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The farm sector of the American economy had struggled in the 1920s, but overall by 1928, the United States had enjoyed eight years of unprecedented prosperity under Republican Presidents Harding and Coolidge. As the 1928 presidential race drew to a close, the Republican candidate, former Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, outlined the Republicans’ governing philosophy, which he credited with producing the prosperity. Seven months after Hoover took office, in October 1929, the stock market crashed. After two weeks, it recovered somewhat, but then began a long-term decline, as the American economy fell into what became known as the Great Depression.
The fall in the stock market and the resulting loss of wealth was not the sole cause of the Depression. Economists still debate what broader effect the stock market crash had on the American economy and why the Great Depression was so severe and so prolonged. Two factors that postdate the stock market crash and are part of the current debate – the decrease in foreign trade and the failure of the banking system – were noted by contemporaries. However, contemporaries tended to agree that the US government should ensure the soundness of the financial system by setting its own financial house in order. This meant reducing its debt by curtailing its expenditures and even raising taxes, if necessary. Today, most economists would consider such measures counterproductive during a depression. High tariffs restricting trade did not encourage recovery, and reductions in government spending removed an economic stimulus that might have helped. (Economic orthodoxy began to change with the publication of John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, in 1936, which called for governments to increase spending and deficits during a downturn.)
Hoover responded to the economic difficulties according to the principles he had articulated in 1928. The American system was sound, he thought, and would recover with only limited assistance from the government. As the economic situation worsened, however, Hoover did propose a series of measures to deal with the crisis, including the establishment of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a government entity that lent money to state and local governments, banks, and other businesses.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the leading Democratic candidate for President in 1932, argued that the American system as championed by Hoover was not sound and needed to be changed.
In a series of speeches in 1932 (The Forgotten Man, his Acceptance Speech at the Democratic Convention, and “Commonwealth Club Address”), Roosevelt explained why he thought the Depression had occurred and what had to be done to restore the country to economic health. This was the “New Deal” that Roosevelt offered the American people.
In his final weeks in the Oval Office, as the economic crisis reached its most severe stage, Hoover argued that President-elect Roosevelt had made the situation worse by refusing to commit himself to balancing the budget and maintaining a sound currency. Hoover first offered his account verbally to one of his closest political allies, Senator Simeon Fess of Ohio. At Fess’s request, Hoover put his remarks in writing in a letter he sent the Senator.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Commonwealth Club Address, September 23, 1932, 3 The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume 1, The Genesis of the New Deal, 1928-1932; with a special introduction and explanatory notes by President Roosevelt (New York : Random House, 1938), 742–756. Available online from Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. https://goo.gl/w7G3h6.
. . . A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists. Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land. More than half of our people do not live on the farms or on lands and cannot derive a living by cultivating their own property. There is no safety valve in the form of a Western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines can go for a new start. We are not able to invite the immigration from Europe to share our endless plenty. We are now providing a drab living for our own people.
Our system of constantly rising tariffs has at last reacted against us to the point of closing our Canadian frontier on the north, our European markets on the east, many of our Latin-American markets to the south, and a goodly proportion of our Pacific markets on the west, through the retaliatory tariffs of those countries. It has forced many of our great industrial institutions which exported their surplus production to such countries, to establish plants in such countries, within the tariff walls. This has resulted in the reduction of the operation of their American plants, and opportunity for employment.
Just as freedom to farm has ceased, so also the opportunity in business has narrowed. It still is true that men can start small enterprises, trusting to native shrewdness and ability to keep abreast of competitors; but area after area has been pre-empted altogether by the great corporations, and even in the fields which still have no great concerns, the small man starts under a handicap. The unfeeling statistics of the past three decades show that the independent business man is running a losing race. . . .
Clearly, all this calls for a re-appraisal of values. A mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, an organizer of more corporations, is as likely to be a danger as a help. The day of the great promoter or the financial Titan, to whom we granted anything if only he would build, or develop, is over. Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of underconsumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come. . . . can we fix this hanging line?
As I see it, the task of Government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order. This is the common task of statesman and business man. It is the minimum requirement of a more permanently safe order of things. . . .
The Declaration of Independence discusses the problem of Government in terms of a contract. Government is a relation of give and take, a contract, perforce, if we would follow the thinking out of which it grew. Under such a contract, rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon Government and those who conduct Government. . . .
The terms of that contract are as old as the Republic, and as new as the new economic order.
Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or dearth; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our Government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.
Every man has a right to his own property; which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings. By no other means can men carry the burdens of those parts of life which, in the nature of things, afford no chance of labor: childhood, sickness, old age. In all thought of property, this right is paramount; all other property rights must yield to it. If, in accord with this principle, we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier, I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it. . . .
The Government should assume the function of economic regulation only as a last resort, to be tried only when private initiative, inspired by high responsibility, with such assistance and balance as Government can give, has finally failed. As yet there has been no final failure, because there has been no attempt; and I decline to assume that this Nation is unable to meet the situation. . . .
Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, faith in ourselves demand that we recognize the new terms of the old social contract. We shall fulfill them, as we fulfilled the obligation of the apparent Utopia which Jefferson imagined for us in 1776, and which Jefferson, Roosevelt and Wilson sought to bring to realization. We must do so, lest a rising tide of misery, engendered by our common failure, engulf us all. But failure is not an American habit; and in the strength of great hope we must all shoulder our common load.