The New Deal: Legislation & Policies

Historical Background

When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, American citizens faced economic challenges unlike anything previously experienced in U.S. history.  By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President in 1933, the nation’s unemployment rate hovered at 25%.  In a vast departure from previous Presidents, who believed that the federal government has no place in trying to regulate and/or control the cyclical nature of markets, Roosevelt believed that the sheer scope of the Depression demanded the federal government’s intervention.  With the support of a largely Democratic Congress, Roosevelt’s Hundred Days ushered in the first wave of New Deal legislation designed to hasten "Relief, Recovery, and Reform."

Significance of the Topic

The New Deal remains the greatest economic crisis in U.S. history – and that crisis demanded a radically different understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the President of the United States.  The devastation of the Depression left many Americans open to and appreciative of a federal government now directly involved in their day-to-day lives in revolutionary ways.  Moreover, the divergent political philosophies of Hoover and Roosevelt and government activism in attempting to control and direct the U.S. economy in times of recession remain at work in contemporary political discourse, particularly given the recent "Great Recession" of late 2007 / 2008.

Essential Question

Was the New Deal an effective remedy to the Great Depression?  What is the role of the federal government in attempting to mitigate the negative impacts of economic slowdown?

Motivation / Do Now

  • Students should examine the document from Literary Digest available at History Matters.   This document could be placed on a Smart Board, or printed with the attached questions and distributed to individual students.
  • Working in pairs or small groups, students should consider the "Questions for Consideration," and then discuss as a class with their teacher what the advertisement conveys about President Hoover’s political philosophy.  How did Hoover feel that the United States should work to end the Great Depression?  
  • Make sure students are aware of Hoover’s role in ensuring food distribution in Europe following the end of World War I.  This historical factoid may offer students some cognitive dissonance – making it more challenging for students to decide that Hoover "just didn’t care" about the American people.


  • Differentiate between the political philosophies of President Hoover and Roosevelt.
  • Discuss the American people’s message in the Presidential election of 1932 / the significance of a political mandate.
  • Explain Keynesian fiscal policy and how Roosevelt’s New Deal reflected Keynesian principles.
  • Identify New Deal programs and how they attempted to mitigate the impact of the Great Depression.
  • Posit why the Supreme Court might find some of Roosevelt’s policies unconstitutional.

Questions and Activities

After discussing the implications of the advertisement in the Literary Digest, show students data on the Election of 1932 (i.e., electoral vote / popular vote results) available from the University of California, Santa Barbara

Discuss the idea of "mandate," and explain FDR’s sense that the needs Americans faced as a result of the Great Depression were too great to let political philosophy keep the federal government from trying to help citizens directly.  Examine the definition of fiscal policy and Keynesian fiscal policy in particular as one economic theory designed to help alleviate a sluggish economy.

The teacher should explain Roosevelt’s plan for "Relief, Recovery, and Reform," with a focus on the first "Hundred Days" in office as a key opportunity to get the country back on track.  This "First" New Deal featured an emergency banking holiday, the repeal of Prohibition, and passage of: the National Industrial Recover Act which created the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Civil Works Administration.  Consider using a cartoon found in the Washington Post at to help focus on different initiatives of the Roosevelt Administration to address the Depression.  (See document annotation attached / consider additional cartoons available from the FDR Cartoon Archive.)

Closure / Summary

Have students submit a one-page explanation of the historical context (i.e., problem and attempted solution) of any of the "trees" in Elderman’s cartoon.  As a historian, evaluate the degree of success Roosevelt achieved as he attempted to "cut down the tree."

Discuss additional programs enacted during the New Deal, including Social Security, Medicare, the Glass Stegal Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, etc.

Consider having students view part or all of Jonathan Alter and Alan Brinkley discussing "FDR’s First Hundred Days" on the Gilder Lehrman website

Visit the University of California, Santa Barbara’s "The Presidency Project" website.  This site boasts data regarding elections, text of FDR’s Inaugural Addresses, Fireside Chats, etc.  It is a useful, scholarly source for teaching resources and/or for students to select a primary source and annotate it / explain its significance.

Have students examine a fabulous resource about political cartoons created by The Washington Post available from The Washington Post Newspaper in Education site, which references the  FDR Cartoon Archive.  Consider having students analyze a contemporary political cartoon of their choosing.