By Adam Sanchez
Most historians, and many textbooks, divide the New Deal into two phases: the first New Deal, the flurry of legislation during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days, and the second New Deal, the more sweeping and long-lasting legislation passed in 1935. They describe this as an era when the government experimented with new and different programs aimed at the same goal: economic recovery. In Roosevelt’s words: “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.”
Unfortunately, mainstream histories ignore the social forces pressing for more radical New Deal legislation and fail to explain how the dynamics of power shifted in response to a growing struggle from below.
After exploring the causes of the Great Depression (see Who Made the New Deal? Part 1: What Caused the Great Depression?), my 10th-grade U.S. History class at Madison High School in Portland, Oregon, read about the emergence throughout the country of Unemployed Councils. These councils instigated mass protests demanding jobless relief and used direct action to help tens of thousands of people facing foreclosure move back into their homes. We also read about the Bonus Army’s 1932 occupation of Washington, D.C. This encampment of World War I veterans and their families—at its peak more than 20,000 strong—demanded payment of the bonus promised to soldiers who fought in the Great War.
Together, these stories make a compelling case that the decisive blow ending the Hoover presidency was not Roosevelt’s charismatic speeches on the campaign trail, but the militant actions of ordinary people whose lives were devastated by the crisis.
To help students grapple with the legislation of the early New Deal, I developed the Economic Recovery Conference Role Play. The goal of the role play was to help students understand who among the public supported this early legislation and why.
Like capitalists today, the business community supported government spending when it helped increase their business’ profits, but not as a policy to curb unemployment. I also wanted students to imagine the early New Deal within the context of other economic solutions on offer at the time.
The Economic Recovery Conference Role Play
I distributed an “Economic Recovery Conference: Crucial Issues” handout to every student. Together, we went over the questions they would be debating:
1. Should the federal government distribute direct relief (money for food, clothing, shelter) to the unemployed? If not, what is your alternative?
2. Should the federal government directly employ people for the purpose of building “public works”—roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, parks, public squares, dams, electrical grids—construction that benefits the communities of the United States? If not, what is your alternative?
3. To help raise agricultural prices should the government pay farm owners not to plant on part of their land and to destroy crops and farm animals? If not, what is your alternative?
4. Should the government strengthen anti-trust laws and more heavily regulate industry? Or should the government suspend anti-trust laws to allow businesses to regulate themselves by getting together in “trade associations” and writing codes of fair competition?
5. Should the federal government set a national minimum wage and maximum hours for all workers?
6. Should the government guarantee workers the right to join a labor union and bargain collectively?
7. Should “company unions” (a workers’ organization that is dominated or influenced by an employer) be banned?
As students-in-character filled out their responses to the questions, I circled around the room, helping groups that were having difficulties and pointing out answers that were inconsistent with their roles. I also tried to highlight information from their role that was particularly significant, and encouraged them to share it with the larger group when the conference began.
This article was first published in Rethinking Schools magazine Volume 30, No. 2 in Winter 2015/2016. Rethinking Schools offers a series of books providing practical examples of how to integrate social justice education into social studies, history, language arts, and mathematics. They are used widely by new as well as veteran teachers and in teacher education programs. Visit www.rethinkingschools.org to learn more and subscribe.