Franklin Roosevelt Through the Eyes of Richard Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter, a historian at Columbia University, frequently writes on the period of history known as “The New Deal” and FDR’s presidency. His article “The Age of Reform” is a great example of his knowledge of the time and his opinion of FDR’s presidency at the end of the Great Depression.

Franklin Roosevelt commanded the United States in a time of economic turmoil and political uncertainty. Representative of the era, Roosevelt enacted a series of reform-minded programs intended to curb the growing depression of the nineteen-thirties. Many of the measures passed throughout FDR’s presidency contradicted one another, and lacked any discernable political or social direction. In his essay “The Age of Reform”, Richard Hofstadter analyses not only the motivations driving Franklin Roosevelt during his presidency, but the far reaching consequences of his actions. Roosevelt claimed that the contradictory nature of his programs merely reflected the changing needs of American society, using the example of a quarterback whose play selection relies on the previous event. Hofstadter appears to argue that Roosevelt’s actions as president were aimless and indecisive, and thus ineffective. The efforts by Roosevelt to end the great depression were no doubt progressive in nature; however, as one examines the intentions of the many agencies, it becomes apparent that Roosevelt lacked a significant amount of direction and foresight when legislating his New Deal.

Richard Hofstadter states several times that FDR’s New Deal legislation did not have a single purpose, goal, or destination, but it was rather a series of improvisations enacted with politics, rather than economics in mind. Although Roosevelt did legislate much of his New Deal with the intention of “the three Rs”, relief, recovery, and reform, the concepts that dictated his political philosophy were entirely too vague to lend themselves to a cohesive plan. Rather than create a few agencies to serve one particular economic goal, Roosevelt created a variety of different progressively minded agencies that served many, sometimes contradictory political agendas. In his attempt to aid the entire nation, Roosevelt created several agencies that, if supplemented and well managed, would have stimulated the economy alone, such as the NRA, the CCC, and the second incarnation of the AAA. Unfortunately, he attempted to weave these programs together into an ultimate economic solution. This strategy proved disastrous, and led not only to deficit spending of the United States budget, but failed to improve the economy of the United States.

Roosevelt was never known to commit to one economic philosophy entirely. He regarded economics as invalid because the philosophies changed course with the changing decades. The most complete economic doctrine followed by Roosevelt, intentionally or unintentionally, was the concept of Keynesian economics. This philosophy encouraged deficit spending in order to “prime the economic pump”. However, in one of the many contradictions of his presidency, after committing to years of deficit spending, in 1938 he attempted to balance the national budget. Again, the results of his indecision nearly crippled the nation, which plunged even deeper into a panic known as the “Roosevelt Recession”. This is yet another example of the complete lack of purpose and foresight demonstrated throughout the Roosevelt presidency. Had Roosevelt fully understood the consequences associated with changing his political philosophy toward the economy, he would have not attempted to balance the national budget at the first sign of improvement. This is one of the many instances of the contradictory mind and policies of Roosevelt. When the public began to see economic improvement, they demanded budget stability, and FDR blindly obliged.

The Roosevelt administration of the 1930s was defined by a series of contradictory and expensive programs bent on improving national stability. While many of the resulting problems with the programs were a result of the legislation of Roosevelt and his “Brain Trust”, congress played an important role in aiding the conflicting economic programs being mandated by Washington. From the very beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency, he was granted almost god-like powers to legislate as he pleased. The American people and Congress, eager for change of any sort, accepted and passed many, if not all, of the bills proposed by Roosevelt. The overwhelmingly Democratic congress drowned out the few remaining Republican voices in Congress, and ultimately allowed Roosevelt to act with impunity. Even programs clearly contradictory to the constitution, such as the first AAA, were passed immediately, meeting opposition only by the Supreme Court.

The Great Depression, the bust after the boom of the Roaring Twenties, changed the very fabric of American society. When many people predicted a second Revolution in the United States, Franklin Roosevelt held the nation together with the promise of change. There is no doubt that he changed America in ways irreversible, but these changes pulled the nation in several conflicting directions, and failed to change the one important aspect of society, the economy. FDR’s contradictory policies extended not only to the many New Deal programs he enacted in his political career, but to the ways in which he conducted his economic philosophy and his attitude toward the constitution as well. Hofstadter portrays a very different image of FDR in his essays and takes a decidedly more negative approach to analyzing his administration than many historical texts. It is certain however, that Roosevelt’s solution to the Great Depression never fully achieved any of its ultimate goals. This failure can be directly attributed to the political and economic improvisation typical of Roosevelt. The Depression was finally ended by the outbreak of World War II, and Roosevelt’s place in history rescued by an event entirely out of his control.

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