Thousands of banks had failed, reducing millions of middle-class Americans to sudden, shocking poverty. Families packed up and migrated from town to town in search of work as factories shuttered across the country. Farmers as far flung as the Dakotas, Tennessee and New York had taken over highways, physically blocking transport of meats and vegetables in a desperate bid to raise food prices. In a few weeks, a judge in LeMars, Iowa, presiding over 15 farm foreclosure cases would be dragged from his courtroom with a rope around his neck. A year earlier, police in Dearborn, Michigan, had fired on an army of unemployed workers led by Communist Party officials, killing five and injuring dozens more. This was no mere economic calamity. The American political project appeared to be in its death throes.
It was early March of 1933. By mid-June, the threat of revolution would be gone. The American presidency would be redefined, and the federal government’s role in civic life overhauled under a political realignment unlike anything since the Civil War. The power of big business would be subjugated to the voting public for decades to come.
Americans didn’t talk about the first 100 days of their first 31 presidents. But the frantic reforms implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the spring of 1933 set a new standard for leadership that his successors would struggle to live up to. When President John Fitzgerald Kennedy laid out his agenda in 1961, his plea for patience reflected heightened public expectations established by FDR: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, not in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.”
FDR signed 76 bills into law during in his first 100 days in office, 15 of which are legislative landmarks. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush each signed fewer than 10 bills during their first 100 days, none of them iconic achievements. Donald Trump’s policy record is limited to the reversal of a few regulations approved by Barack Obama. (This has not prevented Trump from laughably declaring his first 100 days the most “accomplished” since FDR.)
Roosevelt rescued the financial system, imposed sweeping new banking reforms, protected families from foreclosure, provided aid to farmers and laid-off factory workers, and created new government agencies that directly employed people desperate for jobs. FDR founded the Civilian Conservation Corps. to put millions of young men to work on environmental conservation efforts, along with the Public Works Administration to construct schools, dams, airports and other infrastructure. The Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to much of the South and broke predatory monopolies in the power market. Roosevelt established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to guarantee citizens wouldn’t lose their savings in a bank failure (this came in pretty handy in 2008 and 2009), and the Securities and Exchange Commission to protect investors from corporate fraud.
“Much of what was pushed through in the first 100 days were things for which there was pent-up demand within the Democratic electorate,” notes Eric Rauchway, a historian at the University of California, Davis and author of The Money Makers, a study of Roosevelt’s economic program. “There was farm relief, labor relief, there were some early steps at public works. … But other stuff was just forced on him by the extreme circumstance of the moment.”
The bursting of a stock market bubble and the collapse of farm prices had all but destroyed the American banking system. Roosevelt’s first order of business upon taking office was to declare a bank holiday, closing every bank in the country and dispatch inspectors to pore over books and accounts. Under FDR’s Emergency Banking Act, the federal government agreed to meet the liabilities for any solvent bank. When the banks reopened a few days later, depositors were able to make withdrawals and the panic subsided.
Today, many New Deal ideas and institutions are considered a normal part of governing. Even the most ardent conservatives don’t talk seriously about eliminating the FDIC or the SEC, and the TVA remains one of the largest U.S. producers of electricity.
Progressive and populist reformers had been clamoring for these policies for years, but they had no academic or intellectual support for their agenda. Roosevelt financed his project by taking the United States off the gold standard ― a radical change to the country’s monetary system that conservatives derided as “communist” well into the 1950s ― and by borrowing and printing money. In 1936, British economist John Maynard Keynes would publish his landmark The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, demonstrating why this strategy could work. But in 1933, the economic establishment believed these moves to be dangerous, even insane.
But economists of the day had also believed that prolonged economic downturns were impossible. After a few weeks or months, prices would adjust and markets would get back to normal. The Great Depression upended these theories, throwing society into frightening, unchartered territory. Though it would take years for many of the projects from Roosevelt’s first 100 days to be implemented, the furious pace of activity helped calm an anxious public.
“In his inaugural speech, Roosevelt says the country ‘demands action and action now,’” notes presidential historian Robert Dallek, whose FDR biography will be published in the fall. “And he set out that he could do what he could in the first 100 days of his term to remedy the sense of despair.”
Although the titans of American finance and industry were generally opposed to Roosevelt’s policies, his firm agenda helped the economy rebound before the spending he had approved actually began flowing into the economy.
“Roosevelt’s first 100 days revived business confidence, as is shown by the remarkable recovery of production which took place, without fiscal stimulus, during the second quarter of 1933,” economic historian Robert Skidelsky notes in an essay published in 1978.
FDR’s presidency was experimental. It didn’t achieve anything like ideological unity until 1938. His spending projects repeatedly came into conflict with counterproductive efforts to balance the federal budget. Even his admirers, including Keynes, would at times accuse him of doing too much ― focusing too much on rewriting the rules of commerce and not enough on putting people to work (Keynes would not live long enough to fully appreciate the significance of FDR’s reforms. The Glass-Steagall Act’s separation between traditional banking and risky securities trading would put an end to U.S. banking panics for 50 years.).
But after FDR’s first 100 days, the U.S. government wasn’t going back to a laissez-faire system. He had invented modern American government.