Franklin D. Roosevelt: How his New Deal undermined charity

By Marvin Olasky
web posted July 1999

When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, a consensus for rapid change was present. Unemployment had risen from 1.6 million in 1929 to 12.8 million (25 percent of the labor force) early in 1933; many more were semi-employed. As fruitless job-hunting went on month after month, observers noted desperation among family heads now dragging their tails: "fear driving them into a state of semi-collapse, cracking nerves; an overpowering fear of the future [as they watched] their children growing thinner and thinner."

Roosevelt was the president who gave many of those individuals new hope amid depression, and a decade later confidence during war. He was not a likely choice as a tribune of the poor. From soon after his birth on January 30, 1882, Franklin Roosevelt traveled frequently by train with his affluent parents. Young Roosevelt rolled through cities and countryside in his father's private railroad car, well supplied with servants and a chef so there was no need even to eat in public establishments. He sat with the high and mighty, not the lowly. (On a trip to Washington Franklin's father took him to shake hands with a weary Grover Cleveland, who said, "I'm making a strange wish for you, little man, a wish I suppose no one else would make. I wish for you that you may never be President of the United States.")

later, Roosevelt loved campaigning for vice president in 1920 from a private railroad car. He was free to walk through small towns, but he rarely did so. Instead, he averaged seven speeches a day from the back of his railroad car, and fit in local references sent by his advance man, reporter Steve Early. Roosevelt often spoke about what a great opportunity he had to get out of an office, travel through the country, and hear directly in voters' homes their hopes and fears.

lost that election, and a year later came down with polio. From then on it was harder to carry on the ruse about easy, first-hand observation of how the other half lived. From then on Roosevelt was even more dependent on what he could view out the windows of his railroad cars. Nevertheless, he still saw himself as having tight personal communication with his fellow Americans. In 1938, while traveling from Georgia to Washington by train and discussing the criticism he faced on Capitol Hill, Roosevelt peered out the window at some poor folks who were waiting for his train to go by. He then commented, "They understand what we're trying to do."

Washington reporters affectionately joked about FDR's train window understanding. The correspondents treated him favorably even when their publishers were hostile, but even they snickered quietly when Roosevelt told an anecdote detailing his conversations with mechanics and other workingmen who dropped in on him. Associated Press veteran Merriman Smith later wrote that Roosevelt "claimed a lot of friends in comparatively low stations of life. I regarded them as his imaginary playmates."

Roosevelt merged lack of contact with a great show of friendliness that pulled in votes. He could love one and all among the "ordinary people," some journalists observed, because they were all imaginary playmates. He had the brilliant politician's ability to appear to be bonding with people while remaining thoroughly aloof. Playwright and presidential speechwriter Robert Sherwood spoke of FDR's "thickly forested interior." Eleanor Roosevelt said of her husband of four decades, "He had no real confidantes. I don't think I was ever his confidante, either."

Growing Up with Confidence

Roosevelt had no confidantes but a lot of confidence. His playmates were imaginary but, from a young age, he believed in himself. He grew up that way not only because of class privilege and the expectation of being served, but because of his theology and his expectation, similar to Woodrow Wilson's, that he was chosen to perform great services to mankind.

Franklin Roosevelt particularly learned to think that way during his college preparatory experience at the Groton School in Massachusetts. Nine of ten students entered Groton as members of Social Register families. Many of them left as partakers of the Social Gospel. Endicott Peabody, founder and headmaster of Groton, was a disciple of Charles Kingsley, founder of the Christian Socialist movement in England. Peabody in turn became a lifelong influence on Roosevelt and many others. (When Roosevelt held private services in Washington before his inauguration and on other major occasions, he asked Rev. Peabody to conduct them.) Peabody proclaimed not only the social gospel but social universalism — the belief that it was unfair for anyone to be poor, and that government's task was to eliminate this unfairness by siding with poorer over richer, worker over capitalist. The influence of Peabody's faith is evident in notebooks Franklin kept at Groton on a variety of political issues. For example, Franklin proposed the development of unions backed up by governmental arbitration boards as the way to "resist unjust exactions by the employers."

Unjust exactions by unions did not receive emphasis.

Roosevelt went, per custom, from Groton to Harvard, there becoming editor-in- chief of the student newspaper, the Crimson. He was not overly concerned with his studies and graduated with a C average, but led an active social life. Acquaintances and distant relatives like Corinne Alsop, one of Theodore Roosevelt's nieces, privately called him "the feather duster" because he was handsome, chatty, and apparently superficial. But one of his society girlfriends, Alice Sohier, later said, "In a day and age when well brought-up young men were expected to keep their hands off the persons of young ladies from respectable families, Franklin had to be slapped—hard."

At Harvard, Roosevelt's most vivid moment involved a brief encounter with the poor. Hurrying to South Station in Boston for a train to New York and a social weekend there, he carried his heavy suitcase aboard a streetcar. A wheel of the streetcar broke a few blocks from the station, so Roosevelt jumped out and started running, only to crash his suitcase into a small Italian boy. The child's mother leaned out of a tenement window and started yelling, so Roosevelt took from his pocket a new dollar bill and waved it in front of the boy; money, in Roosevelt's experience, always garnered a respectful response.

In this case, however, the boy proudly knocked the bill from Roosevelt's hand and called him a rich bully. When a crowd began to gather, Roosevelt picked up his suitcase, leaving the dollar in the gutter, and tried to walk away quietly. But some men from the crowd followed. He started running. They chased him. Roosevelt thought of throwing away his suitcase, "but I had my dress clothes in it." He leaped onto his train as it was pulling away, with pursuers shaking their fists from the platform and yelling. Roosevelt later told this story to show that his life had not been as sheltered as some supposed, and that he was able to escape from tight fixes.

Roosevelt graduated from Harvard in 1904 and married his even-more-sheltered cousin Eleanor Roosevelt in 1905. By 1914 they had four children, but Eleanor had also come to believe, as she later told her daughter Anna, that sex was "an ordeal to be borne." Franklin went through what he saw as his own ordeals: classes at the Columbia University School of Law, passing the New York bar exam, some indifferent lawyering which contributed to his growing reputation as a dilettante. Roosevelt came alive occupationally only when he entered politics, using his name to run successfully for state senator in 1910.

A Communitarian Ethos

The Groton influence of Endicott Peabody showed in a speech Roosevelt gave at the People's Forum in Troy, NY in 1912. There he declared that western Europeans and Americans had achieved victory in the struggle for "the liberty of the individual," and that the new agenda should be a "struggle for the liberty of the community." The wrong ethos for a new age was, "every man does as he sees fit, even with a due regard to law and order." The new order should be, "march on with civilization in a way satisfactory to the well-being of the great majority of us."

In that speech Roosevelt outlined the philosophical base of what would eventually become the New Deal. He also forecast the rhetorical mode by which "community" could loom over individual liberty. "If we call the method regulation, people hold up their hands in horror and say ‘un-American,' or ‘dangerous,'" Roosevelt pointed out. "But if we call the same identical process co-operation, these same old fogeys will cry out ‘well done'.... cooperation is as good a word for the new theory as any other."

The difficulty, Roosevelt felt, lay in gaining enough political power to force others to cooperate — and in this regard Roosevelt decided to go far beyond what Endicott Peabody had taught. Leaders of New York City's Democratic machine, Tammany Hall, had seen how Theodore Roosevelt boosted the electoral base of the state's Republicans. To add state power to their local power, they were eager for a Roosevelt of their own. Franklin, with his pretty face, distinguished name, and patrician persona was perfect for Tammany, which could give him votes and muscles in return—if he would make a deal.

At first Franklin would not. As a new state senator in 1911 he led a rebellion against the bosses. Journalists at the Legislative Correspondents' Association annual dinner described Roosevelt's ambition in song: "Said Franklin D: ‘There's got to be/Some new insurgency,/ We've got some boys to make a noise/And leader I will be.'" The revolt, however, ended in defeat for the insurgents, as Tammany withdrew its original nominee for the Senate and substituted one who was worse. The reporters' song told of how Franklin D. "Can't compete with Tammany... Skies are clearin', keep on cheerin', Tammany." The newsmen saw Roosevelt insisting on good public relations himself but ready to give up substance.

As journalists predicted, Roosevelt soon made his peace with corrupt bosses: "to have success, I believe in unity," he said. Over the years Roosevelt displayed his increasing ability to go along to get along. On July 4, 1917, he was the principal speaker at the Society of St. Tammany celebration in New York City, even though Tammany was working against a reform candidate for mayor that year. A newspaper photograph from the event shows Roosevelt and Tammany Hall head Charles Murphy standing together, with Murphy still wearing his embroidered Tammany sash and Roosevelt holding his rolled tightly in his fists. On the floor of the 1920 Democratic convention the two men spent much time together, signaling to their followers that an arrangement had been reached.

By then Roosevelt had gained a reputation in Washington through service as assistant Secretary of the Navy, the same post that the Republican Roosevelt had held on his way to the White House. There was a major difference, however: Theodore Roosevelt used every opportunity (such as the absence of his boss) to push the Navy toward the aggressive posture it would adopt once the Spanish-American War began. Franklin Roosevelt charmed people into friendship but did not take the risks that would lead some to dislike him but all to respect him.

Rising Above Depression

When the stock market crashed in 1929 and depression followed, many who wanted governmental action thought the right man was in the right place: Herbert Hoover was in the White House. Hoover had built a reputation as a great engineer and a great humanitarian, delivering food to the European poor trying to survive in the wake of world war. Early in 1920 Roosevelt was pleased with talk of a Democratic ticket of Hoover for president and Roosevelt for vice president. Soon afterwards Roosevelt wrote to a friend that Hoover "is certainly a wonder, and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There could not be a better one." At the end of the decade, with such a background and reputation, Hoover was not about to let a depression run its course as others had. He wanted to engineer rapid recovery.

Hoover's strategies were traditional Whig/Republican. First, he encouraged states to spend more on internal improvements and public buildings, and step up the federal building program. But, since government construction was paid for by taxes removed from private sources, Hoover was really shifting resources from one part of the economy to the other. Second, he followed the Whig/Republican playbook by raising tariffs, with the goal of preserving domestic American jobs. Hoover called a special session of Congress in 1930 to promote protectionist measures. He came out of it with the Smoot-Hawley tariff that raised rates on most goods from 31 percent to 49 percent, but that approach backfired. Trade tanked.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt was in Albany, working out of the traditional Democratic playbook with calls for power to states and less power in Washington. Roosevelt used and often abused elements of the 19th century Democratic tradition. He liked to quote Andrew Jackson saying, "The spirit of equity requires that the great interests of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures should be equally treated." Roosevelt did not reveal that Jackson was proposing equity in the courtroom, not equity in terms of increased government regulation and income redistribution. He occasionally brought in suggestions from the new playbook—more federal "oversight"—developed out of Bryan's rhetoric and the Wilson administration's experience. As the pleas to do something, anything, amid depression intensified, Roosevelt's few innovations in public policy—more state welfare—did not receive much scrutiny. Gaining nomination and election in 1932 was surprisingly easy. Roosevelt had the name. He was governor of the largest state. He was also developing a new Democratic message. Much of it was what he had broached in 1912 in speaking about the importance rhetorically of using words like "cooperation" rather than "regulation." When Roosevelt spoke of expanding the federal government, his words were "social action for the prevention of poverty." By merging Bryan's ideas of class warfare and Wilson's calls for the administrative state, he was positioning the Democrats to become more Whiggish than the Republicans—with federal power, in theory, on the side of the poor.

Roosevelt had observed much from his train window. He saw that Democrats could tax the minority to give to the majority, and then reap the electoral credit. There is still a myth that Roosevelt was experimenting all the time, and it is clearly true that he did try many experimental programs. But they were pointed in a particular direction, and his claims that they were just self-evident responses to crisis were political poormouthing. A consistent religious vision, based in the social gospel of his youth, underlay his response to crisis.

Roosevelt spelled out his vision during the 1932 campaign, most notably in an October speech in Detroit. There he called for government expansion and emphasized that "the ideal of social justice of which I have spoken—an ideal that years ago might have been thought over-advanced—is now accepted by the moral leadership of all the great religious groups of the country." To show that he was not "radical," Roosevelt proceeded to quote from Christian theological liberals, citing with particular relish a complaint from the Federal Council of Churches about how "the wealthy are overpaid in sharp contrast with the underpaid masses." Not wishing to offend, Roosevelt also quoted an American rabbinical comment: "We talk of the stabilization of business. What we need is the stabilization of human justice and happiness." A leading rabbi, Roosevelt noted, called for "a revamping of the entire method of approach to these problems of the economic order." Normally, however, Roosevelt called himself "a Christian and a Democrat" and implied that those who were not the latter also were not the former. Ironically, Roosevelt was ready to do away with the system of private and church aid to the poor that encouraged church members to follow in Christ's steps. In Detroit he argued, "if we set up a system of justice we shall have small need for the exercise of mere philanthropy."

The New Deal's New Gospel

Since clothing himself in biblical robes proved effective during the election campaign, Roosevelt returned to Scriptural themes in his enormously effective first inaugural address. There he argued that American land was bountiful and great productivity possible, but the problem was that sin had entered this garden. The "lure of profit," the stubbornness and incompetence of the "rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods," the "unscrupulous money changers" who lived by "the rules of a generation of self-seekers": they had brought Depression. Such enemies of the people, he insisted, "have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."

Like an effective preacher who brings down his congregation so he can then buoy them up, Roosevelt moved on to the good news: "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit." Roosevelt explained afterwards that he had thought of the line about money changers in the temple while sitting in a pew in St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park. But he never made clear what temple he was describing. Was it the Bank of the United States of Jackson's day, a public- private partnership? Was it the speculative Stock Exchange? Or was it the private enterprise system generally?

However non-specific the metaphor, Roosevelt's intention to follow in Bryan and Wilson's footsteps was clear. He wanted to increase federal power so as "to put people to work... in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war." He wanted to increase federal power through "the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal." He wanted to increase federal power through "national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character." The era of big government had begun.

But Roosevelt remembered what he had learned in 1912 — talk cooperation, not regulation — as if he had a string tied around his finger. He said he was proposing not "government control" but "partnership." Roosevelt also applied his religious understanding that depression could not be beaten by bread alone: He said he wished to "add to the comfort and happiness of hundreds of thousands of people," yet the greatest problem was "a loss of spiritual values" in America. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Civil Works Administration, and other programs were designed not merely to redistribute funds to the poor but to provide work that could restore the spirit.

This difference was more than rhetorical; the work emphasis of New Deal welfare programs was different than the Great Society redistributionism that followed a generation later. The US Conference of Mayors resolved that Americans should "never consent to the abandonment of the work principle.... The dole, based on idleness and groceries, has no place in our American scheme of society." Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins described "the unemployed themselves protesting against the indignity of public charity.... They were accustomed to making a return for their livelihood... from which they chiefly drew their self-respect."

After some initial experimentation, Roosevelt was right to make Hopkins' Works Progress Administration the centerpiece of his relief efforts from 1935 on. The WPA, called by its critics "We Piddle Around," was the object of some sarcastic stories about digging and filling up holes, but WPA workers did produce by 1940 over half a million miles of roads and over 100,000 bridges and public buildings, along with 18,000 miles of storm and sanitary sewers, 200 aviation landing fields, 200 million garments for poor individuals, and much else. Most important, a typical recipient who had been unemployed could report, "Now I can look my children straight in the eyes.... [When] the kids in the house find that you contribute nothing toward their support, very soon they begin to lose respect for you. It's different now. I'm the bread-winner of the house and everybody respects me."

Shifting Loyalty From Private to Govenment

But spirit-reviving had its complications. During the 1930s contemporary analysts concluded that New Deal publicists were—in the words of James McCamy, a Bennington College professor—deliberately trying to discredit private institutions in order to promote a "shift of loyalty from private to public authority and decision." Families and churches had cared for most orphans and most of the elderly, but Roosevelt in 1934 stated that "There is no reason why everybody in the United States should not be covered.... Cradle to the grave—from the cradle to the grave they ought to be in a social insurance system."

Cradle to the grave sovereignty belonged only to God, Theodore Roosevelt had believed, but Franklin Roosevelt's expressed goal in 1936 was "to eliminate... chances in life." Concerning the bad old days he orated, "We have had to take our chance about old age in days past. We have had to take our chances with depressions and boom times. We have had to take chances on our jobs. We have had to take chances on buying homes." Now, the possibility of failure could be eliminated. Roosevelt's Groton headmaster, Endicott Peabody loved such talk, and saw his own hand in it. He wrote to his famed pupil in 1935, "It is a great thing for our country to have before it the leadership of a man who cares primarily for spiritual things."

Others were not so pleased. The Democratic presidential candidate in 1928, Al Smith, broke with the New Deal and attacked the Roosevelt administration by saying, "It is all right with me if they want to disguise themselves as Karl Marx or Lenin or any of the rest of that bunch, but I won't stand for... allowing them to march under the banner of Jackson or Cleveland." Jackson and Cleveland had been known for saying "no" with at times dour faces; under Roosevelt, the Democratic song became, "Happy days are here again."

In opposition to Roosevelt and in frustration about his success,Republicans became what they had never before been, the party of Constitutional restraint. Leaders such as Herbert Hoover began warning about what would happen if Washington appropriations cut into traditions of civic responsibility, church generosity, and mutual self-help: "if we start appropriations of this character we have not only impaired something infinitely valuable in the life of the American people but have struck at the roots of self-government. Once this has happened it is not the cost of a few score million but we are faced with the abyss of reliance in future upon Government charity in some form or another."

Most Americans in 1936 seemed to care more about the present than the future. During his reelection campaign that year Roosevelt brillliantly alternated fiery class warfare speeches with pastorals. The former pitted "economic royalists" against "the organized power of Government" (Government, like God, was capitalized). The latter quoted the 23rd Psalm—"He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters"—and contended that declarations about God from 3000 years ago could be replaced by declarations coming from Washington now: If wages were raised, those who "work in the mill or in the office" could have "a life in green pastures and beside still waters." Roosevelt won in a landslide.

His flexible method of reading Scripture carried over to his method of reading the Constitution. Discussing the inaugural ceremonies in 1937, Roosevelt said, "When the Chief Justice read me the oath and came to the words ‘support the Constitution of the United States' I felt like saying: ‘Yes, but it's the Constitution as I understand it, flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy—not the kind of Constitution your Court has raised up as a barrier to progress and democracy.'" Roosevelt worked to get the Constitutional clerics out of his way by expanding the Court, but the "court packing" plan prompted charges of executive arrogance, with former FDR speechwriter Raymond Moley referring to Roosevelt's "Messianic complex" and labeling him a "tin Jesus."

Roosevelt, however, was a messiah whose mandate required constant renewal. As Bryan had broken the stay-at-home mold for presidential candidates, so Franklin Roosevelt broke the 20th century pattern of campaigning only during campaigns, or in extraordinary circumstances like the League of Nations debate. He anticipated Bill Clinton in campaigning all the time—and always for an instant feedback through supportive public opinion, not a laying of groundwork for more citizen involvement.

This was especially necessary for Roosevelt because in 1937 the economy collapsed again, with unemployment in 1938 reaching that of 1933, despite the continuation of programs such as the WPA and the CCC. Some of those programs may even have prolonged the Depression by soaking up resources that otherwise would have been used in the private sector, and some programs even created more unemployment. Acreage limitations imposed by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, for example, forced use of better technology to gain maximum efficiency. Sharecroppers and farm laborers, who were productive as long as acreage remained large enough to tolerate some inefficiency, lost jobs to machines.

What kept Roosevelt going even when the economy dipped downward again were the political alliances he had made with urban bosses. Jackson and Cleveland had opposed on principle taking money from one part of the country to benefit another, but Roosevelt first pushed through the Tennessee Valley Authority project, and then turned to projects desired by urban political bosses. Depression-era property tax revenues were down so city officials had less money to spend. Demands from constituents for jobs and other favors were up. When Tammany Hall in 1933 had no choice economically but to lay off city employees and reduce services, Republican Fiorello La Guardia was elected mayor. Democratic city machines across the country needed money, and fast, if they were to avoid similarly unceremonious boots. State governments were often unwilling and sometimes unable to send funds.

Federal welfare expenditures rescued the city Democratic machines. Works Progress Administration and other funds had to be passed out; party workers did the passing. Bosses who had their photos taken with Roosevelt gained credit for new schools, hospitals, water and sewer systems, bridges and roads. He had started out in politics regarding urban machines as his nemesis; he became their savior, and they his. In the 1932 election the twelve largest cities gave Roosevelt 25 percent of his popular vote margin, but in Roosevelt's last race, in 1944, thos urban party bosses produced 65 percent of his edge. On almost every New Deal policy issue, congressmen grateful for city projects were Roosevelt's most reliable supporters.

And what of Roosevelt's legacy? Especially for a president elected four times, that short question needs more than a simple answer. In some ways Roosevelt's limitations became the nation's strengths. Herbert Hoover, a realist who had observed poverty firsthand, did not help matters by pushing for higher tariffs and some public works in the Whig tradition, but he went no further, knowing that additional government programs in the long term were likely to hurt more than they helped. Roosevelt, however, viewing life from a railway car, did not have a ground-in sense of how bad objectively things were, and therefore was free to emphasize subjectivity. His most famous soundbite, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," arose partially out of ignorance; breadwinners unemployed for many months were staring at some cold realities, not phantasms.

Yet, since Roosevelt rushed in where Hoover feared to tread, he did provide additional temporary help that preserved some families, while probably hindering the full recovery of an economy that did not spring back until rising war production lifted all boats. Roosevelt's characteristic impatience with detail also had its immediate pluses but long-term minuses. Concerning social security, he said, "This system ought to be operated through the post offices. Just simple and natural — nothing elaborate or alarming about it." But the system was far more complicated than that, and at the end of the century alarm bells are sounding.

Theologically, Roosevelt was essentially neoorthodox, choosing to believe without caring much whether the grounds for belief were present. Politically, he also was willing to believe in almost anything that held out hope. But over time, objectivity bit in, for there was more to fear than fear itself. Those who knew that private enterprise worked best could legitimately fear government programs that soaked up otherwise-available capital. Those who wanted innovation could fear programs that froze industry in old patterns. Under Roosevelt income redistribution became a Democratic party staple. The political party that in Cleveland's day was known for saying "no" became the party of "happy days are here again."

Roosevelt's success at glossing over problems and twisting data established a low bar for his successors. He raised expectations in exactly the manner that Jackson and Cleveland feared: the president would be the great bellhop, and citizens could demand that he come to their relief. But as to presidential faith and conduct, Roosevelt continued the trend of lowering expectations to half-mast: He saw utility in Scripture but certainly wasn't bound by it either in his private life or in his public policy innovations. And yet, harsh judgments of Roosevelt should always be softened by remembrance of the high degrees of difficulty in place in 1933 when he began his public policy high dives. When a wallowing-in-depression America was sorrowing early in 1933, Roosevelt's confidence, even if it grew out of the view from a train window, the theology of a toothless god, and the ability to escape scandal, did help for a time.

Marvin Olasky is Senior Fellow at Capital Research Center and author of The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton. (Free Press, 1999). Reprinted with the kind permission of the Capitol Research Centre.

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