Study Guide

FDR's New Deal

FDR's New Deal Introduction

Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered the White House in 1932 when the Great Depression was beating America like an angry King Kong, and he promised "a new deal for the American people." The package of legislative reforms that came to be known as the New Deal permanently and dramatically transformed the politics and economy of the United States.

Shortly after taking office, Roosevelt explained to the American people that his New Deal program would seek to deliver relief, recovery, and reform—the so-called "3 Rs."

He allegedly wanted to include a fourth R, rodeo—you know, for America—but his advisors counseled against it.

While Roosevelt's New Deal didn't end the Great Depression, FDR did a heckuva job steering America through it. At a time when people had lost their jobs and their savings, saying there were high expectations for the new president...is an understatement.

Of course, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (source). Our man of the hour had was cracking quotable quotes from the start, and deserved it. Four won elections later, and FDR claimed his spot as one of the top presidents the nation has ever seen.

Doesn't hurt that he squeezed in one spot over his cousin. Take, that Ted.

What is FDR's New Deal About and Why Should I Care?

Why does Franklin Delano Roosevelt still matter, 60 years after he died just 82 days into his unprecedented fourth term in the White House?

Because FDR made the modern presidency and the New Deal made modern American society. Whether you love FDR's politics and policies or loathe them, it's impossible to imagine the world we live in today without them.

Plus, he's probably the last person with the middle name "Delano."

FDR's New Deal Resources

Books

Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (1990)
Cohen's pathbreaking study of industrial workers in Chicago moves beyond the usual "top-down" approach, showing very convincingly how pressure exerted by workers themselves from the "bottom up" made the New Deal a reality.

Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (1990)
Fascinating, if fairly academic, collection of essays by many of our leading scholars that re-examines old assumptions about the origins and consequences of the New Deal and its eventual repudiation at the hands of "Reagan Democrats."

David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (2000)
Kennedy's massive, magisterial history of the Roosevelt era weighs in at 936 pages and perhaps ten pounds. But the prose is much lighter, and no survey of the Depression and wartime era offers such a comprehensive narrative.

William E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (1963)
Excellent short history of the legislative history of the New Deal years, written with interpretive flair and stylistic panache. Still useful, even 45 years after publication.

Music

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990)
African-American blues artist Robert Johnson was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta during the height of the Jim Crow era, when legal segregation and the threat of violence controlled the lives of all Southern Blacks. When the Great Depression hit the Delta, Johnson had already spent his entire life struggling to make ends meet. Here, his haunting lyrics and eerie guitar riffs, recorded in the 1930s, reflect these experiences and offer listeners a rare window into the soul of a man who both suffered and endured.

Marc Blitzstein, The Cradle Will Rock: Original 1985 Cast Recording (1999)
Listen to a recording of a recent stage production of Marc Blitzstein’s original 1937 musical, which was first sponsored by the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project and then banned for its leftist pro-labor tone.

Various Artists, Brother Can You Spare A Dime? (2001)
A bit different from the Conaty collections, Brother Can You Spare a Dime? offers a sampling of tracks representing various regions, ethnic backgrounds, and class perspectives from the Depression era.

Various Artists, The Big Broadcast: Jazz and Popular Music of the 1920s and 1930s (2006)
Rich Conaty, host of a classic American music radio program on WFUV-FM in New York City, presents this collection of vintage tunes from the decades leading up to and following the stock market crash. It features the Mound City Blue Blowers, Scrappy Lambert, and Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra.

Various Artists, The Big Broadcast, Volume 2: Jazz and Popular Music of the 1920s and 1930s (2007)
New York radio host Rich Conaty has also carefully compiled this second, and arguably superior, collection of pop songs from the 1920s and 1930s. It features artists such as Eva Taylor, the Three Keys, and Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra.

Images

Victor and Vanquished
Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, the man FDR thrashed in the election of 1932, shared an awkward, silent ride to FDR's inauguration, 1933.

The First Couple
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt travel to the White House following FDR's third inauguration, 1941.

Misery of the Bread Lines
Millions of Americans, thrown out of work, were forced to wait for charity in bread lines across the country. This one in Louisville, was more ironic than most.

"We Want Beer"
One of FDR's first acts as President—and one of his most popular—was to end Prohibition by legalizing beer and wine.

Movies & TV

King Kong (1933)
With its impressive special effects (particularly the stop-motion animation), its grand settings, and its elaborate musical score, the original King Kong is still considered one of the most ambitious Hollywood productions in film history—a remarkable achievement since it was completed during the height of the Great Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
At the time of its release, The Grapes of Wrath was considered controversial and even dangerous by those suspicious of its leftist tone. Today, however, this film based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is heralded as a historically significant movie masterpiece about life during the Great Depression.

Paper Moon (1973)
Starring Ryan O’Neal and his real-life daughter, child actor Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon is a sometimes dark comedy about a scam artist who partners with an orphaned girl to travel throughout the Midwest in search of easy money during the Great Depression. It’s not your typical road trip film, but certainly a memorable one.

Cradle Will Rock (1999)
This film, directed, produced, and written by Tim Robbins, illustrates the events surrounding the original stage production of The Cradle Will Rock, a musical sponsored by the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project and then banned for its leftist script.

King Kong (2005)
With modern filmmaking technology, director Peter Jackson succeeded in creating a version of Kong that far surpasses the original in its visual effects and spectacular island settings. Jackson’s film also makes far more direct references to the Great Depression than its predecessor. However, unlike the original cast, those involved in the modern Kong had little to no recollection of the hard realities of the 1930s. The film is just over three hours in length, not counting the DVD extras, so be sure to microwave an extra bag of popcorn.

Websites

Presidential Library
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has digitized portions of its massive collection of FDR documents and made them available to the public at its website. A great collection of primary sources from FDR's presidency, including his fireside chats and a considerable trove of images and audio-visual clips.

Social Security History
Social Security was the New Deal's most important lasting contribution to American society; the Social Security Administration, created by FDR and Congress in 1935, maintains a very detailed website chronicling its own history.

Video & Audio

FDR Speeches
Here's an archive of audio recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt speeches.

Historical Documents

Fireside Chats
Transcripts of all of FDR's Fireside Chats can be found here. (Psst: we have a whole learning guide on his first one.)

"Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself"
Here's the transcript of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address. Plus, we have a whole learning guide on it.