Official Washington itself had changed in those few days. Within the White House, where Hoover had ignored the servants and kept attendants standing at motionless attention while he ate his meals, a new atmosphere prevailed. The gloom and stiffness had been swept away; now the place vibrated with energy and informality and a sense of purpose. Government offices and the Capitol, accustomed to dreary recitations of reasons why things could not change, were already filling up with decisive young lawyers and academics. Many of them were available only because the depression had shrunk private opportunities in their professions, and they carried the message that change was not only possible but mandatory. Reporters who were used to rebuff and to printed statements found themselves ushered into the Oval Office and invited to ask questions.
Roosevelt had intended to dismiss the Congress from its special session once the banking legislation was enacted. But with the majority Democrats clearly in a mood to act and his advisors urging him to take advantage of their eagerness, he decided to push forward on all fronts. The government was no longer sitting on its hands.
His first target was Prohibition. Since 1919, when the states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages and the Volstead Act set up provisions for enforcement, much of the country had played a charade of temperance. Fifteen thousand legal pubs and saloons in New York City had closed, to be replaced by more than double that number of illegal speakeasies. Congress had its own bootlegger in the person of George L. Cassidy, known as the “Man in the Green Hat,” who bragged that he had the keys to more Capitol Hill desks and offices than anyone in history. Rumrunners crossed the borders from Canada to the United States by land and sea, moonshiners flourished in the hills of Appalachia, and organized-crime gangs fought for pieces of the illegal liquor market, resulting in some 500 gangland murders in Chicago alone. The lame duck Congress had passed the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth, before Roosevelt took office, but while it awaited ratification by the states he decided to ease the national thirst. He proposed amending the Volstead Act to legalize beer and wine with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent, and Congress passed the measure easily. It also passed reductions in veterans’ pensions and federal and congressional salaries that were aimed at cutting the budget by half a billion dollars, an economy measure on which the president would soon reverse himself.
Americans were drinking publicly again on April 7, albeit beverages that were officially “non-intoxicating.” By then, barely a month into his presidency, Roosevelt had placed before the Congress a wide array of legislation designed to attack the farmers’ woes, regulate Wall Street’s issuance of new securities, create an army of young men to improve the national parks and forests, and spend $500 million to meet human needs through the creation of a new position, that of federal relief administrator—all intended to ease the worst effects of the depression. In process were other far-reaching proposals: to bring electricity to a large part of the rural South through a series of hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee River valley; provide mortgage protection for small homeowners; separate commercial from investment banking and insure private savings accounts; take the country off the gold standard; stabilize the economy, especially industrial production, through planning; and create a huge program of public works. This great surge of lawmaking, to be famously known as the “Hundred Days,” symbolized the new administration’s activism and its willingness to experiment.
Of all the problems these proposals were intended to address, the farm problem was perhaps the worst. Anger in the farm belt continued to grow, and the lynch mob sentiments stirred by foreclosures were getting worse. Farmers in Le Mars, Iowa, dragged a judge from his courtroom when he refused to halt foreclosure proceedings, tied a noose around his neck, and crowned him with a greasy hubcap before they left him praying in a roadside ditch. After farmers in Denison, Iowa, attacked deputies and foreclosure agents at a farm sale, Governor Clyde L. Herring declared martial law in six counties and armed National Guard troops moved in. Sheriff’s deputies in White Cloud, Michigan, had to resort to tear gas to scatter 400 farmers gathered to protest a foreclosure sale at the Newaygo County courthouse.
And these were people who still had the vigor to protest. Many of the ragged jobless workers in cities and small towns, the wandering homeless, and the denizens of the nation’s many Hoovervilles had been crushed to apathy by their bleak prospects. Millions of people had not only no money but no food, clothing, or shelter, and the situation was growing more desperate by the day. On average, families who were on relief were getting only 50 cents a day, far too little to put together a subsistence diet. Still worse, the greatest need existed in the poorest states. In some states, four people in ten were on relief, and there were counties in which relief families constituted 90 percent of the population. The existing relief system had already proven its inadequacy. Now it was crumbling under the weight of need.
Members of Congress and his own advisors had urged Roosevelt to rescue the system with a federal appropriation. But none of these entreaties offered a structure to go with it and neither, when he took office, did the president. He lacked a design that would unify the scattered existing relief efforts, varying from state to state, into a single central agency that could put the money where the need was. That changed midway through his second week in office, and the plan laid out before him must have been familiar, for it was modeled after the state relief agency set up in New York when he was governor. The architect of both was a transplanted Iowan named Harry Lloyd Hopkins.