Varying Viewpoints: How Radical Was the New Deal?



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Varying Viewpoints: How Radical Was the New Deal?

Directions: Read and be able to summarize the various historical interpretations of the New Deal.

The Great Depression was both a great calamity and a great opportunity. How effectively Franklin Roosevelt respond to the calamity and what use he made of the opportunity are the two great questions that have animated historical debate about the New Deal.

Some historians have actually denied that there was a much a connection between the depression and the New Deal. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., for example, who believes in “cycles” of reform and reaction in American history, has written that “there would very likely have been some sort of New Deal in the 1930s even without the Depression.” But most of the first generation of historians who wrote about the New Deal (in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s) agreed with Carl Degler’s judgment that the New Deal was a “revolutionary response to a revolutionary situation.” In this view, through Roosevelt never found a means short of war to bring about economic recovery, he shrewdly utilized the stubborn economic crisis as a means to enact sweeping reforms. A handful of scholars, notably Edgar Eugene Robinson, condemned Roosevelt’s record as a “socialistic” break with American traditions. But until 1960, the great majority of historians approved the political values of the New Deal and praised its accomplishments.

Some leftist scholars writing in the 1960s, however, notably Barton J. Bernstein, charged that the New Deal did not reach far enough. This criticism echoed the socialist complaint in the 1930s that the depression represented the total collapse of American capitalism, and that the New Deal had muffed the chance truly to remake American society. Roosevelt had the chance, these historians argue, to redistribute wealth, improve race relations, and bring the giant corporations to heel. Instead, say these critics, the New Deal simply represented a conservative holding action to shore up a sagging and corrupt capitalist order.

Those charges against the New Deal stimulated another generation of scholars in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to look closely at the concrete institutional, attitudinal, and economic circumstances in which the New Deal unfolded. Historians such as James Patterson, Alan Brinkley, Kenneth Jackson, Harvard Sitkoff, and Lizabeth Cohen – sometimes loosely referred to as the “constraint school” – conclude that the New Deal offered just about as much reform as circumstances allowed and as the majority of Americans wanted. The findings of these historians are impressive: the system of checks and balances limited presidential power; the disproportionate influence of southern Democrats in Congress stalled attempts to move toward racial justice; the federal system in fact, inhibited all efforts to initiate change from Washington. Most important, a majority of American people at the time, wanted to reform capitalism, not overthrow it. Industrial workers, for example, were not hapless pawns upon whom the New Deal was foisted, frustrating their yearning for more radical change. Instead they sought security and self-determination in ways quite compatible with the New Deal’s programs for unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and guarantees of labor’s rights to organize.

The best proof of the soundness of that conclusion is probably the durability of the political alliance that Roosevelt assembled. The great “New Deal coalition” that dominated American politics for nearly four decades after Roosevelt’s election in 1932 represented a broad consensus in American society about the legitimate limits of government efforts to shape the social and economic order. William Leuchtenburg has offered the most balanced historical assessment in his description of the New Deal as a “half-way revolution,” neither radical nor conservative, but accurately reflecting the American people’s needs and desires in the 1930s – and for a long time thereafter.

Source: Bailey, Thomas A, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.

Directions: Summarize the arguments presented by the differing historians.



  1. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr in the 1940s



  1. Carl Degler and the first generation of historians in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s



  1. Edgar Eugene Robinson in the 1950s



  1. Barton J. Bernstein and leftist scholars of the 1960s



  1. “Constraint School” historians of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s



  1. William Leuchtenburg in the 1960s



  1. Which of these historical interpretations do you support and why?



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