On November 7, 1944 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term in office.  Roosevelt had won his first presidential election in 1932 with almost sixty percent of the popular vote.  Americans were concerned after the stock market crash in 1929 led to bank and business failures, home foreclosures, and high unemployment across the country.  Although the incumbent president Herbert Hoover took several bold steps to alleviate the crisis, many believed that he was not doing enough to remedy the situation.  This period from 1929 until 1941 became known as the Great Depression.

The Thirty-Second President

Roosevelt promised the American people a “new deal” to resolve the issues related to the depression.  He believed that the nation’s economic woes were the result of too much influence by a small group of wealthy men motivated by selfish goals who had interfered with the liberty of individuals.  In his First Inaugural Address, Roosevelt praised the Constitution’s balance between executive and legislative authority but said he was prepared to ask Congress for more power to deal with the emergency at hand.  In a letter to Edmund Pendleton in 1792, James Madison warned: “if Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one.”  The controversy regarding how much power federal government should possess came to the forefront during the New Deal era and continues today.

The First Hundred Days and the New Deal

During Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office he championed programs including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Public Works Authority, and the Civilian Conservation Corps to alleviate the economic and social problems of the Great Depression.  These programs greatly increased the size and scope of the federal government.  Other New Deal programs instituted during Roosevelt’s presidency included the Social Security Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.  It is now common for presidents to use their first hundred days in office to execute the promises and plans made during their campaigns.

Other Policies

Not all of Roosevelt’s policies were well-received.  The president was frustrated when the Supreme Court deemed several pieces of New Deal legislation unconstitutional.  He announced a “court-packing scheme” in which he stated that the president should be allowed to add one justice to the Court for every sitting justice over the age of 70.  The plan ultimately failed, but the Court began upholding New Deal laws.  These issues called into question the roles of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances in the federal government.  Roosevelt came under fire again when he signed Executive Order 9066 to place Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.   The policy was upheld in Korematsu v. United States, 1944.

Roosevelt’s policies continued a trend from earlier in the Twentieth Century, further expanding the role and size of the federal government.  During his Second Inaugural Address, Roosevelt explained that it was necessary for the government to expand its reach to solve economic problems, but the essential foundations established in the Constitution remained unchanged.  If government expands its reach to solve economic problems, which necessarily includes increasing the level of spending, how, if at all, can it return to its former job description? In his 1833 book, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story asserted that “indeed, in a free government, almost all other rights would become utterly worthless, if the government possessed an uncontrollable power over the private fortune of every citizen.”(p. 664) As you examine Roosevelt’s ideas about expanding government powers in times of need, to what extent do you believe the New Deal was consistent with the essential foundations of the Constitution?  What were the effects of the New Deal on the federal government’s scope and size, its purposes, and what people expect of it?  What are some results of these changes on the ways in which individuals exercise personal liberty?

For a complete lesson plan on Franklin D. Roosevelt see our curriculum Presidents and the Constitution.

Posted in The Constitution Throughout History


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