Desperate Times (Part 1)
By Steven Raab
FDR assessed the crisis in ways
that are relevant for us today.
Plummeting stock prices, rising unemployment, jobs insecure, bank failures, real estate foreclosures: Sound familiar? The year is 1930. That was when Americans began to feel the effects of the economic downturn that began with the Stock Market Crash the previous October, and when a panic mainly limited to investors deepened into the Great Depression.
The realization that this downturn would be long and catastrophic left people stunned and demoralized. Towns of homeless people sprung up, while men who’d held high-paying jobs took to the streets in their once-expensive but now frayed clothing to sell apples and pencils. The Hoover administration took the position that it was not the place of government to intervene. It stood by and did little, which is why the shantytowns were called Hoovervilles.
Through 1930 and into 1931, the problem of unemployment in New York state grew increasingly critical, and it was obvious that neither local funding nor privately supported agencies could handle the crisis. As the leading industrial state, New York had an especial need to maintain and develop the wage-earner market. With the support of both labor and business, Frances Perkins, the state industrial commissioner, told Governor Roosevelt that public works projects were “the greatest source of hope for the future,” and she recommended the immediate implementation of local public works programs along with public employment clearinghouses. He set up an emergency employment committee to review options but was soon convinced that more drastic measures were necessary than the committee proposed.
FDR saw the crisis clearly and assessed it in ways that are relevant for us today. He described where the country was and how it had arrived there to the students of Oglethorpe College, then gave his philosophy on government involvement: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.” Roosevelt’s actions as governor of New York matched this belief.
In January 1931, Roosevelt declared that in order to meet this unprecedented emergency, the state had to look for new solutions to meet new problems. Deploring the “Pollyanna attitude” of the Hoover administration, he called for experimental programs, an innovative tactic that became a hallmark of his social policy during the New Deal years. He also called for legislation that would enable the state to give immediate aid to unemployed New Yorkers.
On August 28, 1931, in a landmark speech to a special emergency session of the state legislature, FDR advocated creation of a government agency to undertake relief and public works. On September 23, the legislature authorized the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) which was the first agency of its kind in the nation. Roosevelt named Harry Hopkins, later his senior aide as president, to run the new agency. TERA immediately targeted emergency relief for the unemployed. Able-bodied workers without jobs would get aid from the state—first home (direct) relief and then the more desirable work relief. Roosevelt thus set a precedent by creating a new agency to meet a new problem, one he relied on during the New Deal years.
In the immediate wake of his address to the legislature, FDR wrote to mayors of the state’s largest cities, to pledge that he would act to fight the Depression, to detail his plans to create jobs, to stimulate local and private aid, and to make sure that the cities were prepared for what he saw as a time fraught with desperation for large numbers of people:
“The present outlook is that next winter a great many families in the State will face serious privation unless they can be helped by substantial public and private relief…For my part, as Governor of the State, I intend to help in every way in my power…Now is the time to begin to make preparations…”
The success of the New York program catapulted FDR to national attention, and the innovative solutions and fresh thinking he brought to bear at a time of deep crisis appealed to the nation. He was easily nominated for president less than a year after TERA commenced operations; soon he would have the opportunity to try his hand at battling the Great Depression as President of the United States.
Steven Raab is president of the Raab Collection, a Philadelphia-based firm buying and selling historical letters and manuscripts. It owns the Roosevelt letter shown here.
Desperate Times (Part 2)
By F. S. Naiden
FDR was already popular—but mostly
because his name was Roosevelt.
Today’s economic crisis is less than a year old, but a jobs program is already afoot in Congress. During the Great Depression, though, several years passed before government took such a measure. Much else about the Depression was different, too. When New York State began to offer work to the jobless in the fall of 1931, the state’s governor, Franklin Roosevelt, wrote letters to the mayors of the hardest-hit cities and asked for their help in dispensing relief.
These letters went out under Roosevelt’s gubernatorial letterhead and included his signature. Roosevelt’s longtime secretary, Missy Lehand, presumably typed each one of them. Although they were form letters, as much effort went into them as today would go into a college diploma. Yet the world of Governor Roosevelt and his secretary was under-credentialed. The governor got gentlemen’s Cs in college, and did not finish law school. (His one academic distinction, being editor of the Harvard Crimson , arguably came his way because his cousin Theodore was President at the time.) Missy Lehand was a secretarial school graduate. FDR’s top political adviser, Louis Howe, was an ex-newspaperman who had gone to work at 17 for the Indianapolis Sun , a paper that had long since vanished.
Undercredentialed and unglamorous. FDR was an invalid. Missy Lehand was from Somerville, Mass., a town next to Cambridge, where FDR had gone to college, but known to Cambridge residents as “Slummerville.” Howe was a partial invalid, the victim of a childhood bicycle accident and a string of illness that made him so weak that his parents had sent him to a female seminary rather than a high school. FDR was popular—there was already talk of his running for President in 1932—but more because his name was Roosevelt than because of anything he’d done.
Then FDR made himself the first prominent leader to convince a legislature to give jobless people work. As soon as Albany approved the relief plan, the governor wrote to the mayors of places like Yonkers. The letter arrived in a Yonkers that was not today’s commuter stop, but a mill town of hats, carpets, and the Otis Elevator Company. In 1931, it was hungry. Several dozen police officers had just sponsored a charity drive that provided food and clothes for 2,000. If the state would now help, the progressive Republican mayor of Yonkers would welcome it. Mayor Fogerty put the most powerful man in town, his mentor, Leslie Sutherland, in charge of dispensing the funds. Roosevelt knew Sutherland, who had helped Theodore Roosevelt get the Republican vice-presidential nomination in 1900. Everybody knew Sutherland: he was the very visible vice-president of the company that ran the New York (and Yonkers) street cars. Roosevelt would have known him in another way. While the future president was growing up on an estate abut 50 miles north of Yonkers, Sutherland was a laborer in a part of Yonkers that was still rural. Roosevelt had seen young men like Sutherland at work. When the two spoke—and they surely did, since the vice-president of the trolley company was someone the governor could not avoid speaking to—Sutherland would have found a way to say as much.
Roosevelt wrote Fogerty—that is one part of the story. Then Fogerty, who was in truth only an intermediary, passed the letter to Sutherland—that is another part. And then the men who had had to get food from the cops now got pay from the rest of us. The carpet works was way below its peak of 8 million yards a year, but the mill hands would get some money anyway.
As one looks at Roosevelt’s letter today, the strokes of the typewriter stand out. Missy put something into it, perhaps something more than a bit of labor. Not style (that aspect of the letter is all Roosevelt) and not content (another member of FDR’s circle, the former social worker Harry Hopkins, would have been influential), but perhaps additional motive. As well as Roosevelt knew places like Yonkers, it would have strengthened his conviction to know that someone from Slummerville was typing the letter. Someone he trusted and even admired. Lehand had his power of attorney. Under his will, she received a life estate equal to Eleanor’s. Would it be too much to say what while Roosevelt ran the state, these two women (and his mother) ran him? Roosevelt was not self-reliant, he was an aristocrat. If there was not enough for people to eat, that was not just a crisis; it was an affront to his class.
Perhaps they all put something into it. Then something came out of it. The New York relief program gave Roosevelt a credential. He was on his way to the White House.
Fred Naiden is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.