Anthony Badger: The Hundred Days and Beyond ... What did the New Deal Accomplish?





[Anthony 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, most recently FDR: The First Hundred Days (Hill and Wang, 2008).]

The Hundred Days were an accident. Roosevelt took advantage of the need to reopen the banks to ask Congress to stay in session to pass recovery and reform legislation. Much of that legislation was improvised. The haste dictated by the economic crisis profoundly shaped the New Deal response in the Hundred Days.

Despite the four months between election and inauguration, Roosevelt had few worked-out legislative or recovery plans. He certainly had no plans to deal with the rapidly escalating banking crisis. When he took office and shut the banks, he had to turn to held-over officials in the Treasury and Federal Reserve to dust off legislative proposals that they had devised in the Hoover years. The key was not more credit (the banks had had plenty of that) but recapitalization through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation buying preferred stock in the banks. It was still a tremendous gamble when the President went on the air on Sunday March 12 to explain the crisis and make a “man to man appeal” for confidence when the banks reopened the next day. The gamble paid off when people deposited more than they took out. There was no Plan B if that appeal failed.

The response to FDR’s inaugural and from congressional leaders to his banking proposals encouraged him to ask Congress to stay in session. Eventually Congress passed an unprecedented sixteen pieces of major legislation. In the Hundred Days, the New Deal established a farm program that told farmers what they could and could not plant (the Agricultural Adjustment Administration), created an industrial recovery programme that set minimum prices and wages (the National Recovery Administration), launched the biggest public works program in the nation’s history (Public Works Administration), set up national relief program (Federal Emergency Relief Administration), refinanced farm and home mortgages, regulated the stock market and banking, guaranteed bank deposits, and established the Tennessee Valley Authority.

There was no great federal blueprint that FDR wanted to impose on the country. He really only had definite plans for farm policy, the Tennessee Valley and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Only when existing appropriations for relief were exhausted did he devise a temporary relief administration. Forty days into the Hundred Days there was no indication that there was to be an industrial recovery program – congressional action forced Roosevelt’s hand over that and over public works spending....

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