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The Great Depression of the 1930s was by far the greatest economic calamity in U.S. history. In 1931, the year before Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, unemployment in the United States had soared to an unprecedented 16.3 percent. In human terms that meant that over eight million Americans who wanted jobs could not find them. In 1939, after almost two full terms of Roosevelt and his New Deal, unemployment had not dropped, but had risen to 17.2 percent. Almost nine and one-half million Americans were unemployed.
On May 6, 1939, Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s treasury secretary, confirmed the total failure of the New Deal to stop the Great Depression: “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. . . . I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. . . . And an enormous debt to boot!”
The phrase “new deal” came into the English lexicon long before its mention at the 1932 Democratic convention that propelled Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House. Mark Twain and Henry James both used it, but it was FDR who etched it into the history books. It wasn’t intended to be so. A speechwriter penned the line, but neither he nor FDR thought it was particularly memorable. Nor did it refer to any specific set of remedies for the serious crisis in which the republic found itself.
America was in dire straits three years after the crash of 1929. The New York Stock Exchange had lost nearly 90 percent of its value. Thirteen million people were out of work, and an estimated 34 million Americans had no income whatsoever. People in Iowa and Minnesota armed themselves to prevent banks from foreclosing on their farms. And by the summer of 1932, some 25,000 World War I vets had descended on Washington, camping out near the steps of Congress and asking for money. When they were forced out of the city at bayonet point, revolution seemed very much in the air. No wonder Americans wanted a reshuffling of the cards they’d been dealt.
It mattered little to the public that Roosevelt had no idea what the New Deal would entail. “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people,” Roosevelt told the convention during his acceptance speech. Once in office, Roosevelt pushed a litter of new programs into existence, each marked by an acronym synonymous with New Deal legislation: the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), the CWA (Civil Works Administration), and the WPA (Works Progress Administration), to name but a few.
But the New Deal’s eventual impact went beyond staving off social upheaval, re-establishing trust in the currency, and putting people back to work. “It was the first time that Americans thought of their government as a solution to the problems that individuals and society at large were experiencing,” says Jean Edward Smith, a political science professor at Marshall University and author of FDR. Roosevelt stopped pushing New Deal legislation by 1938, after the courts ruled some program