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Commager and Morris’s assessment highlights four main points of defense for Roosevelt and the New Deal that have been adopted by most historians for the last seventy years: first, the 1920s were an economic disaster; second, the New Deal programs were a corrective to the 1920s, and a step in the right direction; third, Roosevelt (and the New Deal) were very popular; and fourth, Roosevelt was a good administrator and moral leader.

 

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Copyright 2010 Cengage Learning. All Rights Reserved. May not be copied, scanned, or duplicated, in whole or in part. Due to electronic rights, some third party content may be suppressed from the eBook and/or eChapter(s). Editorial review has deemed that any suppressed content does not materially affect the overall learning experience. Cengage Learning reserves the right to remove additional content at any time if subsequent rights restrictions require it.

256 MAJOR PROBLEMS IN AMERICAN HISTORY

These four points constitute what many historians call “the Roosevelt legend.” Since the works of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and William Leuchtenburg have been essential in shaping and fleshing out this view of Roosevelt, I will quote from them liberally.…

First, as Commager and Morris state, “The character of the Republican ascendancy of the twenties had been pervasively negative; the character of the New Deal was overwhelmingly positive.” In other words, the 1920s was an eco- nomic disaster that helped lead to the Great Depression, from which Roosevelt with his New Deal provided useful tools of relief, partial recovery, and reform for the American economy.

To promote this view, both Schlesinger and Leuchtenburg support the underconsumption thesis, which states that the Great Depression was accelerated because workers did not have adequate purchasing power during the 1920s to buy the products of industrial America. According to Schlesinger, “Manage- ment’s disposition [in the 1920s] to maintain prices … meant that workers and farmers were denied the benefits of increased in their own productivity. The consequence was the relative decline of mass purchasing power.” President Calvin Coolidge and his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, contributed to great income disparities by enacting tax cuts for the rich. “The Mellon tax policy,” Schlesinger says, “placing its emphasis on relief for millionaires rather than for consumers, made the maldistribution of income and oversaving even worse.” Along similar lines, Leuchtenburg argues, “Insofar as one accepts the theory that underconsumption explains the Depression, and I do, then one can say that the Presidents of the 1920’s are to blame….”

Second, “the character of the New Deal was overwhelmingly positive.” Its intentions were excellent, and its results tended to be positive. Historians cite statistics to support this point: unemployment was 25 percent in 1933, Roosevelt’s first year in office, and dropped steadily to about 15 percent by the end of his term in early 1937. The New Deal, then, did not solve the Great Depression, but it was a move in the right direction. William Leuchtenburg writes, “The New Deal achieved a more just society by recognizing groups which had been largely unrepresented—staple farmers, industrial workers, particular eth- nic groups, and the new intellectual-administrative class.” Samuel Eliot Morison, longtime professor at Harvard University, echoed this view: “The New Deal was just what the term implied—a new deal of old cards, no longer stacked against the common man.” Textbook writers often pick up this theme. Historian Joseph Conlin concludes, “The greatest positive accomplishment of the New Deal was to ease the economic hardships suffered by millions of Americans….”

Third, Roosevelt was a popular and beloved president. He received unprec- edented amounts of fan mail and he won reelection by a smashing 523 to 8 landslide in the electoral college—and then won two more terms after that. His fireside chats on the radio uplifted Americans and mobilized them behind his New Deal. “He came through to people,” Schlesinger wrote, “because they felt—correctly—that he liked them and cared about them.”…

Fourth, Roosevelt was an admirable executive and a good moral leader. Schlesinger, like all historians, concedes that Roosevelt “made mistakes both in

 

 

Copyright 2010 Cengage Learning. All Rights Reserved. May not be copied, scanned, or duplicated, in whole or in part. Due to electronic rights, some third party content may be suppressed from the eBook and/or eChapter(s). Editorial review has deemed that any suppressed content does not materially affect the overall learning experience. Cengage Learning reserves the right to remove additional content at any time if subsequent rights restrictions require it.

257 THE DEPRESSION, THE NEW DEAL, AND FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT

policy and in politics,” but he was a great president nonetheless. “Roosevelt had superb qualities of leadership, superb instincts for the crucial problems of his age, superb ability to select and manage vigorous subordinates, enormous skill as a public educator, and enormous ability to lift the spirits of the republic and to mobilize national energies.”…

These four parts of the Roosevelt legend have a strong cumulative effect and historians regularly place Roosevelt among the top three presidents in U.S. history. In fact, the most recent Schlesinger poll (1996) ranks Roosevelt and Lincoln as the greatest president in the U.S. history.…

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