Roosevelt’s Second Term

The Election of 1936

The presidential election of 1936 was the most lopsided U.S. presidential election in terms of electoral votes and the second biggest victory in terms of the popular vote.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate how positive attitudes towards Roosevelt’s programs led to the landslide election of 1936

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Alfred Landon, Governor of Kansas, was Roosevelt’s Republican opponent. Henry Skillman Breckinridge was the (unsuccessful) Democratic challenger during the primaries.
  • The Literary Digest wrongly predicted that Landon would win. In response to its poll, George Gallup correctly predicted that Roosevelt would win. The Gallup Poll continued to be a critical element in political public opinion polling.
  • Roosevelt swept all but two states and nearly 61% of the popular vote.
  • Roosevelt’s extreme popularity among the poor and working class Americans, particularly those living in cities, was critical to his massive victory.
  • While the Republican Party made a comeback in the 1938 midterm elections, they did not win the presidency until 1952.

Key Terms

  • New Deal Coalition: A coalition of many diverse groups of voters and interest groups that emerged during the 1932 election and solidified during the 1936 election in support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It changed the political landscape in the United States turning the Democratic Party into the majority party.
  • “Share Our Wealth”: A populist movement begun during the Great Depression by Huey Long, a governor and later United States senator from Louisiana.

The presidential election of 1936 between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alfred Landon of Kansas was the most lopsided presidential election in U.S. history in terms of electoral votes. In terms of the popular vote, it remained the biggest victory until Lyndon Johnson received more popular votes in 1964 (since the popular vote began to be recorded in 1824). Although some predicted a close race, Roosevelt won the greatest electoral landslide, winning all but eight electoral votes and carrying every state except Maine and Vermont. (George Washington in 1789 and 1792 and James Monroe in 1820 won a higher percentage of electoral votes but those were the only cases in U.S. electoral history when candidates ran unopposed.)

Republican Party Nomination

At the 1936 Republican National Convention, many candidates sought the Republican nomination, but Kansas Governor Alfred “Alf” Landon and Iowa Senator William E. Borah were considered the most serious candidates. The 70-year-old Borah, a well-known member of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, won or performed strongly in a number of primaries. However, the party machinery almost uniformly backed Landon, a wealthy businessman and centrist, who won primaries in Massachusetts and New Jersey and dominated in the caucuses and at state party conventions. Landon won the nomination. His vice-presidential candidate was William Franklin Knox, a newspaper editor and publisher from Illinois, who was also one of the minor candidates for the presidential nomination.

Democratic Party Nomination

Incumbent Roosevelt and his vice president, John Nance Garner, had no serious opponents. Henry Skillman Breckinridge, an anti- New Deal lawyer from New York, challenged Roosevelt in four primaries and lost by wide margins. Overall, Roosevelt received 93% of the primary vote, compared to 2% for Breckinridge. At the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia, the delegates unanimously re-nominated the incumbents.

Other Candidates

Many people expected Huey Long, a very popular Democratic senator from Louisiana, to run as a third-party candidate with his populist  “Share Our Wealth” program as his platform. However, Long was assassinated in September 1935. Congressman William Lemke (R-North Dakota) ran as the candidate of the newly-created populist Union Party and Earl Browder represented the Communist Party. None of the third-party candidates received substantial support.


Despite the eventual landslide results, the outcome of the 1936 election did not seem certain in the months prior to the election. The Literary Digest, a publication that had correctly predicted the winner of the previous five elections, announced in its October 31 issue that Landon would be the winner with 370 electoral votes. Historians have debated the reason for the error, citing various factors as possible explanations including a biased sample (mostly Republican readers), low response rate, or exclusion of the poor from the survey (most of whom supported Roosevelt in 1936). The mistake was so devastating to the magazine’s credibility that it went out of business a few months after the election. In response to the Literary Digest’s poll, George Gallup, an American pioneer of survey sampling techniques, conducted and published his own surveys. He predicted both Roosevelt’s victory (although his survey’s results did not correctly predict the scale of Roosevelt’s victory) and that the Digest’s results were wrong. His correct predictions made public opinion polling a critical element of elections for journalists and politicians and the Gallup Poll would become a staple of future presidential elections.


Roosevelt won by a landslide, carrying 46 of the 48 states (all but Maine and Vermont) and bringing in additional Democratic members of Congress. He received 60.8% of the popular vote and 523 electoral votes. In response to Roosevelt’s victory, the Democratic Party chairman, James Farley, who had declared during the campaign that FDR was to lose only those two states, amended the then-conventional political wisdom of “as Maine goes, so goes the nation” into “as goes Maine, so goes Vermont.”

Roosevelt’s victory was largely driven by the urban working class and the poor who overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate. The New Deal Coalition, initiated in 1932 and solidified during the 1936 election, attracted one new critical voting bloc and even higher numbers of voters from the blocs formed four years earlier. The white urban working class, more recent European immigrants and their descendants, organized labor, white farmers, and white Southerners were now joined by African Americans, who for the first time in history shifted their political loyalty from Lincoln’s party to the Democratic Party. The New Deal’s focus on providing relief and reforms that would benefit the poor and working Americans resulted in Roosevelt’s extreme popularity among those groups of voters who had historically had very limited political power. Historians also note that the president’s use of radio as a medium to explain and popularize his actions cannot be ignored when explaining this wide popular support. The 1936 election proved that the idea of the government’s unprecedented intervention in the economy was much more appealing during the time of the economic crisis than the slogans of small government and free market.

Although after the 1936 election some political pundits predicted the virtual extinction of the Republican Party, Republicans would make a strong comeback in the 1938 midterm congressional elections. Despite the 1936 loss in congressional elections and historically low numbers of Republican representatives and senators, they remained a potent force in Congress. However, they were not able to win the presidency again until 1952.

The map shows that Roosevelt won all of the electoral votes with the exception of 5 votes from Maine and 3 votes from Vermont.

1936 Electoral Map: The electoral results of the 1936 presidential election.

Court Packing

The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, commonly referred to as “the court-packing plan,” was proposed by FDR to gain political control over the United States Supreme Court.

Learning Objectives

Explain why Congress opposed Roosevelt’s court-packing plan

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In response to the conservative leaning Supreme Court striking down many of the New Deal programs, Roosevelt proposed the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, or the ” court-packing plan.”
  • The purpose of the bill was to obtain favorable rulings regarding New Deal legislation.
  • The plan proposed to grant the president the power to appoint up to six more justices for each justice over the age of 70 and six months who served on the Court for 10 years.
  • The plan stirred political opposition (not only among anti-New Deal conservatives), and divided the public.
  • In the aftermath of the plan’s failure, conservative anti-New Deal opposition strengthened and popular support for the president decreased, yet in the end, Roosevelt was able to gain more control over the Supreme Court.

Key Terms

  • New Deal: The New Deal was a series of economic programs implemented in the United States between 1933 and 1938, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
  • Conservative Coalition: A bipartisan congressional alliance of conservative senators and representatives who opposed the New Deal.
  • court-packing plan: A common term that refers to failed legislation proposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wanted to add up to six more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to change the political balance of the court and ensure the court’s support for New Deal legislation.
  • Justice Owen Roberts: An associate justice of the United States Supreme Court who served  for 15 years. In 1937, he voted against expectations and upheld the constitutionality of Washington state’s minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel Co. v Parrish, lending his seeming support to the New Deal.

The New Deal agenda was an unprecedented effort to battle the Great Depression. In the dire time of the devastating economic crisis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt could rely on the support of Congress. In the first 100 days of his presidency, he was able to get Congress’ approval on nearly everything he and his advisers planned and after that, new legislation introducing sweeping reforms and relief programs also usually passed through Congress, even if after long debates. (After both the 1932 and 1936 elections, Democrats controlled Congress.) The one obstacle to turning legislation into action turned out to be the Supreme Court. Flagship First New Deal programs like the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act as well as a number of smaller, less expansive legislative proposals were deemed either entirely or partially unconstitutional. With four conservative, two centrist, and three liberal judges on the Supreme Court, Roosevelt recognized that his collaboration with the judicial branch would not be as successful as with the legislative branch. The landslide victory in the 1936 election emboldened the president to propose a plan that would change the political balance in the Supreme Court by adding new judges of his choice and thus increasing the number of Supreme Court justices. Political opponents referred to Roosevelt’s proposal as “the court-packing plan.”

The Justice Department during the New Deal

The Justice Department was not prepared to deal with the New Deal legislation not only because of the sheer amount of it but also because of intensified demands that the Great Depression produced for its employees (e.g., higher crime rates). Additionally, many Justice Department lawyers failed to influence either the drafting or review of much of the White House’s New Deal legislation and had doubts about quickly and poorly drafted New Deal proposals. Roosevelt’s solicitor general, James Crawford Biggs, proved to be an ineffective advocate for the legislative initiatives of the New Deal. Biggs resigned in early 1935 and while his successor Stanley Forman Reed initially faced serious challenges, by 1937, his repeated legal victories earned him the reputation of one of the most effective solicitors general.

This disarray at the Justice Department meant that the government’s lawyers often failed to foster viable test cases and arguments for their defense, subsequently handicapping them before the courts. As Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes would later note, the court did not uphold much of the New Deal legislation because it was so poorly drafted and defended.

Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937

In February 1937, Roosevelt introduced the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill, frequently called the “court-packing plan.” This legislative initiative proposed to add up to six more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court—for each judge over the age of 70 and six months who served more than 10 years, the president would appoint a new judge (six out of nine judges at the time met both criteria). The controversial plan did not violate the Constitution as it did not specify the number of Supreme Court justices. However, political opposition to the bill emerged immediately—and not only among anti-New Deal conservatives. Even Roosevelt’s own vice president was critical of the idea. Hardly any politician believed that the president was driven by motives other than being able to appoint pro-New Deal judges who would make the execution of his agenda possible.

A month after the introduction of the proposal, Roosevelt made it the subject of his “fireside chat.” He decried the Supreme Court’s majority for “reading into the Constitution’s words and implications which are not there, and which were never intended to be there.” He also argued directly that the bill was needed to overcome the Supreme Court’s opposition to the New Deal, stating that the nation had reached a point where it “must take action to save the Constitution from the Court, and the Court from itself.” Initially, popular support for the initiative was high, mostly because of the president’s immense popularity. However, even Roosevelt’s proponents gradually changed their minds. By the end of the crisis, the American public remained divided over the validity of the proposal.

Photo portrait of Homer Cummings

Homer Stille Cummings, Solicitor General of the United States, 1920, Harris & Ewing

Solicitor General Homer Stillé Cummings. His failure to prevent poorly-drafted New Deal legislation from reaching Congress is considered his greatest shortcoming.

Consequences of the Court-Packing Plan

Facing strong political opposition and decreasing popular support, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill was doomed to fail. While Burton Wheeler, a progressive Democrat from Montana, played the role of the public voice of the alliance that formed in opposition to “the court-packing plan,” conservative Democratic senators Carter Glass, Harry Flood Byrd, and Josiah Bailey, were critical to collecting enough opposing votes in Congress. Roosevelt realized that the bill had no chance of being passed and a compromise that did not alter the existing balance in the court was negotiated. The controversy, which historians consider to be one of the most questionable moments in Roosevelt’s career, strengthened conservative opposition to the New Deal. By 1937, an informal yet strong group of congressmen and representatives opposing the New Deal formed in Congress. Known as the Conservative Coalition (at the time, the term “conservative” referred to the opponents of the New Deal and did not imply any specific party affiliation), it initiated a conservative alliance that, with modifications, shaped Congress until the 1960s.

Despite the failure of Roosevelt’s plan, “the court-packing plan” controversy coincided with and was followed by changes that helped the president gain much more control over the Supreme Court. In 1937, the court upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act by changing its earlier interpretation of the extent to which Congress could interfere in interstate commerce. The same year, it also upheld the constitutionality of Washington state’s minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, a decision reached after Republican justice Owen Josephus Roberts unexpectedly supported the legislation. Historians argue that these changes of opinions were greatly influenced by the ongoing crisis.

Also in 1937, Willis Van Devanter, a justice nominated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt, retired and thus, FDR could nominate his first Supreme Court justice. By the end of his presidency, Roosevelt nominated eight Supreme Court justices—more than any other president.


Photo portrait of Stanley Reed

Justice Stanley Forman Reed, 1936, Harris & Ewing, Inc., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Harris & Ewing Collection: Stanley Forman Reed was considered to be a very effective solicitor general. In 1938, he became the first Supreme Court justice nominated by FDR.

Reaction and Recession

The Recession of 1937–1938 was an economic downturn that occurred during the Great Depression.

Learning Objectives

Examine the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Recession of 1937–38

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • By 1936–37, the U.S. economy had improved significantly. However, from mid-1937 through the summer of 1938, a severe economic downturn (known as the ” Recession of 1937–38″ or the ” Roosevelt Recession “) occurred.
  • Historians debate the causes of the recession, pointing to such factors as Roosevelt’s attempts to balance the budget by cutting spending and changes introduced by the Federal Reserve.
  • In response to the crisis, Roosevelt gave up on the idea of balancing the budget and increased spending. Certain changes in monetary policies were introduced as well.

Key Terms

  • Roosevelt Recession: Major economic downturn that occurred in the United States in
    1937–38 in the midst of the Great Depression. Also known also as the Recession of 1937–38.

The Roosevelt Recession

Between the late spring of 1937 and early summer of 1938, the U.S. economy entered another period of economic downturn. Still in the midst of the Great Depression, the deepening of the economic crisis allowed the critics of the New Deal to strengthen their opposition to the reform, recovery, and relief programs introduced since 1933. Considering the downturn to be evidence that the New Deal did not work, the president’s opponents referred to it as the “Roosevelt Recession.” While the severity of the recession paled in comparison to the severity of the most dramatic moments of the Great Depression, historians and economists note that the 1937–38 downturn was one of the most severe crises in U.S. history.

By 1936–37, the U.S. economy had improved significantly. Small inflation was recorded (and thus deflation stopped), GDP was on the rise, and employment, while still very high, fell from nearly 25% in 1933 to around 14% in 1937. In the months of the 1937–38 Recession, the trends reserved rapidly. Unemployment jumped back to around 19%, prices fell again, and production, wages, and profits all substantially declined. Historians debate what caused such an extreme downturn in the midst of an already devastating economic crisis and their explanations correspond with different economic theories.

Some blame Roosevelt’s too early attempts to curb the deficit by cutting spending after years of pouring money into costly New Deal programs. Others point to the changes in monetary policies introduced by the Federal Reserve that in 1936, doubled reserve requirements and tightened credit requirements (requiring banks to keep more reserves led to contraction in the money supply). Finally, an explanation favored by contemporary business leaders highlights the role of business regulations that in turn, allegedly led to declining business profits and investments.

The graph shows the total manufacturing employment from 1920-1940. Employment was 10,702,000 in 1920; 8,262,000 in 1921; 9,129,000 in 1922; 10,317,100 in 1923; 9,675,000 in 1924; 9,942,000 in 1925; 10,156,000 in 1926; 9,996,000 in 1927; 9,942,000 in 1928; 10,702,000 in 1929; 9,562,000 in 1930; 8,170,000 in 1931; 6,931,000 in 1932; 7,397,000 in 1933; 8,501,000 in 1934; 9,069,000 in 1935; 9,827,000 in 1936; 10,794,000 in 1937; 9,440,000 in 1938; 10,278,000 in 1939; and 10,985,000 in 1940.

U.S. Manufacturing Employment, 1920–1940: Manufacturing employment in the United States from 1920 to 1940, with a drop during the Recession of 1937–38.


As the causes of the recession were hotly debated, so was the government’s response to the economic downturn. The Roosevelt administration applied two major strategies in order to reverse the crisis. First, Roosevelt gave up on the idea to balance the budget (curb deficit) and announced more New Deal programs that would increase spending. In the fall of 1937, the Housing Act (also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act) introduced government subsidies for local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families. In February 1938, Congress passed the second Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which authorized crop loans, crop insurance against natural disasters, and large subsidies to farmers who cut back production. In April of the same year, the president sent a new large-scale spending bill to Congress, requesting $3.75 billion for various government projects. The bill passed with the overwhelming support of Democrats (and some Republicans). The second strategy that helped reverse the 1937–38 economic downturn was monetary reforms. The Federal Reserve decreased reserve requirements and the government’s intervention in controlling gold reserves already in the country and coming into the country decreased. Furthermore, some earlier efforts of the Roosevelt administration coincided with the 1937–38 Recession.

While more of a rhetorical than tangible reform response to the downturn, the anti-monopoly campaign also intensified as big business once again could be blamed for another economic crisis. The campaign aimed to hurt big business that Roosevelt and his advisers saw as obstructing economic recovery. However, the Roosevelt administration failed to pass any major trust-busting legislation.

While the economy recovered relatively quickly, very high unemployment continued until the demands of World War II practically eliminated the problem.

A New Direction for Unions

The New Deal and the economic growth during World War II greatly empowered American labor unions, which resulted in the dramatic increase of union membership.

Learning Objectives

Explain the changes in union membership during Roosevelt’s terms

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Great Depression created an environment where workers could be easily abused. Despite some attempts of the Hoover administration to empower organized labor, union membership was slightly decreasing when Roosevelt took over the office.
  • The New Deal proposed a number of programs and laws that empowered organized labor and industrial workers generally. These efforts made organized labor a loyal supporter of FDR, who was seen as a champion of workers’ rights.
  • The American Federation of Labor ( AFL ) was the largest union grouping when FDR took over the office, and its membership grew rapidly after 1933. However, the organization faced severe internal tension and outside criticism for its model of organization known as craft unionism.
  • John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW or UMWA) and one of the leaders of the AFL, proposed an alternative model of organization known as industry unionism. These two models resulted in a divide within the AFL and eventually the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations ( CIO ) led by Lewis.
  • The CIO was a more radical and inclusive organization than the AFL.
  • American entrance into World War II created unprecedented opportunities in the industrial sector. Large number of workers, including historically marginalized African Americans and women, unionized.
  • By the end of the war, union membership in the U.S. reached the highest rate of non agricultural labor in the recorded history of American unions.

Key Terms

  • William Green: An American trade union leader and president of the American Federation of Labor from 1924 to 1952.
  • New Deal Coalition: A coalition of many diverse groups of voters and interest groups that emerged during the 1932 election and solidified during the 1936 election in support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It changed the political landscape in the United States turning the Democratic Party into the majority party.
  • John L. Lewis: An American leader of organized labor who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) from 1920 to 1960. A major player in the history of coal mining, he was the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which helped organize millions of industrial workers in the 1930s.
  • Flint Sit-Down Strike: A 1936–1937 strike that changed the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from a collection of isolated local unions on the fringes of the industry into a major labor union and led to the unionization of the domestic United States automobile industry.

FDR and Organized Labor

Around the time when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took over the presidential office in 1933, union membership recorded a decrease from over 3 million in 1932 to around 2.7 million a year later. That number constituted around 7 percent of all employed workers at the time when the most likely underestimated unemployment rate reached a quarter of the labor force. Extremely limited job opportunities and a huge number of individuals ready to secure any kind of employment created an environment where workers could be easily abused. Despite some attempts of the Hoover administration to empower organized labor (e.g., the 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act), union membership resulted in limited protection of the workers who were willing and able to pay membership fees. However, the declining trend reversed in 1934, and unions would consistently grow during Roosevelt’s presidency, a phenomenon that reflected first, the protective and regulative labor provisions of the New Deal and later, the massive industrial growth during World War II. By the time Roosevelt died, shortly after he was elected to his fourth term, union membership in the United States reached its high peak. In 1945, over 14 million workers belonged to unions, which constituted over 35 percent of non-agricultural workers (the highest recorded rate in U.S. history) and over 27 percent of all employed workers.

One of the flagship legislative proposals of the First New Deal (1933–34/5) was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA, June 1933). Title I of NIRA outlined guidelines for the creation of the so-called “codes of fair competition” (rules according to which industries were supposed to operate), endowed trade unions with certain rates, and allowed standards of work (e.g., pay rate, hours) to be monitored and enforced. The famous Section 7(A) of NIRA provided workers with the right to bargain collectively through their own representatives. However, in 1935, the Supreme Court declared Title I of NIRA unconstitutional (Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States). The Roosevelt administration immediately followed with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA; known also as the Wagner Act), which offered many of the labor protection and regulation provisions that were earlier included in NIRA. NLRA
provided basic rights of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining for better terms and conditions at work, and take collective action, including strike. Unlike NIRA, which tied the same rights to industrial codes, NLRA guaranteed labor rights through the federal government. The act also created the National Labor Relations Board, which was to guarantee the rights included in NLRA (as opposed to merely negotiating labor disputes) and organize labor unions representation elections. NLRA remains the landmark legislation of federal labor law that established the increasingly powerful position of organized labor during Roosevelt’s presidency. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), although applicable to certain industries only, additionally strengthened the image of Roosevelt as the champion of workers’ rights. It established a national minimum wage and overtime standards. It also limited the work week to 44 hours (amended to 40 hours a week in 1940).

It is important to note that unions traditionally organized industrial, urban workers. While some agricultural labor unions existed during Roosevelt’s presidency, they organized a minuscule number of rural workers.  Consequently, in the context of labor legislation and labor unions discussed in this module, the term “worker” refers mostly to industrial workers.

Craft Unionism v. Industrial Unionism

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), the largest union grouping in the contemporary United States, was growing rapidly after 1933, reaching a membership of 3.4 million in 1936. However, hundreds of thousands of workers chose membership in unions that did not belong to the AFL that was at the time facing severe internal tensions and outside criticism. Traditionally, the AFL organized unions by craft rather than industry; for example, electricians or stationary engineers would form their own skill-oriented unions rather than join a large automobile-making union. This model excluded the so-called unskilled workers, employed most commonly in mass production. Most AFL leaders, including President William Green, were reluctant to shift from the organization’s longstanding tradition of craft unionism and started to clash with other leaders within the organization, such as John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW). The issue came up at the annual AFL conventions in 1934 and 1935, but the majority voted against a shift to industrial unionism (organizing workers along the lines of industries rather than crafts).

At its center, the union label shows two hands shaking. The hands are surrounded by the Latin phrase "Labor Omnia Vincit," which translates to "Work conquers all." The words "All Goods Bearing This Label Are Guaranteed Union Made" wrap around the outside of the label.

American Federation of Labor: Label of the American Federation of Labor.

After the defeat at the 1935 convention, Lewis gathered AFL’s pro-industrial unionism leaders and organized the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to “encourage and promote organization of workers in the mass production industries.” The CIO formed unions with the hope of bringing them into the AFL, but in the end, the AFL rejected the idea of a more open and inclusive form of organization that would unionize workers regardless of craft or skills. In 1938, the AFL expelled the CIO and its members. The CIO transitioned into a rival federation of unions under the new name of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Both the AFL and the CIO supported Roosevelt and organized labor became the loyal member of the New Deal Coalition.

The CIO quickly earned the reputation of a more radical and more inclusive labor organization than the AFL. Millions of workers received an opportunity to organize under the auspices of a major union grouping for the first time. The AFL’s long history of the exclusion of immigrant workers, women workers, and workers of color gradually made the AFL out of touch with the realities of the American industrial labor. Historians have extensively discussed the racist stand of the AFL (A. Philip Randolph and his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters gathering black workers constitute an exception in the AFL membership). While the CIO was not free of racist and sexist sentiments, its declared attitude toward African American workers was strikingly different from that of the AFL’s. Above all, the new form of organization finally opened the door to mainstream organized labor to black workers, who usually occupied unskilled industrial jobs (excluded from the AFL’s form of organization). Many radical black labor leaders wholeheartedly supported the CIO, regardless of the organization’s racist practices (e.g., white workers would usually keep better paid and more skilled jobs as well as leadership positions in unions). Already in 1937, the CIO membership was higher than the AFL membership, reaching 3.7 million.

New, more radical trends in organized labor also translated into more radical forms of protest, most notably sit-downs. In February 1937, nearly 200,000 General Motors workers refused to work in Flint, Michigan. Staying idle in the plants rather than leaving them prevented bringing strikebreakers—a common practice used by employers to discourage labor protests. The several week-long protests resulted in a contract that satisfied the protesting workers and shortly after that, hundreds of sit-downs followed across the country.

Upsurge in World War II

Both the AFL and the CIO supported Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944. However, Lewis, a devoted neutralist, opposed Roosevelt on foreign policy grounds and questioned Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term in 1940. In the end, all unions strongly supported the war effort after June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

During the World War II period, unions dramatically strengthened their bargaining and political position and membership expanded from 8.7 million in 1940 to more than 14.3 million in 1945, about 35 percent of the non-agricultural work force. Around 2.8 million workers in that number belonged to independent or unaffiliated unions that were not part of the AFL or the CIO. For the first time, large numbers of women received access to well paid, unionized factory jobs (with many men serving in the military) and, as a result, joined unions. Although the unemployment rate was still around 14 percent in 1940, the demands of the war effort quickly produced attractive jobs. By the end of the war, unemployment was practically nonexistent. In exchange for the promise that workers would not engage in labor protest during the time of massive production demands, labor leaders were promised favorable working conditions. However, every year a number of workers broke the no-protest promise. In 1943, Lewis, still the president of the United Mine Workers, led one of the biggest war-time strikes. The miners demanded higher wages and safer working conditions but their demands met with fervent political opposition. Some even called to arrest Lewis for obstructing production essential to the war effort, but in the end, the miners’ demands were met.

While in the two decades following World War II union membership remained high, never again would it grow (as a percentage of overall non-industrial labor) and be as popular as during Roosevelt’s presidency.

Photo portrait of John L. Lewis

John L. Lewis: John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America and founder of the CIO, photographed at the Capitol in 1922.

The Last of the New Deal Reforms

During the final stage of the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration introduced far fewer initiatives than during FDR’s first term but still passed some influential legislative initiatives.

Learning Objectives

Examine the last New Deal programs pushed through by the Roosevelt administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Historians continue to debate when the New Deal ended. While some identify its end as early as the beginning of FDR’s second term (1936-37), most agree that the New Deal eventually and gradually ended in 1938. Some historians refer to the final stage of the agenda as the Third New Deal. The 1937-38 Recession, for which Roosevelt’s opponents blamed the President, resulted in another round of New Deal initiatives. In response to the attacks, Roosevelt moved further left, attacked monopoly power, and drastically increased relief spending.
  • During Roosevelt’s second term, the number of New Deal programs and reforms paled in comparison with initiatives introduced during the first term. However, some influential legislative projects passed, including the 1937 Housing Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • Two main factors had impact on the gradual end of the New Deal: the change in the balance of power in Congress after the 1938 midterm election and the threat of global war.

Key Terms

  • Third New Deal: A term used by some historians to refer to the final stage of the New Deal: the period around and following the Recession of 1937-38 with some pointing to the the 1939 Reorganization Act as the end point.
  • Harold Ickes: A United States administrator and politician serving as United States Secretary of the Interior for 13 years, from 1933 to 1946, the longest tenure of anyone to hold the office, and the second longest serving cabinet member in U.S. history. He was responsible for implementing much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
  • court-packing plan: A common term that refers to failed legislation proposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wanted to add up to six more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to change the political balance of the court and ensure the court’s support for the New Deal legislation.
  • The 1937 Housing Act: A 1937 New Deal law that introduced government subsidies for local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act: A 1938 New Deal law that established a national minimum wage, overtime standards, and prohibited most employment of minors in “oppressive child labor.” It also limited the work week to 44 hours.
  • Henry Morgenthau: The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He played a major role in designing and financing the New Deal.
  • Roosevelt Recession: The major 1937–38 economic downturn that occurred in the United States in the midst of the Great Depression, known also as the Recession of 1937–38.
  • second Agricultural Adjustment Act: A 1938 New Deal law that authorized crop loans, crop insurance against natural disasters, and large subsidies to farmers who cut back production.

The Third New Deal

Historians continue to debate when the New Deal ended. While some identify the end of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s unprecedented reform agenda as early as the beginning of his second term (1936–37), others agree that while the number and scale of initiatives introduced during the second term pale in comparison with those passed during Roosevelt’s first term, the New Deal eventually and gradually ended in 1938. That was a time when Republicans recovered from their 1936 devastating loss and recorded substantial gains in Congress in the aftermath of the 1938 midterm election. On the one hand, the new balance of power in Congress made the passing of new legislation more and more challenging for the Roosevelt administration. On the other, first the threat and then the 1939 outbreak of World War II in Europe shifted Roosevelt’s focus from domestic reforms to the war effort long before the U.S. formally joined the war. Although traditionally the New Deal is divided into two stages (First New Deal, 1933–34/5 and Second New Deal 1935–38), some historians refer to the final phase of the New Deal as the “Third New Deal.” The Third New Deal usually refers to the period around and following the Recession of 1937–38 with some pointing to the 1939 Reorganization Act (which allowed the president to reorganize the executive branch) as the end of the final phase of the New Deal.

Still in the midst of the Great Depression, the U.S. economy entered another period of economic downturn in the spring of 1937, which continued through most of 1938. The Roosevelt administration was under assault and the president’s opponents even referred to the crisis as the “Roosevelt Recession.” While some argued that the downturn was a result of a premature effort to curb government spending and balance the budget, conservatives believed that it was caused by what they saw as Roosevelt’s attacks on business and the empowered position of organized labor. In response to this criticism, Roosevelt and his proponents intensified their earlier anti-monopoly efforts and blamed big business for the negative economic trends. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, attacked automaker Henry Ford, steelmaker Tom Girdler, and the super rich “Sixty Families” who supposedly comprised “the living center of the modern industrial oligarchy which dominates the United States.” Ickes warned that they would create “big-business Fascist America—an enslaved America.” In 1937, Roosevelt appointed Robert Jackson as the aggressive new director of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. However, this effort lost its effectiveness once World War II began, and big business was urgently needed to produce war supplies. The anti-monopoly campaign aimed to hurt big business that Roosevelt and his advisers saw as obstructing economic recovery. However, the Roosevelt administration failed to pass any major trust-busting legislation.

Roosevelt rejected the advice of his Secretary of Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, to cut spending and announced more New Deal programs. In the fall of 1937, the Housing Act (known also as the Wagner-Steagall Act) introduced government subsidies for local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families. In February 1938, Congress passed the second Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which authorized crop loans, crop insurance against natural disasters, and large subsidies to farmers who cut back production. In April of the same year, the president sent a new large-scale spending bill to Congress, requesting $3.75 billion for various government projects, including those focused on unemployment relief. One of the most influential pieces of legislation passed in the final stage of the New Deal was also the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It established a national minimum wage (25 cents per hour in the first year after the Act was passed), overtime standards, and prohibited most employment of minors (individuals under the age 16 or 18, depending on the nature of work) in “oppressive child labor.” It also limited the work week to 44 hours (amended to 40 hours a week in 1940). FLSA did not apply to all industries. Historians estimate that the Act’s provisions covered not more than 20 percent of the labor force. Also, the ban on child labor introduced in FLSA did not cover agriculture where child labor was rampant. However, FLSA was critical to establishing the labor standards that remain the foundation of labor law in the United States.

The End of the New Deal

Roosevelt intended to introduce more legislation during his second term (1937–1941), but two main factors made this a much more challenging task than during his first term: the lack of political support and the threat of war. In 1938, Republicans gained seven Senate seats and 81 House seats. In the aftermath of the failure of the 1937 court-packing plan and the 1938 election, the bipartisan Conservative Coalition solidified and strengthened in Congress and many liberal proposals were defeated. A handful of liberal measures did pass when the Conservative Coalition was divided (most notably the minimum wage laws).

The Depression continued with decreasing effect until the United States entered World War II in December 1941. Under the special circumstances of war mobilization, massive war spending doubled the GNP. Civilian unemployment was reduced from 14 percent in 1940 to less than 2 percent by the end of 1943.

Historians and economists disagree whether and, if yes, to what extent the New Deal helped the U.S. economy recover from the Great Depression. However, they all agree that the primary factor of the eventual economic growth that followed the New Deal was driven by the demands of the war effort.


A homeless family of seven walks along U.S. 99 bound for San Diego, where the father hopes to enroll on welfare because he once lived there. They walked from Phoenix, Arizona, where they picked cotton. Author: Dorothea Lange; 1939; the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs

Despite the continuous economic crisis and hardships, the New Deal was largely over by 1939, where this family was seeking New Deal benefits.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role of the First Lady of the United States and remained politically active after her tenure in the White House.

Learning Objectives

Discuss Eleanor Roosevelt’s contributions during her husband’s administration and afterwards

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Eleanor Roosevelt was an active political voice before, during, and after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency. She developed her own political agenda, often in opposition to her husband’s stance and was one of the most influential women in the Democratic Party.
  • During FDR’s presidency, Eleanor gave her own weekly press conferences and traveled extensively. She supported Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and women’s rights.
  • Unlike her husband, she was a fervent advocate for the black civil rights struggle.
  • After her husband’s death, Roosevelt remained active in politics, becoming a key figure in the United Nations and holding a number of other public appointments.

Key Terms

  • Mary McLeod Bethune: An American educator and civil rights leader best known for starting a school for African American students in Daytona Beach, Florida, that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. She was an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of his Black Cabinet’s members and a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • Marian Anderson: An African American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century. She became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States when, in 1939, she was denied to sing to an integrated audience at the Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) redefined the role of the First Lady of the United States. Her commitment to social justice and strong opinions on a number of issues considered controversial during her time (e.g., race relations, women’s rights, etc.) made her one of the most beloved women in American politics for some and one of the most scandalous ones for others, including many among her husband’s supporters. She served as the First Lady from 1933 to 1945, developing and pursuing her own active political agenda. However, she was a well-known public life figure before Franklin Delano Roosevelt took over the presidential office and long after her husband’s death in 1945.

Born in a wealthy family, Roosevelt followed trends popular among women of her own class. By the end of the 19th century, many progressive middle and upper class urban women believed that they had a social responsibility to help those in need. While the belief was linked to the paternalistic attitudes of upper classes that pushed the working class and the poor to strive for what the more affluent saw as respectable middle class standards, throughout her life, Roosevelt continued to move beyond the expectations imposed on women of her class. She married Franklin, her distant cousin in 1905, and devoted the first years of their marriage to raising their children (she gave birth to six children, one of whom died as an infant). In 1918, she discovered her husband’s extramarital affair and although the marriage did not end, it also never emotionally recovered, turning into what historians describe as political partnership.

In the 1920s, Eleanor supported a number of women’s rights and labor causes. She was active in organizations fighting for minimum wage, maximum working hours, a ban on child labor, and other labor regulations. She also supported women’s voting rights and became an influential member of the Democratic Party in New York. Historians credit Eleanor for encouraging and even partly facilitating (through personal support and political activism) her husband’s return to politics after he suffered from polio. When Franklin won governorship of New York in 1928, Eleanor became actively involved in his work, becoming one of the most known women in American politics.

The First Lady

Throughout Franklin’s presidency, Eleanor served as a close and influential presidential adviser but also established her own position as a political figure with much more radical views than those of her husband’s. She regularly held her own press conferences and maintained a close relationship with the White House female press corp. Her use of popular media to promote the New Deal and her own messages included also a newspaper column “My Day” that appeared in newspapers across the country from 1935 until 1962.

She traveled extensively, both internationally and in the United States. The domestic travels helped her better understand the plight of Americans during the Great Depression and allowed her to serve the role of messenger between the people that she met and her husband. On one hand, she assured ordinary Americans that her husband cared for them. On the other, she pushed Franklin to address the needs of those whom he forgot, ignored, or simply refused to support. Eleanor publicly pointed out that the New Deal ignored the interests of women. She also advocated for the needs of young Americans. Her efforts led to creating the National Youth Administration, which focused on providing work and education for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25 as part of the 1935 Work Progress Administration.

Unlike her husband, Eleanor was a fervent supporter of civil rights for African Americans. She advocated for anti-lynching legislation, even when she realized that Franklin would not endorse it for fear of alienating white Southerners in Congress. Her most publicized act of opposition to segregation was when, in 1939, she severed her connection with the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), after the organization banned Marian Anderson, a black opera singer, from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., that the DAR owned. With the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, also anti-segregationist, she arranged for Anderson to sing on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial.

While Eleanor supported other struggles of black communities, this well-known episode demonstrates how different her attitude toward African Americans was from that of her husband’s. She was explicit in her support of civil rights for black Americans, did not hide her agenda from the often critical public eye, and challenged her husband’s political opponents and allies (especially racist white Southerners). Eleanor sought attention for the civil rights cause through relationships and close friendships with black leaders, most notably Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women, member of the Black Cabinet, and director of the Division of Negro Affairs at the National Youth Administration; and Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary and anti-lynching legislation activist. During World War II, Eleanor continued to support racial integration in labor force and in the military. While her activism did not result in any sweeping civil rights legislation, historians note that her fight for racial equality had symbolic significance. Despite the fact that during the post-WWII period, black leaders accused Eleanor of giving up on the civil rights struggle, she was an unusual representative of her own class. Analogously, in opposition to her husband’s stance, she warned against the prejudice targeted at Japanese Americans in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. Reportedly, she also privately opposed the internment camps established by the Roosevelt administration.


Eleanor Roosevelt at the opening of Midway Hall: Midway Hall was one of two residence halls built by the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency for black women war workers.

The Post-White House Period

After her husband’s death in 1945, Roosevelt continued to be an international influence as an author, speaker, politician, and activist. She worked to enhance the status of working women, although she criticized and never supported the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1945, President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor to be a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (an organization championed by her husband). She was the chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and one of the key officials behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Roosevelt also remained an influential figure in the Democratic Party. In 1952 and 1956, she did not endorse Dwight Eisenhower but former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson as the Democratic presidential candidate. This decision provoked opposition and disappointment among African Americans as Stevenson was a segregationist and civil rights opponent. She reluctantly endorsed John Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy reappointed her to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, asked her to serve on the Presidential Advisory Commission for the Peace Corps, and made her chair of the Presidential Commission of the Status of Women.

Eleanor Roosevelt died of a rare form of bone tuberculosis in 1962, at the age of 78.

Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Speech: Speech by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt for a TV Program on Human Rights Day