The Great Depression of the 1930’s was characterized by bank and business failures and high unemployment. Even the agricultural sector was not shielded as a severe drought, known as the Dust Bowl, hit the Midwest. The New Deal was President Franklin Roosevelt’s program to address the problems of the Depression. He focused on relief to the unemployed by providing jobs through work relief projects. His focus on recovery was to create programs that would provide jobs for individuals that would help rebuild the ability of people to purchase items thus stimulating the economy. Finally, the president sought to reform the parts of the economy that led to the Depression.
When he took office the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Thirteen million people were out of work and almost all banks had closed. In his First Inaugural Address he likened the crisis to a foreign invasion, and asserted that the Constitution’s separation of powers and system of checks and balances would have to be temporarily suspended in order to see the country through. He proposed what he called the New Deal: expansive federal programs, funded by citizens paying taxes. He sent a record number of bills to Congress attempting to bring relief to farmers and the unemployed. In 1935 he proposed the Social Security Act. Controls were enacted on utilities and businesses, and the government moved towards regulating the economy. The repeal of Prohibition also brought in more tax revenue for the federal government.
After his decisive reelection victory in 1936, Roosevelt became frustrated with the Supreme Court which had been overturning some New Deal legislation as unconstitutional expansions of Congress’ powers. In what has come to be called his “Court-packing scheme,” he proposed that Congress increase the size of the Supreme Court to a maximum of fifteen members. This proposal failed, but two justices changed their voting, and the court began upholding New Deal laws.
Roosevelt faced issues of national interest and foreign policy. He attempted to keep the country out of World War II, favoring a “Good Neighbor” policy of neutrality. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt believed he had to act; Congress declared war on Japan the next day, and on Germany and Italy three days later. Roosevelt served as Commander in Chief of the military making the defeat of Nazi Germany the first priority. Fearing Japanese saboteurs, he signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced internment of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. This action was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States (1944).
In all, President Roosevelt was elected to four terms as President. Until that time, U.S. presidents had followed the example of President George Washington who had limited his service to two terms. In 1951, the 22nd Amendment was passed limiting U.S. Presidents to two terms.
Documents/Supreme Court Cases
He explained that because of the nation’s financial crisis, “the normal balance of power” in American government needed to be altered. He said that he would “ask the Congress for…broad executive power to wage a 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.”
In his so-called New Deal, Roosevelt thus argued for a shift in the balance of power between the national government and the states in our federal system of government. A substantial growth in the role and power of the national government resulted as a consequence of several major New Deal laws which FDR persuaded Congress to adopt.
One of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first appointments after he was elected President in 1932 was that of Frances Perkins as U. S. Secretary of Labor. She played a key role in what eventually became the Social Security Act of 1935. In 1931 she had gone to England to study that nation’s old age pension and unemployment programs. On her return, she urged President Roosevelt to persuade Congress to adopt similar programs for the U. S. Both chambers of Congress adopted the Social Security Act by overwhelming margins, and FDR signed it into law in 1935. The law had four major components: (1) a federal-state unemployment insurance program administered by the states; (2) federal grants to states for welfare payments for needy children, the blind, and the elderly; (3) federal grants to the states for vocational rehabilitation, infant and maternal health, aid to crippled children, and public health programs; and (4) old-age insurance paid directly by the national government to individuals when they retired at age 65, financed by employer and employee taxes while employed. The law has been amended and added to several times since 1937.
In 1937 when the law was challenged as to its constitutionality, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the constitutional power to pass the law.