The New Deal

Where Historians Disagree - The New Deal

For many years, debate among historians over the nature of the New Deal mirrored the debate among Americans in the 1930s over the achievements of the Roosevelt administration. Historians struggled, just as contemporaries had done, to decide whether the New Deal was a good thing or a bad thing.

The conservative critique of the New Deal has received relatively little scholarly expression. Edgar Robinson, in The Roosevelt Leadership (1955), and John T. Flynn, in The Roosevelt Myth (1956), attacked Roosevelt as both a radical and a despot; but few other historians have taken such charges very seriously. By far the dominant view of the New Deal among scholars has been an approving, liberal interpretation.

The first important voice of the liberal view was Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who argued in the three volumes of The Age of Roosevelt (1957-1960) that the New Deal marked a continuation of the long struggle between public power and private interests, but that Roosevelt moved that struggle to a new level. The unrestrained power of the business community was finally confronted with an effective challenge, and what emerged was a system of reformed capitalism, with far more protection for workers, farmers, consumers, and others than in the past.

The first systematic "revisionist" interpretation of the New Deal came in 1963, in William Leuchtenburg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Leuchtenburg was a sympathetic critic, arguing that most of the limitations of the New Deal were a result of the restrictions imposed on Roosevelt by the political and ideological realities of his time—that the New Deal probably could not have done much more than it did. Nevertheless, Leuchtenburg challenged earlier views of the New Deal as a revolution in social policy and was able to muster only enough enthusiasm to call it a "halfway revolution," one that enhanced the positions of some previously disadvantaged groups (notably farmers and factory workers) but did little or nothing for many others (including blacks, sharecroppers, and the urban poor). Ellis Hawley augmented these moderate criticisms of the Roosevelt record in The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly (1966). In examining 1930s economic policies, Hawley challenged liberal assumptions that the New Deal acted as the foe of private business interests. On the contrary, he argued, New Deal efforts were in many cases designed to enhance the position of private entrepreneurs—even, at times, at the expense of some of the liberal reform goals that administration officials espoused.

Other historians in the 1960s and later, writing from the left, expressed much harsher criticisms of the New Deal. Barton Bernstein, in a notable 1968 essay, compiled a dreary chronicle of missed opportunities, inadequate responses to problems, and damaging New Deal initiatives. The Roosevelt administration may have saved capitalism, Bernstein charged, but it failed to help—and in many ways actually harmed—those groups most in need of assistance. Ronald Radosh, also in 1968, portrayed the New Deal as an effective agent for the consolidation of modern corporate capitalism. Several essays by Thomas Ferguson in the 1980s and Colin Gordon's 1994 book New Deals took such arguments further. They cited the close ties between the New Deal and internationalist financiers and industrialists; the liberalism of the 1930s was a product of their shared interest in protecting capitalists and stabilizing capitalism.

Except for the work of Ferguson and Gordon, the attack on the New Deal from the left has not developed very far beyond its preliminary statements in the 1960s. Instead, by the 1970s and 1980s, most scholars seemed less interested in the question of whether the New Deal was a "conservative" or "revolutionary" phenomenon than in the question of the

constraints within which it was operating. The sociologist Theda Skocpol, in an important series of articles, has emphasized (along with other scholars) the issue of "state capacity" as an important New Deal constraint; ambitious reform ideas often foundered, she argues, because of the absence of a government bureaucracy with sufficient strength and expertise to shape or administer them. James T. Patterson, Barry Karl, Mark Leff, and others have emphasized the political constraints the New Deal encountered. Both in Congress and among the public, conservative inhibitions about government remained strong; the New Deal was as much a product of the pressures of its conservative opponents as of its liberal supporters.

Frank Freidel, Ellis Hawley, Herbert Stein, and many others point as well to the ideological constraints affecting Franklin Roosevelt and his supporters. Alan Brinkley, in The End of Reform (1995), described a transition in New Deal thinking from a regulatory view of government to one that envisioned relatively little direct interference by government in the corporate world; a movement—driven in part by the need to adapt to a conservative political climate—toward an essentially "compensatory" state centered on Keynesian welfare state programs. David Kennedy, in Freedom from Fear (1999), argues by contrast that the more aggressive strands of early New Deal liberalism actually hampered the search for recovery, that Roosevelt's embrace of measures that unleashed the power of the market was the most effective approach to prosperity.

The phrase "New Deal liberalism" has come in the postwar era to seem synonymous with modern ideas of aggressive federal management of the economy, elaborate welfare systems, a powerful bureaucracy, and large-scale government spending. The "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s often portrayed itself as a reaction to the "legacy of the New Deal." Many historians of the New Deal, however, would argue that the modern idea of "New Deal liberalism" bears only a limited relationship to the ideas that New Dealers themselves embraced. The liberal accomplishments of the 1930s can be understood only in the context of their own time; later liberal efforts drew from that legacy but also altered it to fit the needs and assumptions of very different eras. - "The New Deal: The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform," Barton Bernstein - "Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: The Roosevelt Reconstruction: Retrospect," William Leuchtenberg - Ed Paulsen, "Recollections of the Great Depression"


Read the articles above and summarize their respective views on the values and contributions of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Should the third article - a remembrance - be included with the first two, scholarly articles? If so, should it be more highly valued? What do you believe is the appropriate relationship between memory and history? - "The Anti-New Deal Turn in Political Science and James MacGregor Burns's FDR," Bruce Miroff

After reading the essay by Bruce Miroff above, briefly summarize the respective arguments of Lowi, Milkis, and Sandel about FDR and New Deal liberalism. How does Miroff respond to these new interpretations? What points does he make about their use of James MacGregor Burns's work? Do you agree, and if so, does this pose a problem for historiography in general? - WPA: The African-American Mosaic - The New Deal for African Americans - Black Voters and the Democratic Party - "Will the New Deal be a Square Deal for the Negro?" (Primary Source), Jesse Thomas - "The New Deal and the Negro: A Look at the Facts" (Primary Source), Robert Weaver - "The Negro Transient" (Primary Source), Herbert Jenkins


One of the most-debated questions about the New Deal has been its relationship to African Americans. Read the articles above on this question and make your own argument about the effect of the New Deal on black Americans. Was it a boon or a burden to Depression-era African Americans? What did African Americans of the time think? How did the New Deal succeed and fail African American citizens?