First in a limited series produced by the Historical Society of Easton.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in January of 1933, the United States was in the midst of the greatest economic depression the 157-year-old country had ever experienced.

The great stock market crash of October 1929 affected just about every aspect of American life.  By the summer of 1932, the unemployment rate of American workers exceeded twenty-three percent, hundreds of thousands of citizens had either already lost their homes to foreclosure or were about to, and the severe drought that caused the Dust Bowl in 1931 had seen tens of thousands of farms abandoned, their owners seeking whatever means of support they could find as they migrated west. As one displaced Texas farmer told photographer Dorothea Lange in 1932, “In 1927, I made $7,000 selling cotton. In 1928, I broke even. In 1929, I went into the hole. In 1930, I went deeper. In 1931, I went broke. In 1932, I hit the road.”

The nation’s hungry lined up in major cities looking for food. Encampments of homeless people sprung up in many parts of the country, quickly becoming known as “Hoovervilles” – an obvious attempt to blame the incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, for the nation’s misery.

Seattle’s version of “Hooverville” in the mid-1930’s

While blaming the nation’s woes on President Hoover might have been an oversimplification of the situation, the sitting president did little to alleviate the conditions that were growing worse by the day. His mostly hands-off approach towards reviving a failed economy was failing and failing badly.

Privately funded charitable organizations were quickly running out of money to provide for even the most basic necessities such as food, clothing, and medicine. The entire industrial world was feeling much of the same pain as America was experiencing, so external help was not going to be forthcoming any time soon. Banks were failing by the hundreds, running out of cash after their depositors had lost faith and demanded to withdraw their remaining money.

The federal government had never before stepped in to solve such a problem. Self-reliance and America’s long standing, unwritten policy of private philanthropy had always managed to pull the nation out of earlier economic slowdowns, but this time it was different. The laisse-faire attitude in Washington couldn’t continue.

Texas farm family on the road 1932. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

The governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt, recognized the need to provide relief before people started dying from hunger or exposure to the elements.  In a trail blazing first for state government, Roosevelt’s New York initiated several state-sponsored employment programs. 

The 1932 presidential election would amount to a choice between two opposing means of governing: passively sitting back and waiting for things to slowly improve or becoming engaged with a proactive plan to put Americans back to work.  Hoover’s policies represented the former while Roosevelt’s looked beyond the present and into the future.

In his acceptance speech after winning his party’s nomination for president at the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago, Roosevelt’s remarks included the following:

“In the years before 1929 we know that this country had completed a vast cycle of building and inflation; for ten years we expanded on the theory of repairing the wastes of the War, but actually expanding far beyond that, and also beyond our natural and normal growth. Now it is worth remembering, and the cold figures of finance prove it, that during that time there was little or no drop in the prices that the consumer had to pay, although those same figures proved that the cost of production fell very greatly; corporate profit resulting from this period was enormous; at the same time little of that profit was devoted to the reduction of prices. The consumer was forgotten. Very little of it went into increased wages; the worker was forgotten, and by no means an adequate proportion was even paid out in dividends – the stockholder was forgotten…

Then came the crash. You know the story. Surpluses invested in unnecessary plants became idle. Men lost their jobs; purchasing power dried up; banks became frightened and started calling loans. Those who had money were afraid to part with it. Credit contracted. Industry stopped. Commerce declined, and unemployment mounted.

And there we are today.

On the farms, in the large metropolitan areas, in the smaller cities and in the villages, millions of our citizens cherish the hope that their old standards of living and of thought have not gone forever. Those millions cannot and shall not hope in vain.

I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a New Deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”

Dust storms in Texas and Oklahoma were major factors in the forced migration of impoverished farmers moving west looking for work during the Great Depression.

The “New Deal” that Roosevelt was proposing would be based largely on many of the same types of programs that he had already passed in his home state of New York. During his 1932 presidential campaign, he made twenty-seven major speeches compared to only ten by Hoover, the incumbent. “Happy Days are Here Again,” became the Democrats’ theme song, and in November, Roosevelt garnered over 57 percent of the popular vote. The Democrats picked up 101 seats in the House of Representatives and 12 in the United States Senate. While it would take a while to see how the New Deal would take shape, there was little doubt that there was already a “New Era” in Washington.

The first major pieces of legislation that would become part of Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda were the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) in May of 1933. The former established the TVA whose purpose was to build a series of dams that would help eliminate seasonal flooding, establish a hydroelectric grid to power the region, and of course, create thousands of new jobs that would put people back to work. The AAA was meant to help stabilize farm prices. Agricultural production was far greater than demand and prices to the farmer had tumbled to the point that many producers were losing their farms to foreclosure. The act provided the federal government with the funding to pay farmers who allowed their lands to remain fallow while those who continued to grow crops and raise livestock saw prices increase enough to again become profitable.

WPA mural depicting a recovering economy during the New Deal

In June 1933, congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), and the National Recovery Administration (NRA) was formed. Title II of NIRA created the Public Works Administration (PWA). It was then tasked with awarding over $3 billion in contracts for the construction of public works. The federal government did not directly employ workers on PWA projects, as it would in other New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and similarly named Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes was chosen to run the PWA. Ickes was highly regarded, being both honest and practical. Only the most worthwhile projects were approved. Contractors were carefully chosen based on their ability to deliver a quality job and their reputation for not being wasteful.

The PWA oversaw an enormous number and variety of public works projects, including schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, post offices, courthouses, as well as municipal water systems and sewage treatment plants.

Some of the administration’s most noted and successful projects included the construction of the Triborough Bridge in New York City, the National Airport in Washington D.C., the Grand Coulee Dam in the State of Washington, the Overseas Highway that connected the mainland to the keys in Florida, the San Francisco Mint, and the Boulder Dam on the Colorado River in Arizona. By the time it was disbanded, the PWA had completed more than 34,000 projects around the country. Remarkably, many of the bridges that were constructed under their watch still stand nearly ninety years after they were built. There can be little argument that the American taxpayers got their money’s worth for projects initiated and completed by the PWA.

Just three weeks prior to the NIRA’s planned two-year expiration date, the Supreme Court unanimously declared it unconstitutional in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570. The Court held that the act unlawfully delegated power to the NRA and that the application of the act to commerce within the state of New York exceeded the powers granted to the federal government by the Commerce Clause in Article One, Section Eight, Clause Three of the United States Constitution. That clause gave congress the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” It did not however give it the power to regulate commerce within the individual states themselves.

In response to Schechter and to other decisions invalidating New Deal legislation, Roosevelt delivered a fiery speech on May 31, 1935, in which he criticized the Supreme Court for employing “the horse and buggy definition of interstate commerce.” Subsequent New Deal legislation incorporated some the original elements contained in NIRA and other acts that ultimately survived future challenges in the Supreme Court.

Next in our series – The Civilian Conservation Corps – an army of young American men employed directly by the federal government to improve our forests, streams, and rivers. To celebrate the 90th anniversary of its creation, the Historical Society of Easton would like to invite the community to join us for a presentation on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at 4:00 PM in the Community Room of the Easton Public Library by author and educator Marty Podskoch for an illustrated talk on the Civilian Conservation Corps Camps and their work here in Connecticut. There is no cost to attend and light refreshments will be served at a meet-and-greet after the presentation that will also include Easton historians and raconteurs Bruce Nelson and Elizabeth Boyce. Registration for this free event can be made at: Save the Date: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Connecticut – Historical Society of Easton Connecticut (

CCC barracks at Camp Britton in Windsor, Connecticut
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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books