When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, he knew that the millions of Americans listening needed an infusion of hope. The Great Depression had battered the nation for more than three long and painful years, and the economic situation was desperate.
With a voice as sound as bedrock itself, Roosevelt announced an end to the bureaucratic stagnation that had plagued the administration of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. "The Nation asks for action, and action now," Roosevelt said. The New Deal -- and the incredibly productive period of legislative and administrative action that became known as the Hundred Days -- had begun.
First, Roosevelt tackled the most pressing crisis, the insolvency of the banks. Since the start of the Depression, 11,000 of the nation's 25,000 banks had failed, and millions of Americans had lost their life's savings. Roosevelt realized that if he kept the banks open, panicked depositors would withdraw their money and more banks would fail. On March 6, FDR declared a "bank holiday." Meanwhile, he and his so-called Brain Trust, a group of academics and economic theorists he had brought to the White House, crafted the Emergency Banking Act, a plan which would close down insolvent banks and reorganize and reopen those banks strong enough to survive.
The speed with which the Emergency Banking Act bill was written, passed by Congress, and put into practice typified the frenetic pace of the Hundred Days. Roosevelt delivered a draft of the act to the House of Representatives on March 9. The House passed the bill in less than 40 minutes, without any debate. By evening, the bill had passed the Senate as well, and was delivered to the White House for Roosevelt's signature. Newly reorganized banks began opening on March 12 -- by the following day, deposits at these banks exceeded withdrawals. The banking system had been saved.
Often thought of today as a "tax-and-spend" liberal, Roosevelt was in fact deeply committed to a balanced budget. He presented Congress with the Economy Act, a bill that put the federal government on a spending diet by cutting the salaries of federal employees, scaling back defense spending, and reducing veterans' pensions. Vets and military men briefly stalled the bill, but it passed on March 15.
These early economic reforms did little to solve the problem of massive unemployment. Shuttered-up businesses lined America's main streets. The smokestacks of the factories and mills, which had provided a day's work and a steady paycheck to millions of workers, lay dormant. But back in Washington, the Brain Trust crafted a bill that would put able-bodied men to work and pay them three square meals and a dollar a day. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) bill sailed through the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. Soon, thousands of men across America packed up and moved to rural work camps, where they planted trees, fought forest fires, repaired trails, and built flood control levees.
While programs like the CCC helped ease the immediate pain of the Depression, Roosevelt worked to effect more permanent changes on the economy. In May, Congress passed FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Act. The AAA provided subsidies to farmers who decreased the production of various commodities, which, the president hoped, would cause farm prices to rise. In June, Roosevelt sent Congress his National Industrial Recovery Act, which set fair-practice codes for business and industry, established minimum wages and maximum hours, and gave labor the guaranteed right to bargain collectively. The bill quickly became law.
If rapid-fire legislation was the heart of the Hundred Days, Franklin Roosevelt himself was its soul. FDR understood that Americans hoped for the best but feared the worst, and that they needed a publicly confident leader who understood their problems. In every speech, at every press conference, in every public appearance, he smiled and laughed and assured Americans that if everyone stuck together, the weight of the Depression would certainly lift. FDR became a friend and neighbor to millions, delivering reassuring "fireside chats" over nationwide radio that encouraged Americans to help each other transform the bad times into better ones. He even bought America a drink during the Hundred Days by amending the Volstead Prohibition Act to allow the sale and consumption of low-alcohol beverages, which were, of course, taxed by the federal government.
The Roosevelt legislation machine could stop a bank panic, put thousands of Americans back to work, and give people the right to have a drink, but it could not end the Depression. In fact, the pace with which legislation was crafted during the Hundred Days made some New Deal programs ungainly, ineffective, and susceptible to court challenge. In 1935 the Supreme Court struck down the National Recovery Administration, a morass of more than 700 business codes that hamstrung business people and proved difficult to enforce. In 1936 the Court invalidated the Agricultural Adjustment Act, declaring that the regulation of agriculture was the domain of the individual states. AAA was modified to suit the courts and reenacted, but it never achieved the rise in farm prices for which it was created.
During the Hundred Days, Congress passed more than a dozen significant pieces of reform and relief legislation. Never again would Roosevelt's New Deal carry so much momentum or have so much bipartisan support. In the years that followed, Roosevelt clashed with big business and conservative groups over his increasingly interventionist legislation, and the New Deal fizzled. But the Hundred Days would become an American political legend, and would be used even decades later as the yardstick by which to measure a new president. None who took the office would achieve the early and dramatic legislative success of Franklin Roosevelt's Hundred Days.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?