This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
The election of 1932 was one of the most pivotal in the history of the country. It would determine whether the United States would continue to be dominated by 19th century laissez-faire policies or follow the path of such countries as Great Britain and adopt a more active role for the central government in the economy. The latter course was the path of progressivism — of Wilson, La Follette, and the Bull Moose party. Americans had rejected progressivism in 1920, but now, with the specter of a long depression ahead of them, would they again embrace it?
A number of candidates vied for their party’s presidential nomination at the Democratic Party convention of 1932. Al Smith again sought the nomination, but his poor showing at the polls in 1928 dissuaded Democratic politicos from supporting him. The two main contenders for the nomination were Democratic speaker of the House, “Cactus Jack” Garner of Texas, and the governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt was fortunate to have the support of the wealthy financier, Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who raised funds for him. Kennedy did Roosevelt another good turn; he convinced the wealthy newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, to turn his support to Roosevelt. Hearst controlled the California delegates to the convention, and his support meant their support. With California’s 44 votes in the bag, Roosevelt secured the Democratic nomination for president.
The 50-year old Roosevelt had had all the advantages of a wealthy upbringing. He had attended Harvard and Columbia Law School; he had traveled widely through Europe. A distant cousin to Theodore Roosevelt (whom Franklin greatly admired), he cemented closer relations with the former president by marrying Eleanor Roosevelt, Teddy’s niece. Franklin Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson and was later elected to a seat in the New York Senate. Struck by polio in 1921, Franklin by determination regained his health, though he remained unable to walk without braces. In 1928, Al Smith encouraged him to run for governor of New York, to which he was elected. So popular a governor was Roosevelt that he was reelected governor in 1930 by a majority of 700,000 votes.
The Republican nominee was, again, Herbert Hoover. The president had to contend against an aggressive campaign in which Roosevelt stumped the country, visiting nearly every state, detailing how he planned to turn the country around. Roosevelt proposed active government intervention in the economy. He called for federal unemployment relief, for legislation directly to aid agriculture and railroads and to protect consumers and investors. He wanted to lower tariffs and to repeal Prohibition. All this he called the “New Deal” — which was really not all that new, being an extension of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” Wilson’s “New Freedom,” and the policies promoted by the Progressive Bull Moosers. Roosevelt was but the heir to the progressive policies that had been in abeyance during the Republican-dominated 1920s.
Hoover warned of the dangers of the New Deal. “Any change of policies will bring disaster to every fireside in America,” he warned. Hoover was not alone; other conservatives opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, warning that it would visit disaster on the country. Even Al Smith grew alarmed when Roosevelt began talking about how the New Deal was for “the forgotten man at the bottom of the pyramid.” “This is no time for demagogues!” declared Smith.
Yet, in spite of conservative warnings, 22.8 million voters cast their ballots for “F.D.R.” in November. Roosevelt not only took 57.3 percent of the popular vote but won with a landslide of 472 votes in the electoral college. Poor Hoover took only 39.6 percent of the vote (15.8 million) and won only 59 electoral votes. Despite the hard times, Socialists and Communists together won less than one million votes. The Democrats took the presidency and won substantial majorities in the House and the Senate.
The months between November and March, 1933, when Roosevelt would be sworn in as president, must have seemed long indeed to those who hoped for great things from the New Deal. Ever faithful to his laissez-faire policies, President Hoover tried to get Roosevelt to make statements repudiating the New Deal, but to no avail. F.D.R. was committed to the policies that had won him the election.
“This nation asks for action, and action now!” declared Roosevelt in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933. Though the stock market had begun an upswing, the country was still beset by disaster. Roosevelt knew this, and in this his first of many addresses, he sought to lift the peoples’ spirits. “Let me assert,” he declared, “my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support for leadership in these critical days.”
The country’s “distress,” said Roosevelt, “comes from no failure of substance … Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.” Why is this? Because, said Roosevelt, “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.” These “rulers,” “cast in the pattern of outworn tradition . . . know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.”
What is the vision by which the people will be preserved? “Happiness,” declared Roosevelt, “lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
Emergency measures were needed, said Roosevelt, to meet the current crisis. And then followed these words, of ill-omen or hope, depending upon who was listening: “It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us,” said Roosevelt. “But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.” If, said Roosevelt, “the normal balance of executive and legislative authority” should be inadequate to meet the crisis, he as president would ask 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.” Thus, Roosevelt indicated that he might seek presidential powers unprecedented in the history of the United States. The powers that Lincoln wielded during the crisis of the Civil War Roosevelt might claim to counter an economic threat.
How did all this square with the Constitution? “Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form,” said Roosevelt. “That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations.” This statement, vague as it was, seemed to point to only one result. The centralization of government in the federal government, dreamed of by Hamilton, begun under Abraham Lincoln, furthered by the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, perfected by Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, was about to reach its logical practical expression under F.D.R.
Attend the 1932 Presidential Inauguration. . .
By watching this footage of the event: