April 01, 2015 05:50 UTC

The Making of a Nation

American History: Roosevelt and His 'Hundred Days'

President Franklin Roosevelt signs a law creating the Tennessee Valley Authority on May 18, 1933. He envisioned
President Franklin Roosevelt signs a law creating the Tennessee Valley Authority on May 18, 1933. He envisioned "a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of private enterprise."

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DOUG JOHNSON: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English. I'm Doug Johnson with Mario Ritter. This week in our series, we talk about the first one hundred days of the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's inauguration speech in March of nineteen thirty-three gave hope to millions of Americans. The new president promised to fight the Great Depression that was crushing the economy.

His administration launched into action even before the inauguration ceremonies were finished. Back then, newly elected presidents were sworn into office in March instead of January.

Roosevelt's aides began work even as he and his wife, Eleanor, watched the traditional Inaugural Parade. The lights of Washington's federal office buildings burned late that night.

And not just on that night, but the next night and the next night, too. The nation was in crisis. There was much work to do.

MARIO RITTER: The first three months of Franklin Roosevelt's administration were an exciting time. Roosevelt got Congress to pass more pieces of important legislation during this short period than most presidents pass during their entire term. These three months are remembered today as the "Hundred Days."

Sunday, March fifth, was the day after the inauguration. Roosevelt asked Congress to begin a special meeting later that week. And he ordered all the nation's banks to close until the economy improved. Roosevelt also banned the export of gold.

Congress met on Thursday, as Roosevelt had asked. It passed everything that the new president wanted. Both the House and Senate approved Roosevelt's strong new banking laws in less than eight hours. Roosevelt signed the bills into law the same day.

DOUG JOHNSON: The next day, Friday, Roosevelt called on Congress to cut federal spending. Once again, Congress met and approved Roosevelt's request immediately.

Two nights later, Roosevelt spoke to the nation in a radio speech. His warm, powerful voice traveled to millions of homes. He gave many listeners the hope that they could once again trust their banks and political leaders.

On Monday, Roosevelt called on Congress to make it legal to sell beer and wine and to tax those sales. At that time there was a national ban on alcohol. But once again Congress agreed.

Roosevelt's success in passing these laws excited the nation. People across the country watched in wonder as the new president fought and won battle after battle.

MARIO RITTER: Washington was filled with activity. The air was full of energy, like a country sky during an electrical storm. People from around the country rushed to the capital to urge the administration to support their ideas.

Bankers came by the thousands to win favorable legislation. Experts of all kinds offered new ideas on how to rescue the economy. Ambassadors came from Britain, France, Brazil, Chile, China and many other countries. They came to speak with Roosevelt on economic and diplomatic issues.

And members of Roosevelt's Democratic Party arrived by the thousands. They came to seek jobs in the new administration.

Americans watched closely what was happening in Washington. And they liked what they saw. They had voted for action. Now, Roosevelt was giving them action.

DOUG JOHNSON: One of the most important areas of action for the new administration was agriculture. American farmers had been hurt more than any other group by the economic depression.

The average income of American farmers had dropped in three years from one hundred sixty-two dollars a year to just forty-eight dollars. Farm prices had fallen fifty-five percent. The buying power of the average farmer had dropped by more than half.

Many farmers could not even earn enough money to pay for their tools and seed.

The main cause of the problems for farmers was that they were producing too much. There was too much grain, too much meat, too much cotton. As a result, prices stayed low. The situation was good for people in cities who bought farm products. But it was a disaster for the farmers who produced those products.

MARIO RITTER: Franklin Roosevelt attacked the problem by limiting production. His administration put a new tax on grain products. The tax increased their price and reducing demand. The administration paid cotton farmers to destroy some of their crops. And it bought and killed five million pigs to reduce the amount of meat on the market.

It was a strange situation. Some Americans had trouble understanding the economic reason why food had to be destroyed so people could have enough to eat. But more officials agreed that this was the only way to limit supply, raise prices and save farmers.

The plan worked. Production quickly fell. Hot weather and bad harvests in nineteen thirty-three and nineteen thirty-four reduced the amount of grain even more. As a result, prices rose. Farm income increased fifty percent in four years.

DOUG JOHNSON: The administration also attacked the problem of falling industrial production.

At the time of Roosevelt's inauguration, the production of American goods had fallen by more than half in just four years. Business owners reacted by cutting their costs. They lowered wages and reduced their number of workers. But these actions only reduced the number of people with enough money to buy goods. And so production went down further and further.

Roosevelt created a National Recovery Administration that sought to gain the cooperation of businesses. Many business owners agreed to follow codes or rules such as limiting the number of hours people could work. They also agreed to raise wages and to stop hiring child labor. And they agreed to improve working conditions and to cooperate with labor unions.

At the same time, Roosevelt created a Public Works Administration to provide jobs to unemployed workers. The federal government put people to work on building dams, bridges, water systems and other major projects.

A Public Works Administration building project in Washington
A Public Works Administration building project in Washington

MARIO RITTER: On monetary policy, Roosevelt and the Congress decided that the dollar should no longer be tied to the price of gold.

Other action in Washington included a bill for homeowners that helped many Americans borrow money to save their homes. And a bank insurance bill guaranteed that Americans would not lose their savings. This insurance greatly increased public faith in the banks.

Roosevelt and Congress created a Civilian Conservation Corps to put young men to work in rural areas to protect the nation's natural resources. These young men did things like plant trees and improve parks. They also worked with farmers to develop farming methods that help protect the soil against wind and rain.

DOUG JOHNSON: One of Roosevelt's most creative projects was a plan to improve the area around the southern state of Tennessee. The Tennessee River Valley was a very poor area. Few farms had electricity. Forests were thin. Floods were common.

Roosevelt and Congress decided to attack all of these problems with a single project. The new Tennessee Valley Authority built dams, cleared rivers, expanded forests and provided electricity. It succeeded in helping farmers throughout the area, creating new life and hope.

MARIO RITTER: The "Hundred Days" -- the first three months of the Roosevelt administration -- were a great success. One reporter for the New York Times observed that the change from President Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt was like a man moving from a slow horse to an airplane. Suddenly, the nation was moving again. There was action everywhere.

Journalist Frederick Allen described the situation this way. The difference between Roosevelt's program and the Hoover program was sharp. Roosevelt's program was not a program of defense, but of attack. There was a new willingness to expand the limits of government. In most of the laws, there was a new push for the good of the "common man." There was a new effort to build wealth from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

(MUSIC)

DOUG JOHNSON: Our program was written by David Jarmul. I'm Doug Johnson with Mario Ritter. You can find our series online with pictures, transcripts, MP3s and podcasts at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.

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This is program #181

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