genius saved American democracy."

 

But that celebration of the Hundred Days and the subsequent New Deal has been challenged.

 

Critics on the right, ranging from Herbert Hoover to economic historians of the 1980s and 1990s, have argued that Roosevelt artificially created a crisis in 1933, used the analogy of the wartime emergency, and foisted economic regimentation and government control onto the American people. For them, 1933 was a decisive wrong turn in American history, one that set the nation firmly on the road to collectivism and the creation of a Leviathan that is the modern insatiable, bureaucratic state. As a result, conservative critics argue, the commitment of both ordinary Americans and their leaders to individualism, the free market, and limited government suffered a blow from which the nation has never fully recovered. For Amity Shlaes, writing in 2007, Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Mellon were the heroes of interwar America; the villains were Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, who both failed because of their penchant for government intervention and their lack of faith in the marketplace.

 

Critics on the left, ranging from Communists in 1933 to the New Left in the 1960s to historians in the 1990s writing on business leaders, have argued that there had never been a better time than the Hundred Days for the radical overhaul of the American economic and political system. The capitalist system had collapsed, and American workers and farmers were more disillusioned than ever before, or since, with traditional business leadership. For once, leaders of corporate capitalism could not solve their problems through economic expansion overseas, since there were no foreign markets to exploit. The alternative, they feared, was a radical redistribution of both wealth and power at home. To forestall that change, corporate leaders, radical critics argue, were the driving force behind the Hundred Days, patching up rather than tearing down the old economic system. They ensured that power remained largely in the hands of traditional leaders, and they defused by the most minimal measures possible the angry discontent of the poor. According to this argument, business interests were paramount in the formulation of public policy, and the New Deal was "part and parcel of two decades of business strategy and... business-driven recovery politics."

 

My second aim is to assess the nature of the changes that the Hundred Days brought and to identify the driving forces behind them. The newly acquired powers of government in 1933 were important, but precisely circumscribed. Corporate leaders were only one, and not even the most powerful, group among a number of policy players. In 1933 the capacity of the American state for economic intervention was minimal. The circumstances of the all-too-real economic emergency in 1933 dictated that the New Deal response rely on speed, voluntarism, and consent. Compulsion, the acquisition by the state of the means of production, central overhead planning, and redistributive taxation were never a possibility.

 

Some of the prominent figures of the Hundred Days—Harry Hopkins, Henry Wallace, and Harold Ickes—would still be central figures in the government when FDR died in 1945. Others who survived, such as Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and Frances Perkins, played relatively minor roles in the early months of the administration. Some key players in the Hundred Days, by contrast, would pass quickly from the stage or the good graces of the administration. Men such as the Brains Truster Raymond Moley; Lewis Douglas, advocate of a rigid economy; Hugh Johnson and George Peek, the protégés of Bernard Baruch; and Wilsonian warhorse Dan Roper were influential in 1933 but played little role afterward.

 

My third aim is therefore to identify how important the legislation of the Hundred Days was for the longer-term phenomenon of New Deal liberalism. Relief for the unemployed, the protection of labor standards, farm price supports, and public works spending were all part of the Hundred Days. But so were measures designed to slash government spending, foster business-government cooperation, and increase the tax burden through regressive excise taxes. It was by no means inevitable at the end of the Hundred Days that the former would be the shape of the New Deal future while the latter became redundant.

 

Roosevelt famously assured the American people in his inaugural that they had "nothing to fear but fear itself." In fact, Americans had every reason to be fearful. When Roosevelt took office in March 1933, even the prospects for the survival of democracy itself looked bleak. Hitler had come to power in Germany, and totalitarianism was dominant in Italy, Russia, and Japan. Democratic governments across Europe were fragile and unpopular. With the future of capitalism and democracy at stake, Roosevelt responded with unprecedented vigor and elicited a remarkable popular response. This book aims to explain how a president could act so boldly and attract such popular backing, to assess what that bold leadership achieved, and to see how much of the permanent and lasting imprint of the New Deal could be discerned in those first hundred days.

 

Excerpted from FDR: The First Hunderd Days by Anthony J. Badger.
Copyright © 2008 by Anthony J. Badger.
Published in 2009] by Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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