People: Great Depression / New Deal

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in New York and, after attending prestigious schools, he followed the example of his fifth cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, and entered politics. He was elected to the state senate in 1910 and later appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. In the summer of 1921 Roosevelt was stricken with polio. He persevered through physical therapy but never fully regained the use of his legs. Seven years later he was elected governor of New York, and in 1932 was elected President of the United States.

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, US 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 US Presidents to two terms.