Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover questions 103, 104 and 105.
Q103: What was the Great Depression?
A. Longest recession in modern history
B. A period of anxiety mourning Civil War casualties
C. A period of anxiety lamenting World War I casualties
D. A large sinkhole that severely damaged New York City
Q104: When did the Great Depression start?
A. After World War I, while Warren Harding was president
B. In the mid 1920s, while Calvin Coolidge was president
C. With the Great Crash of the stock market in 1929
D. After a drought in 1932
Q105: Who was President during the Great Depression and World War II?
A. Franklin Roosevelt
B. Abraham Lincoln
C. Harry Truman
D. Grover Cleveland
Franklin Roosevelt, the only president not to follow George Washington’s example of serving at most two elected terms, was president during two of the most trying times in American history. He was elected president midway through the Great Depression, the longest recession in modern history, which began with the Great Crash of the stock market in 1929, and he served through most of World War II.
Roosevelt had been an assistant Secretary of the Navy, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1920, and governor of New York from 1928-1932, replacing his mentor Al Smith.
Elected president largely on account of both his opposition to national prohibition and to what appeared to voters to be Herbert Hoover’s incompetence in dealing with the Depression, Roosevelt set himself to ending the economic turmoil.
The Great Depression is generally held to have begun with the crashes of the stock market in October 1929. Massive overinvestment and speculation in the stock market, with the prices far exceeding the dividends or reasonably anticipated growth—the values of stocks had nearly doubled in two years-- was dangerous enough. That so much of this investment was based on credit created an additional instability.
But, as David Kennedy notes in Freedom from Fear, only some 3% of Americans owned stock, and within 5 months the stock market had returned to its prices at the beginning of 1929. In other words, it was initially possible that this might resemble the brief recession during the Harding administration. Why then, did a Great Depression result? Economists and historians have offered many, largely overlapping reasons: among them, the agricultural sector had long struggled through the 1920s, the banking system had loaned out far more than it could reasonably pay with its reserve deposits, the aggressive tariffs in the Hawley-Smoot Tariff that Congress passed over President Herbert Hoover’s protest harmed economic growth right when it was most essential. Others point to mismanagement of the money supply by the Federal Reserve, and broader worldwide economic instability (the Great Depression ripped through Europe’s economy as well.) All of these combined to reinforce one another and wreak havoc upon America’s economic health.
The first president to grapple with this turmoil, Herbert Hoover, had been elected in an overwhelming landslide just a year before the Depression broke out. Among the most popular and respected people in America--and one who had risen from poverty himself and been recruited by Franklin Roosevelt to first run for president as a progressive Democrat years before--Hoover was not wedded to either a laissez-faire (hands off) approach or to central government planning of the economy. Instead he had broad support from across the political spectrum and had been regarded, at the start of the Depression, as ideally suited to its challenges. Perhaps he was, perhaps he was not, but the Depression nonetheless defeated him.
Many argue that the policies of Herbert Hoover and Congress were insufficiently aggressive in pushing for federal spending that would have helped stabilize the weak economy. Others, such as Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon countered that the government’s intervention exacerbated those weaknesses, pointing to the brevity of the 1921 recession as evidence for a more constrained course of action. Whatever the reason—whether Hoover’s fault or not—voters blamed him for the enduring Depression, replacing first the Republican Congress in 1930 (ironically, with Democrats whose views on federal power were often more limited than Hoover’s) and then Hoover himself in 1932.
Although then-Governor Roosevelt had been a strong proponent of states’ rights and candidate Roosevelt had criticized Hoover for expanding federal power, during Roosevelt’s presidency, the size and scope of the federal government grew significantly with Roosevelt’s “New Deal” proposals. In the so-called first Hundred Days, Roosevelt and Congress undertook aggressive measures to fight the Depression, such as temporarily closing the banks to prohibit bank runs and creating presidentially ordered local economic codes through the National Industrial Recovery Act.
This initially led to conflict with a Supreme Court that argued some of these changes violated the Constitution. For example, the Court overturned Roosevelt’s signature National Industrial Recovery Act by a unanimous vote in A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States (1935). The Act sought to govern purchasing and selling to reset the supply and demand of the economy; the nine justices argued that the Constitution did not allow the federal government power to set rules on buying chickens from a local poultry dealer—that was an issue for the states. The conflict grew even more intense as Roosevelt moved from temporary Depression-fighting measures to also incorporate more structural changes in the economy, the so-called “Second New Deal,” which led to further constitutional conflicts.
Similar rulings led Roosevelt to threaten to pack the Supreme Court, changing the number of justices to add more supporters to gain judicial approval of his policies. This caused a backlash even from his own party, and Roosevelt withdrew the plan. Eventually, most of the Court retired and their Roosevelt-appointed replacements approved a much more expansive understanding of federal power than had previously existed in American history.
Economists dispute the extent to which the New Deal ended or even exacerbated the Depression, but many of Roosevelt’s policies, most notably Social Security, and his understanding of the Constitution, remain in place today.
As World War II destabilized the globe and American involvement looked increasingly likely, Americans seeking continuity in leadership re-elected Roosevelt to an unprecedented third term (and later a fourth term, as well). Seeking to create an “arsenal of democracy,” Roosevelt began to rebuild American defense capability, which had been dismantled at the end of World War I, much of which ended up in British hands as a result of the “Lend-Lease” policy. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II, Roosevelt focused on the conflict, working closely with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and offering popular leadership during the war before dying in its final months.
Concern about Roosevelt’s long tenure, lasting until his death, which critics compared to a monarchy, led to the 22nd Amendment setting a two-term limit for the presidency, enshrining in the Constitution a precedent George Washington had established as the first president. Moreover, as with his domestic policy, some of Roosevelt’s efforts to protect America during World War II were and continue to be criticized as unconstitutional, especially his executive orders relocating American citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps.
Franklin Roosevelt is widely considered one of the most effective communicators ever to serve as president, both in his public addresses and in his radio speeches, which were called “fireside chats.” For this assignment, students will read and annotate speeches that Roosevelt gave. (The assignment uses excerpts from the text, but the sources also link to the audio in case one wants to use those instead.)
- Provide each student with FDR on WWII: “Arsenal of Democracy,” “Attack on Pearl Harbor,” and “Fireside Chat on the War with Japan.”
- Provide each student with the 3-2-1 worksheet.
- A rubric is available if this is a graded activity.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes a rubric.
- This activity works well as an individual assignment. However, depending on the age and/or skills level of the students, you may want to have them work in pairs.
- If that is the case, divide the class into pairs based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- Explain to the students that today they are going to read one or more speeches Franklin Roosevelt gave. (Depending on the level of the class, you will likely want to assign different pairs only one or two of the speeches, and then have the students report on the different speeches in the discussion.)
- After they complete the reading, they will fill out a 3-2-1 Worksheet where they write down three facts that they learned, two questions that they have, and one opinion.
- Circulate throughout the room to help students as needed.
- If you wish, once the students complete the worksheet, use it as a springboard into a class discussion. You might ask questions not only about what Roosevelt says, but how he says it—to what extent is Roosevelt persuasive? What techniques does he utilize to convince his listeners?
Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as president in 1933 during the Great Depression and served until his death during his fourth term in 1945. Few presidents have had a more enduring impact on America.
America’s 32nd president served during one of the most difficult periods in American history, with his four terms spanning the Great Depression and World War II. Who was he? How did he address these challenges?
Franklin Roosevelt served three complete terms, and died early into his fourth term—the longest serving president in American history. Concerns that this was recreating a monarchy led to the 22nd Amendment setting a two-term limit on all future presidents. Opponents argue, as had Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 72, that presidents should be able to serve as long as the people continue to choose them. If a two-term limit had existed prior to Roosevelt’s presidency, how might American history have been different, for better or worse? Alternatively, if the 22nd Amendment had never been ratified, how might subsequent American history have turned out differently? Use current and past events to support your answer.