(photo credit 11.1)
Early in 1935, Time magazine said that all indications were that President Roosevelt would move toward reconciliation with business and that reform was virtually at an end. As it turned out, this was precisely the opposite of what happened during the next two years. The fundamental reason for Roosevelt’s shift to the left in 1935 is clear. His constituents had already turned in that direction and it was politically necessary for the President to move to catch up with his followers. Roosevelt was many things—patrician, optimist, stamp collector, sailor, among others—but above all he was a politician. He rarely, if ever, made a decision without first thrusting a damp finger into the political wind. In 1934 and 1935 that wind was building up into a gale that no political leader could long ignore. It forced Roosevelt to tack desperately to the leeward in order to keep afloat.
The luxury of consensus government was one of the many privileges that President Roosevelt enjoyed, but he finally had to give it up. As late as the election of 1934, FDR was still aiming for the middle, speaking of “10 to 15 per cent of people” on each extreme who opposed the New Deal. Just before the election, the President addressed the American Bankers Association convention. It was an attempt to placate business opposition. Roosevelt told the bankers that he sought an alliance of major interests in the country, including bankers and government. He pledged to reduce large expenditures as soon as business revived. At the last minute, FDR altered his text, saying, “That is what we call and accept as a profit system.” He emphasized “and accept as,” his addition to the speech. The bankers were especially pleased with this, and they gave the President a tremendous ovation lasting for several minutes. The treaty between Roosevelt and the bankers proved to be of short duration, though.
There were, to be sure, pressures from both sides in 1934, but the direction in which Roosevelt must turn was clearly to the left. One reason was that businessmen deserted him before he gave up on them. In the dark days of 1933 few captains of industry dared to oppose the dynamic new President. Their own prestige was shattered; his was rising rapidly. At the very least they remained neutral in thought and deed. Many went beyond and cheerfully joined in the alliance FDR offered them. The Economy Act, the Emergency Banking Act, and the NRA were generally pleasing to business interests.
Other parts of the legislative barrage in the Hundred Days were greeted with less enthusiasm, but little open opposition to Roosevelt surfaced until early 1934. Then, however, the combination of the proposed stock exchange legislation and temporary transfer by the President of air mail concessions from private carriers to the Army Air Corps led to the first loud cries of “communism.” Since the President himself was too popular to attack directly at this point, early salvos were aimed at his advisers. Some businessmen saw in every professor advising Roosevelt a Communist or, at best, an impractical visionary. The “Brain Trusters”—by now a generic term for all New Dealers, or at least those whom one did not like—were lashed at unmercifully. Opponents portrayed them as power-hungry bureaucrats, carrying the country down a high-speed route to totalitarianism. In the summer of 1934 conservative opponents of the New Deal decided the time had come to end some of the suffering—their own. As John J. Raskob put it, big business must “organize to protect society from the suffering it is bound to endure if … no one should be allowed to get rich.” With such an understanding of what it meant to suffer, a number of wealthy men launched the Liberty League.
The nucleus of the Liberty League was formed by the same group—Raskob, the Du Ponts, and other backers of Al Smith—who had long sought to turn the Democratic party toward conservatism and switch the tax burden from the rich to the poor and middle class. Jouett Shouse, a corporation lawyer and former congressman closely associated with Raskob, was named chairman. These men had plotted in 1932 to block Roosevelt’s nomination. They were, in short, not people who had ever been friendly to FDR or to progressive causes. Their organization quickly became the center of attacks on the New Deal from the right. The league professed to be especially concerned with alleged violations of constitutional rights. It labeled the AAA a “trend toward Fascist control of agriculture,” the National Labor Relations Act “unconstitutional,” and relief and old-age pensions “the end of democracy.” It soon became apparent that the only liberty sought by league members was that of the rich. As Senator William Borah pointed out, they must have been so impressed by the Constitution because “they had just discovered it.”
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that big business was solidly opposed to the New Deal. Many sophisticated business leaders, particularly some key figures in New York and leaders of some relatively new businesses, such as Thomas Watson of IBM and Jack Warner and others in Hollywood studios, saw the New Deal as Roosevelt did: as capitalism’s savior, not its executioner. FDR had a Business Advisory Council that included in 1935 such luminaries as Winthrop Aldrich of the Chase National Bank, Walter Gifford of AT&T, Gerard Swope of General Electric, and W. Averell Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad. Boston retail tycoon Edward A. Filene put the pro-New Deal business view most succinctly. “Why shouldn’t the American people take half my money from me?” he asked. “I took all of it from them.”
Such radical spirits as Lincoln Steffens expressed amusement at the spectacle of businessmen attacking Roosevelt while he was trying desperately to save their system. The President himself saw less humor in the situation. For a time, at least, he was bitter at being called a traitor to his class, a class that he was saving from its own shortsightedness. But he was not yet ready to abandon the hope for consensus. “One of my principal tasks,” he believed as late as November 1934, “is to prevent bankers and businessmen from committing suicide!”1
Some other Americans did not think the survival of such magnates was worth the trouble. The late second and early third years of a president’s first term often constitute an administration’s most critical period. The “honeymoon” has worn off and more lasting impressions of a leader are formed. Such impressions go a long way toward determining whether a president will be reelected. This important period in Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency may be dated from late 1934 through the summer of 1935. It was a time in which the President’s popularity began to decline, opposition on his left grew, and he finally won back the support of most Americans through a series of actions that are often called the Second New Deal, or the Second Hundred Days.
The motives for Roosevelt’s actions of 1935 were many. Business hostility and Supreme Court decisions against such early New Deal legislation as the NRA played their roles. More basic, though, was that the initial Roosevelt programs had been in effect for two years, yet the Depression continued. The National Recovery Administration had provided far more administration than recovery. It seemed to the experiment-minded Roosevelt that the time had come to try something new. The President was not alone in this conclusion. New Deal reformers rapidly perceived the significance of the outcome of the 1934 elections. Shortly after the election Harry Hopkins declared to his staff, “Boys—this is our hour. We’ve got to get everything we want—a works program, social security, wages and hours, everything—now or never.” The reverse side of the opportunity for new policy was the political danger of not moving faster and further.
The popularity of Long, Coughlin, and Townsend provided a warning siren for Roosevelt. By early 1935 the signal was shrill and growing in intensity. It was becoming clear that Roosevelt’s popularity among working-class Americans was declining. Historian Charles Beard detected a “staggering rapidity” in the “disintegration of President Roosevelt’s prestige” in February and March. In April an FERA field investigator reported a dramatic reversal of the positive views toward Roosevelt that she had seen in Camden, New Jersey, in 1934. Martha Gellhorn was shocked: “It surprises me to find how radically attitudes can change within four or five months.” In what she considered a typical eastern industrial city, Gellhorn discovered that the workers and unemployed were “no longer sustained by confidence in the President.” She found people complaining about low wages. “They say to you, quietly, like people who have been betrayed but are too tired to be angry, ‘How does he [FDR] expect us to live on that; does he know what food costs, what rents are, how can we keep clothes on the children … ?” Gellhorn asserted that the President was “hardly mentioned now, only in answer to questions.” Union and unemployed council leaders said that “if he were up for election tomorrow he would lose.”
The Camden poor who had lost faith in Roosevelt were not yet radical, but they were fed up with what they saw as the New Deal’s unkept promises. Such was the clear trend in the first half of 1935. In March a Chicago man who had been interviewing the poor for several weeks wrote, “I found that there were quite a few that had turned Democratic in the last election and were beginning to get … disgusted with the administration.” He told Roosevelt, “There are a great many against you.” A Pennsylvania worker agreed. “The forgotten man,” he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, “is still forgotten.… The new deal and N.R.A. has only helped big business.” In May a Brooklyn machinist related to Harry Hopkins his disgust with the assistance Roosevelt’s program was seemingly providing for big business: “With you demanding the best for those used to the best (just for that reason!) Where’s New Deal in that? Where is democracy?”
A Columbus, Ohio, worker summed up the growing feeling of betrayal in 1935 when he wrote to Roosevelt: “We the people voted for you, we had a world of faith in you, we loved you, we stood by you, it was a common thing to hear a man or woman say they would gladly die for you, but it is a different story now. Yes you have faded out on the masses of hungry, idle people.… the very rich is the only one who has benefitted from your new deal,” he continued. “Why didn’t you turn a deaf ear to the United States Chamber of Commers, and turn to the left, and saved millions of starving people, who believed in you.… but it is so diferent to day the people are dissappointed, it is common now to hear the people, every where you go say President Roosevelt, has proven to be no deferent from any other President, there all for big business after they get in office.” This bitterly disappointed man went on to voice a matter that was of grave personal concern to Roosevelt: his political future. “Today the way people are thinking and talking, if you were to get the nomination in 1936,” he declared, “you will be beation by a great land slide.” The correspondent was himself considering voting for Huey Long. The impression was widespread that many other voters were leaning the same way. The Timesof London warned that the people of the United States would soon turn to Long and Coughlin if Roosevelt could not soon bring about improvement.2
With a reelection campaign fast approaching, Roosevelt realized that he must decide how best to regain the support of those whose votes he needed to win. This could be done in two ways: by taking action to ease the Depression and by making it clear the administration favored “the forgotten man” and opposed big business. Both tasks were difficult, but in different ways. Few were sure how to accomplish the first, but doing so would make most people happy. Openly opposing business was done easily enough, but it would make powerful enemies.
The quickest way to ease the Depression was by giving adequate relief. Roosevelt was greatly troubled, though, by the debilitating effects of the dole. He therefore decided, late in 1934, to seek a massive new appropriation for work relief. The commitment to work relief and the magnitude of the appropriation ($4.88 billion) distinguished the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 from earlier New Deal relief efforts. At the time it represented the largest single appropriation in history. Congress passed the act in April. As a result, the President created the WPA, which soon became one of the New Deal’s most important agencies. (I deal with the WPA in the next chapter.)
Roosevelt remained hesitant to make a clean break with big-business leadership. This had not been done in 1933, despite its probable popularity, because Roosevelt had no desire to destroy big business. He hoped rather to create a society in which business leaders would cooperate with government. The vision had taken shape in the NRA, but it had not worked. Big business was, if anything, even more unpopular in 1935 than it had been when Roosevelt took office. Opposing “Wall Street”—at least rhetorically and symbolically—was becoming a political imperative.
Testing the waters slowly, FDR decided to launch an attack on perhaps the least popular of all business groups, the utility companies. The worst abuse in the power industry was the pyramiding of holding companies on top of the operating utility firms. These holding companies, which produced nothing and whose sole assets were stocks in lower companies, rarely existed for any function other than to issue stock and inflate profits. By 1932 thirteen such companies controlled 75 percent of the nation’s private power interests. The results were huge profits for speculators and grossly overpriced electricity for consumers.
In his 1935 State of the Union speech, President Roosevelt left out a significant word. His text called for the “abolition of the evil features of holding companies.” By dropping “features” the President—apparently inadvertently—made a much more drastic (and popular) statement. Legislation called the Wheeler-Rayburn bill was drafted to compel the dissolution of all utility holding companies that could not prove they served a valid economic purpose. The bill’s key provision, soon known as “the death sentence,” drew a distinct line between FDR and big business. Businessmen reacted strongly in defense of their brothers in the utilities.
The utility companies launched a massive lobbying campaign in which the lobbyists were said to outnumber the membership of Congress. Faced with a “death sentence,” the utilities went further. They sent a quarter of a million fraudulent telegrams and 5 million letters to congressmen; a whispering campaign was started, suggesting that Roosevelt was on the verge of mental collapse. The pressure worked. The Wheeler-Rayburn bill passed in the Senate, but the House rejected the death sentence. Congress in the thirties was unwilling to outlaw lynching, but when it came to capital punishment for utilities pyramids, the representatives were more compassionate. Finally in late August 1935, a compromise was reached in which the pyramids were, in most cases, to be cut down to smaller units and kept to only one level above the operating company. This was well short of abolishing holding companies, but it was a serious blow against them.
Possibly more important to Roosevelt than the final law was that he had been able to make a tough public stand against a major business abuse. In addition to the direct political benefits this brought the President, it produced an increased business hostility to him. This was all to the good as far as FDR’s political future was concerned.
The breach between Roosevelt and big business was achieved by a series of reciprocal actions. After the administration began its attack on utility holding companies, business grew less tolerant of the New Deal. The annual meeting of the United States Chamber of Commerce in late April 1935 showed the extent of anger in some business quarters. Delegates accused the President of trying to “Sovietize America” and voted to oppose a long list of progressive proposals.
Although the administration retained significant friends among big businessmen, the general impression was one of an open break. This made it easier for Roosevelt to do what the political and economic situation dictated—to split the country along its major class cleavage.3 (This is not to say that Roosevelt was acting in a cynical fashion or that he was not sincere in advocating social programs. Rather, it is to place the greatest emphasis on the political situation dictated by the class-oriented values of the mid-thirties.)
As 1935 progressed, Roosevelt continued to take steps toward the end of identifying himself with the poor and against the uncaring rich. Since his days as governor of New York, Roosevelt had favored government social insurance. But he had failed to move forward on the matter and Congress had taken the initiative in early 1934 with two different versions, one based on payroll taxes, the other on federal grants to the states. The President stalled congressional action by appointing a committee under Labor Secretary Frances Perkins to determine the best form for social insurance. Roosevelt himself favored an all-inclusive “cradle-to-grave” system. He wanted it to be based on contributions, not on general tax revenues. Congress, as usual, followed the path of least resistance, which meant the President lost on the first point and won on the second. Both results were unfortunate for the American people.
Congressional hearings on the bill in the early months of 1935 provided yet another opportunity for businessmen to castigate the New Deal. The cry of “socialism” reverberated throughout the hearing rooms, and business leaders predicted the end of initiative, thrift, and the American way of life. It was mildly entertaining theater, but actually the bill was sufficiently conservative so that all but a few Republicans finally voted for it. Roosevelt signed the act in August 1935.
The Social Security Act was a significant achievement in that it at last acknowledged a modicum of societal responsibility for the care of the aged, unemployed, handicapped, and impoverished. It was also important as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate that Roosevelt’s heart was in the right place, no small accomplishment with a presidential election little more than a year away. Although the Townsend organization continued to thrive for more than a decade, Social Security deflated the movement as a threat to Roosevelt.
Despite these gains, four major defects made the Social Security Act a flawed piece of legislation. First, contrary to FDR’s wishes, the act did not include everyone. The fears of many southern whites were captured by the Jackson Daily News, which declared: “The average Mississippian can’t imagine himself chipping in to pay pensions for ablebodied Negroes to sit around in idleness on front galleries supporting their kinfolks on pensions, while cotton and corn crops are crying for workers to get them out of the grass.” In order to get southern support for the bill, congressional leaders excluded from the provisions of the law many of the people most in need of protection—farm and domestic workers.
Second, the insurance system was based on payroll taxes, as Roosevelt had insisted. The regressive nature of such taxation is obvious: the lower-income workers paid a far larger percentage of their wages in social security taxes than did those whose incomes were above the maximum taxable level. There was another side to the argument over contributory insurance versus funding from general revenue, though. The latter course would be far more equitable and progressive, but taking the former route ensured that the system would not be cut back by subsequent administrations. Once people had contributed their own money, they saw the Social Security System as a “sacred trust,” far different from “charity” programs. The importance of this distinction is apparent nearly a half century later.
Third, the payroll tax was used to build up a fund from which social security payments would eventually be made. This meant simply that purchasing power was being taken out of the economy—and away from those most likely to spend it—when precisely the opposite was desperately needed to stimulate recovery. No payments were scheduled to be made until 1941.
Finally, by creating a hodgepodge state-based network of unemployment compensation, the act helped precipitate the enactment of another regressive type of levy, the sales tax, which spread quickly, particularly in the nation’s poorest region, the South.
A system that excluded the neediest, took money from workers, and reduced aggregate demand in the midst of a depression was something less than a model for progressive legislation. Yet the Social Security Act helped, in combination with other parts of the Second New Deal, to win back for Roosevelt the allegiance of the forgotten man.4
* * *
Only the need to regain the support of workers led Roosevelt reluctantly and belatedly to endorse perhaps the most important law passed in the 1930s, the Wagner Act. Roosevelt had never been overly sympathetic toward organized labor. As a paternalist, the President wanted to do things for workers, not create a situation in which they could help themselves. He had signaled this attitude by naming Frances Perkins, a social worker rather than a unionist, as secretary of labor. Miss Perkins, like most other early New Dealers, was a paternalist (or in her case, perhaps, a maternalist). She acted as if she believed that workers had few good ideas and that expert reformers must think for them.
Accordingly, the emphasis of the early New Deal was upon government programs, some of which would provide benefits for workers. Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act was the only nod toward organized labor in Roosevelt’s initial program. As it became clear that the promise of 7(a) would go largely unfulfilled, labor’s strongest friend in Congress, New York Senator Robert Wagner, sought new legislation to protect unions and those who wished to join them. Wagner was the embodiment of the new urban liberalism that had begun to emerge in the Progressive era and was reaching a level of great influence in the New Deal. Differing in important ways from the rural reformers of an earlier age, urban liberals of the Wagner type were among the foremost advocates of legislation protecting workers, assuring their right to organize, and providing for minimum standards of social welfare.
President Roosevelt, still hoping to hold the middle ground between workers and employers, blocked the Wagner bill in 1934. It was reintroduced in 1935, and still the President wanted no part of it. Now, however, Senator Wagner began skillfully to maneuver the bill through the Senate. Businessmen, already up in arms over the proposals on utilities and social insurance, cried that the passage of the labor law would mean the end of the world, or at least of America as they had known and loved it.
As usual, business fears were overwrought. The law would give the National Labor Relations Board the power to prohibit unfair practices by employers who sought to block unionization, to order and conduct elections to determine if workers wanted to bargain collectively and, if so, whom they wanted to represent them. This in no sense forced unions on unwilling workers; it merely made the government, long a powerful ally of business in labor disputes, an active neutral. This ultimately helped American workers greatly, but it did little harm to employers, most of whom quickly learned to accommodate themselves to the new situation.
Without presidential backing, the Wagner bill was approved in the Senate by the overwhelming margin of 63–12. Seeing that the legislation would pass anyway, President Roosevelt decided to gain whatever credit he could for a popular law that he had never supported. He suddenly announced that the Wagner bill was on his “must” list of legislation. The House passed the bill on a voice vote and Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act on July 5.
By this time, Roosevelt had received another stimulus to move to the left. On May 27, 1935, the Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision that declared the NRA unconstitutional. The case, United States v. Schecter Poultry Corp., involved the charge that the company had violated an NRA code by selling diseased poultry, among other irregularities. Inevitably the case came to be popularly known as the “sick chicken case.”
The Schecter decision has been called “the Black Monday of the New Deal,” and has been credited with turning Roosevelt to the left and starting the Second New Deal. All of this is misleading, to say the least. Although Roosevelt later said the decision returned the Constitution to “horse-and-buggy days,” his outrage at the verdict centered not so much on the invalidation of the NRA as on the Court’s threat to reject other New Deal measures. The Scheeter case actually helped the President politically by releasing him from a policy that was not working and giving him the opportunity to blame the failure to achieve recovery on “nine old men.” Nor was the Schecter decision significant in starting the Second New Deal. Roosevelt had decided upon a new work relief program the previous fall, he had called for the enactment of a social insurance system in January, and in March he had demanded the execution of utility holding companies. On May 15 the Senate had passed the Wagner bill and Roosevelt had indicated that he would support such a bill on May 24. More than a week before the Supreme Court ruling newsmen observed a new presidential mood. Roosevelt was clearly moving to the left and trying dramatic new initiatives before the Schecter decision, which played at most a minor part in motivating the new policies.5
The summer of 1935 also produced other important legislation, such as the Banking Act of 1935, which centralized control of the money market in the Federal Reserve Board, thereby making a coherent government economic policy less difficult, and saw the development of the Rural Electrification Administration, which ultimately would revolutionize farm life by bringing electricity within reach of almost all American farms. But what was probably the most important event of the Second New Deal resulted in a very unimportant piece of legislation.
At the beginning of 1935, Roosevelt had said there was no need for changes in taxation at that time. In February the President rejected a dramatic tax reform package that the Treasury Department had prepared. But the thunder on the left continued to rise, especially around the junior senator from Louisiana, and in the spring FDR spoke privately to Raymond Moley of the need to do something “to steal Long’s thunder.” In view of Long’s demand to “soak the rich,” a new tax policy seemed the best way to achieve that end. To undermine Long and save capitalism, Roosevelt told a representative of William Randolph Hearst in May, it might “be necessary to throw to the wolves the forty-six men who are reported to have incomes in excess of one million dollars a year.” The President now decided to send a radical-sounding tax message to Congress. The purpose was plainly political; Roosevelt failed even to indicate whether he wanted action in that session of Congress and seems to have been far more interested in the political impact of the message than in actual tax reform. He was prepared, a month after the message, to agree to a congressional adjournment without action on taxes. It might have been better to wait; then he could take a strong stand against the rich in 1936, just before the election.
The tax message went to Congress on June 19, 1935, which is the most convenient time at which to mark the turning point of the New Deal (although Roosevelt’s decision to move to the left had occurred at least six weeks earlier). On the same day, the House approved the Wagner bill and the Senate passed the Social Security measure. Both of these important events were overshadowed, though, by the presidential message. Roosevelt told Congress that large accumulations of wealth meant “the perpetuation of great and undesirable concentration of control in a relatively few individuals over the employment and welfare of many, many others.” Decrying the “unjust concentration of wealth and economic power,” the President called for federal inheritance and gift taxes, higher personal income taxes in the upper brackets, and a graduated corporate income tax.
If, as seems apparent, the intention of the wealth tax message was to win back wavering supporters, it succeeded admirably. Public reaction to the proposals was overwhelmingly favorable. More than 80 percent of the people who wrote to Roosevelt about the tax message praised the idea. Their letters make it clear that the view that the tax proposal marked a turn to the left is not simply the product of later historical analysis. Many people commented immediately on FDR’s shift. “In this community,” a Californian wrote to the President the day after the tax message, “the rank and file stand more resolutely than ever with you since you have begun to turn to the left again.” Several letter writers indicated that they had long awaited such a proposal from Roosevelt. It was, one said, “like light in darkness.” “Millions of your supporters have been anxiously awaiting such a message,” another assured the President. And a Philadelphian informed FDR: “I am now on your bandwagon again, after having slipped off.”
Perhaps the best summary of what had been happening to Roosevelt’s support in early 1935 and the effect the tax message had in reversing that decline came from an eighty-one-year-old former Republican in Kansas. “Your recent message to Congress furnishes the convincing assurance that the New Deal program means to go to the roots of the evils that plague the nation; that it understands the causes therefor, and proposes to eradicate them,” he wrote. “Many early followers” of the New Deal, this Kansan went on, had become “less optimistic. To very many the program was beginning to appear ‘half-baked’ and doomed to failure.” The tax message restored this elderly man’s faith in the President and the New Deal. A New Jersey man indicated the political significance of FDR’s stance on taxes. “Your message,” he wrote to Roosevelt, “has reunited the working class Democrat, overnight for the time being.”
With rhetoric producing such results, FDR remained reluctant to push for genuine tax reform. Without strong backing from the White House, the bill was mutilated in Congress. Far from soaking the rich, the “Wealth Tax Act” of 1935 scarcely dampened them. A graduated corporate income tax survived in token form only, and a small estate tax was enacted. The entire final bill increased taxes by only $250 million. The millionaires remained safe from the wolves. The tax act did almost nothing to redistribute wealth, but Roosevelt’s original proposals had effectively redistributed political allegiances. Business was more bitter than ever. Roosevelt had burned his bridges to Wall Street, and now had to continue to seek to unify working-class Americans behind him.
This he was at last prepared to do. Late in the year he told Moley that he would continue his “fighting” rhetoric. The President said he hoped that this would keep his “left-wing supporters satisfied.” The battle lines for 1936 were now clearly drawn. Roosevelt was casting his lot with the forgotten man (who seems most often to be remembered during and just prior to election years). It would be “us” against “them” in 1936, and FDR clearly wanted to be one of “us.”6
The primary reason for the Second New Deal was simply the growth of discontent among the workers. The threat from the left had grown since 1932. New Deal programs had brought together the down-and-out and given them ample opportunity to discuss their common plight. The hope the NRA had given workers and then taken away from them had stimulated a new militant drive for organization. And the immense strength of those presenting alternatives to the New Deal, such as Olson, Sinclair, Coughlin, Townsend, and Long, provided foci for the workers’ discontent.
Moreover, in 1932, Roosevelt, as the challenger, had been able to benefit from the discontent in the electorate. In 1936 he stood to lose because of that discontent, unless he could perform some fast footwork and catch up with the voters. The result was this flurry of legislation and rhetoric.
Much of the historical scholarship on the Roosevelt era has dealt with the question of whether there were two ideologically distinct “new deals,” one from 1933 to early 1935, and the other beginning in 1935. Even among those who have accepted the notion of an identifiable change in direction in 1935, there has been disagreement over the nature of the shift.
Participant Raymond Moley and historian Basil Rauch have contended—from very different perspectives—that Roosevelt turned to the left in 1935. Moley used this interpretation as part of his explanation of his defection from the administration. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., gave the two new deals view its fullest and best-known statement and altered its meaning when he argued in 1960 that the Second New Deal was more of a turn to the right—a return to the Louis Brandeis-Felix Frankfurter hope “to revitalize the tired old society by establishing a framework within which enterprise could be set free.” Schlesinger quotes Frankfurter disciple Thomas Corcoran, pointing out that the Second New Deal was “ideologically far more ‘capitalistic’ than the First New Deal.”
Other historians have avoided the issue of the direction of the New Deal’s shift by denying that there was any. Like the contention that there were two new deals, the other side of the argument has two rather different versions. One holds that the entire New Deal was pragmatic and contradictory and, hence, there was no basic philosophy to change. The other position, advanced most forcefully by Elliot Rosen, contends that the philosophy of the entire New Deal was carefully spelled out by the Brains Trust in 1932 and, accordingly, there was no shift in 1935.
Those who maintain that there was no significant philosophical shift in 1935 are on firm ground. As I have noted before, Franklin Roosevelt was neither a philosopher nor an economist; he was a politician. Neither his programs of 1933 nor those of 1935 were based on a coherent ideological position. Consistency troubled Roosevelt little. Votes were far more important. The political, rather than philosophic, nature of the Second New Deal is evident. He had tried for the first two years of his presidency to keep everyone happy. By 1935 that was no longer possible. The groups with whom he chose to split—and those he decided not to alienate—leave no doubt that his motivation was political.
Roosevelt finally broke with business in 1935, thus calming the thunder on the left and winning support for 1936. On the other hand, he never split from the southern elite. He refused to make substantive moves toward improving race relations, and he never endorsed the objectives of such organizations as the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. That group’s periodical, Sharecropper’s Voice, complained in 1936 that under Roosevelt “too often the progressive word has been the clothing for a conservative act. Too often he has talked like a cropper and acted like a planter.” The difference was simple. Breaking with the planters would have been as much “the right thing to do” as turning against big business, but while the latter was politically beneficial, the former move would have been politically disastrous, both to New Deal programs and possibly to FDR himself. Far more workers than big businessmen voted, but very few blacks voted in the South, and poor whites in the region could be counted upon to vote Democratic even if the President did not do more for them. A vote-adding machine seemed to be planted in Roosevelt’s head. It was always calculating when a decision had to be made.
Roosevelt’s shift to the left with the Second New Deal was not an ideological move, but a political one. There was no drastic philosophic reorientation in 1935, but there was a very clear shift in politics, tone, and class identification. The motivation appears to have been a combination of decency and fear. When Roosevelt could no longer get away with playing the middle, he finally had to choose sides. It was easy enough to pick. What was right in this case coincided with what was expedient. Roosevelt simply went in the same direction that a majority of the people at the time was going—toward the left, toward humanitarian, cooperative values.