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In July of 1932, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in U.S. history, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, promising “a new deal for the American people.” That promise became a series of relief, recovery, and reform programs designed to provide assistance to the unemployed and poor, revive the economy, and change the financial system to prevent another depression.
The timeline below shows some major events related to the New Deal, beginning with its antecedents in the four years before Roosevelt’s inauguration:
In October, the stock market crashes, marking the beginning of the Great Depression.
Unemployment grows from almost 4 million in January to 7 million in December.
President Herbert Hoover appoints the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment to stimulate state and local relief (no funding for relief was provided by the committee).
Congress authorizes release of government surplus wheat and cotton for relief purposes.
Emergency Relief and Construction Act is passed. The Act provides funding to help state and local governments with their relief efforts.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected president in November.
In the first two months of 1933, 4,004 banks fail. Unemployment reaches approximately 14 million (about 25 percent). FDR is inaugurated on March 4. The following day, he proclaims a four-day bank holiday. He calls a special session of Congress to begin March 9.
On the first day of its special session, Congress passes the Emergency Banking Act, which gives the president power over the banks. Within a few days, many banks reopen, lifting national spirits. Over the next 100 days, Congress enacts a number of laws creating New Deal programs.
Congress continues to pass relief and reform legislation, including the Securities Exchange Act, which establishes the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate sale of securities, and the National Housing Act, which establishes the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to provide insurance for loans needed to build or repair homes.
Congress passes the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which funds the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide employment on “useful projects.” Through June 1943, when the WPA ends, the program will provide jobs for 8.5 million Americans with 30 million dependents.
The Supreme Court rules the NIRA unconstitutional.
Congress passes National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, Bank Act, Public Utilities Act, and Revenue Act. These acts provide a safety net for the elderly and disabled, authorize greater government regulation of banks and utility companies, and increase taxes on wealthier Americans.
Supreme Court rules the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional. Roosevelt is reelected.
Roosevelt is inaugurated in January.
Thwarted by Supreme Court decisions, Roosevelt develops a plan to change the Court’s composition. His proposal would add a judge for every justice who does not retire at age 70. The plan is not well received, even among Roosevelt supporters. Supreme Court upholds National Labor Relations Act and Social Security Act.
Congress passes the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets a minimum wage for workers and a maximum number of work hours. This is the last significant New Deal legislation.
Historians still debate whether the New Deal succeeded. Those who say it succeeded point out that economic indicators, while they did not return to pre-Depression levels, did bounce back significantly, and also point to the infrastructure created by WPA workers as a long-term benefit.
Critics point out that, while unemployment fell after 1933, it remained high. They argue that the New Deal did not provide long-term solutions and only the war ended the Depression. Furthermore, many critics feel the New Deal made changes in the government’s role that were not a benefit to the nation.
This primary source set features a variety of documents produced by several New Deal agencies. The documents illustrate a variety of kinds of work funded by the agencies, as well as the types of social and economic problems that the programs either addressed or documented.