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Of course, historians are often nigglers and all students of Roosevelt and his presidency have some complaints. What’s interesting is that most of these com- plaints are that Roosevelt should have done more than he did, not less. “The havoc that had been done before Roosevelt took office,” Leuchtenburg argues, “was so great that even the unprecedented measures of the New Deal did not suffice to repair the damage.”…

Some New Deal historians of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s—loosely called the “constraints school”—argue that the New Deal did promote many needed changes, but that Roosevelt was constrained in what he could accomplish and therefore he did as much reform as circumstances would permit.…

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Two examples will help illustrate this point. David Kennedy and George McJimsey, both of whom loosely fit in the “constraints school,” have written recent books on the Roosevelt presidency. Kennedy’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in history and McJimsey’s is part of the distinguished American Presi- dency Series. Kennedy praises “the remarkable generation of scholars” who did “pioneering work on the New Deal era.” He cites Leuchtenburg, Schlesinger, and four other similar historians and writes, “Though I sometimes disagree with their emphases and evaluations, they laid the foundation on which all subsequent study of that period has built, including my own.” Kennedy, like these predecessors, concludes, “Roosevelt’s New Deal was a welcoming mansion of many rooms, a place where million of his fellow citi- zens could find at last a measure of … security.…” McJimsey, also like his pre- decessors, praises Roosevelt: “No president in our history has faced such critical problems with the courage, vision, and stamina that Roosevelt displayed.” McJimsey concludes that “one of Roosevelt’s major achievements was to create an institutional structure for the modern welfare state.… Subsequent presi- dents,” McJimsey notes approvingly, “were freer than ever to use government in creative ways.”…

As historian Ray Allen Billington noted, the New Deal “established for all time the principle of positive government action to rehabilitate and preserve the human resources of the nation.” Yet, as we have seen, there is that nagging observation in 1939 by Henry Morgenthau, the secretary of the treasury, the friend of Roosevelt’s and the man in the center of the storm.…

The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which was Roosevelt’s plan for farmers, also passed Congress in 1933 with expectations almost as high as those for the NRA [National Recovery Act]. “I tell you frankly,” Roosevelt said of the AAA, “that it is a new and untrod path….” During the president’s busy first

 

 

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258 MAJOR PROBLEMS IN AMERICAN HISTORY

hundred days in office in 1933, that was his opening salvo in restructuring the whole American farm program.

The AAA was very complicated, but in a nutshell here is how it worked. First, some farmers would be paid not to produce on part of their land; second, farm prices would be pegged to the purchasing power of farm prices in 1910; third, millers and processors would pay for much of the cost of the program. What’s more, power would be centralized through the secretary of agriculture, who would set the processing taxes, target the price of many commodities, and tell farmers how much land to remove.

Why would congress pass such a strange law in the first place? The origin was in the severe farm crisis after World War I: over-production of crops and the low prices received for those crops. Of course, in a sense that was the perennial prob- lem of the American farmer. In 1790, about 80 percent of Americans made their living as farmers. In the 1800s and 1900s, mechanization of crops (especially the major crops of wheat, corn, and cotton), improved seeds, and improved fertilizers meant that each farmer could feed more and more people. The economics of supply and demand typically worked against the farmer. The more he produced, the lower his price was, and, therefore, the more that farmers moved to the city and took up jobs there in the expanding factories and businesses.

By the 1930s, urbanization was well under way. Only 30 percent of Americans made their living as farmers in 1933. But selling the farm and moving to the city— the traditional response to low prices and overproduction—did not happen in the 1930s, and for three reasons. First, because the Great Depression was nation- wide, few businesses were expanding and few jobs, therefore, were available in the city. Second, the Smoot-Hawley tariff, the highest tariff in U.S. history, created retaliatory tariffs. Few Europeans were buying American farm exports and thus foreign markets—the traditional outlet for overproduction—were shut off. Third, both Hoover and Roosevelt were more willing to experiment with government solutions to farm problems, even though the Constitution made no provision for direct farm relief.

The Federal Farm Board was Hoover’s futile effort at intervention. He picked two major crops, wheat and cotton, both of which had strong political constitu- encies. He pegged the price of wheat at 80 cents/bushel and cotton at 20 cents/ pound. Those were price floors, minimum prices. The government promised these prices for every bushel of wheat and every pound of cotton that American farmers produced. That way, two large groups of farmers would be protected from falling prices. Disaster quickly resulted. Wheat and cotton farmers, with prices guaranteed, expanded acreage and grew as much as possible. Farmers of other crops shifted to wheat and cotton, where their prices could then be guaranteed. Soon Hoover’s Farm Board was building grain elevators to store wheat, and warehouses to store surplus cotton. After about two years of wild overproduction, the government had spent the $500 million allocated to the Farm Board. They stopped the programs and gave away or sold at huge losses about 250 million bushels of wheat and 10 million bales of cotton.

To many Americans, the Farm Board showed the damage created when government interfered with supply and demand. If more farmers would have

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