The nation's plight on March 4, 1933, the day Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency, was desperate. A quarter of the nation's workforce was jobless. A quarter million families had defaulted on their mortgages the previous year. During the winter of 1932 and 1933, some 1.2 million Americans were homeless. Scores of shantytowns (called Hoovervilles) sprouted up.
Since 1929, about 9,000 banks, holding the savings of 27 million families, had failed. Of those bank failings, 1,456 folded in 1932 alone. Farm foreclosures were averaging 20,000 a month. The public was desperate for action. Hamilton Fish, a conservative Republican congressman, promised the president that Congress would "give you any power that you need."
A month before taking office, Giuseppe Zangara, a mentally ill bricklayer, tried to assassinate the president-elect in Miami. Chicago's mayor was killed, but Roosevelt miraculously escaped injury. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt expressed confidence that his administration could end the Depression. "The only thing we have to fear," he declared, "is fear itself."
In Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office, he pushed 15 major bills through Congress. The bills would reshape every aspect of the economy, from banking and industry to agriculture and social welfare. The president promised decisive action. He called Congress into special session and demanded "broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."
Roosevelt attacked the bank crisis first. He declared a national bank holiday, which closed all banks. In just four days, his aides drafted the Emergency Banking Relief Act, which permitted solvent banks to reopen under government supervision, and allowed the RFC to buy the stock of troubled banks and to keep them open until they could be reorganized. The law also gave the president broad powers over the Federal Reserve System. The law radically reshaped the nation's banking system; Congress passed the law in just eight hours.
Roosevelt appealed directly to the people to generate support for his program. On March 12, he conducted the first of many radio "fireside chats." Using the radio in the way later presidents exploited television, he explained what he had done in plain, simple terms and told the public to have "confidence and courage." When the banks reopened the following day, people demonstrated their faith by making more deposits than withdrawals. One of Roosevelt's key advisors did not exaggerate when he later boasted, "Capitalism was saved in eight days."
The president quickly pushed ahead on other fronts. The Federal Emergency Relief Act pumped $500 million into state-run welfare programs. The Homeowners Loan Act provided the first federal mortgage financing and loan guarantees. By the end of Roosevelt's first term, the Homeowners Loan Act provided more than 1 million loans totaling $3 billion. The Glass-Steagall Act provided a federal guarantee of all bank deposits under $5,000, separated commercial and investment banking, and strengthened the Federal Reserve's ability to stabilize the economy.
In addition, Roosevelt took the nation off the gold standard, devalued the dollar, and ordered the Federal Reserve System to ease credit. Other important laws passed during the 100 days included the Agricultural Adjustment Act--the nation's first system of agricultural price and production supports; the National Industrial Recovery Act--the first major attempt to plan and regulate the economy; and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act--the first direct government involvement in energy production.
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