Things start with ideas. ~ Mike Piazza (2011)
What does it say about a man when he comes across as a scoundrel in a book, even when beloved by the author? That question came to mind repeatedly while I was reading Paul Fusfeld's The Economic Thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Origins of the New Deal. Well-written and engaging, Fusfeld's in-depth study of FDR's intellectual growth is, to my mind, one of the most important studies of the man and, by extension, the New Deal and the birth of modern America.
A scion of landed aristocrats from New York's Hudson Valley, young Franklin was raised up in a cocoon of luxury. Much of the family fortune had come through running opium into China (p. 9), a not ironic fact since FDR himself would become the slayer of (alcohol) Prohibition. Sent at an early age to the exclusive prep school at Groton where he "took an active interest in the debating society" (p. 21) FDR's intellectual growth, and all that was to come from it, began at Harvard, where "his teachers…were not men who believed in a laissez faire society." (p. 33)
On the origins of his political maturation, FDR always considered his cousin Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as "his political preceptors." (p. 38) He took to heart his cousin's belief that "every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use" (p. 42), and Wilson's 1913 political tract The New Freedom became a blueprint for much of FDR's political philosophy. (p. 54)
Molded into an unabashedly collectivist and materialist "progressive," and with his head filled with "economics" of the Harvard variety, by the time he ran for president in 1932 FDR was so poorly educated that he believed "economic laws are not made by nature, they are made by human beings." (p. 229) Having contracted a raging infection of hubris along with his college degree, his proposed solution for every perceived social ill was "planning" on a national scale.
Any concern for the individual rights such "planning" would trample was non-existent in his mind, as "the struggle for liberty of the community rather than the liberty of the individual" was his goal, and "by liberty we mean happiness and prosperity" (p. 49), not freedom. Fusfeld takes note that "FDR did not suggest any limits on the power of the state or any reserved areas of personal liberty." (p. 51) The New Deal would prove as much.
From such a reactionary outlook, it's not surprising to find FDR sneering "it's all very well to talk of the sanctity of private property" (p. 97), as respecting such limits would get in the way of his Big Plans; government in his view was "an agency…to promote and guide all the people into better ways of living." (p. 99) Humility and allowing others' freedom to choose were not FDR's strong points nor, as the author freely admits, was economics. The FDR administration would prove itself to be a fatal mix of ignorance, hubris and a sordid addiction to power.
In sympathy with his close advisor Rexford Tugwell's urge to "make America over," FDR's fanaticism over the "back to the land" movement, which he described as "the great fundamental of making country life in every way as desirable as city life" (p.124), pops up repeatedly throughout the book. An ardent believer in the reordering and blending of rural and city life through a "more even" distribution of the population, he believed "the undirected mushroom growth of our cities and towns must be contained." (p. 133) This deeply held conviction would lead directly to the building of Arthurdale and the creation of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, one of the New Deal's most influential projects.
Well written though the book undoubtedly is, the author's efforts to absolve every transgression of FDR's are too obvious, and, due to the FDR's character, too often put in an appearance. For one example (concerning FDR's use of the Panic of 1920 to attack "speculative middlemen" as the cause of price inflation) the most Fusfeld can muster in response is to call it "a clear example of his political disingenuousness. His letters at the time…indicate he was well aware of the basic causes of inflation." (p. 75)
In another example of FDR's "disingenuousness" the book shows that for his 1932 campaign platform he called for a sound currency (gold), balanced budgets, and the elimination of "special advantages, special favors, special privileges wherever possible." (p. 246) Desperate to judge FDR on his words, the author states "nothing shows better how far Roosevelt was from the socialists than this statement" (p. 246), completely ignoring the fact that FDR immediately broke everyone of those promises upon taking the presidency. Words are cheap.
And, in FDR's case, often misleading, as just a few pages later the author lets slip that "(FDR's) utterances are not good guides to his thinking" (p. 254), which is a polite way of saying the man was a habitual liar. It gets to the point you almost feel sorry for Fusfeld and his inability to control his hero worship, never more so than when he claims "FDR did not advocate a system of comprehensive central planning for the entire economy" (p. 254) after he had just spent an entire book proving the contrary.
FDR used the crisis of the Great Depression to full advantage. No president, before or since, has had such a cult of personality built about him. He was the most pure, unadulterated politician we have ever seen, with a preternatural ability to sniff out political opportunity like a dog after a meat bone. His wish, "I favor economic planning not for this period alone, but for our needs for a long time to come" (p. 204) is embodied in everything we are, and 78 years after he founded our nation, and 67 years after he breathed his last, we grasp onto his New Deal as tightly as ever.
While still a student at Harvard FDR confided his disagreement with a political maneuver of his cousin Teddy, "I think that the President made a serious mistake…to make the Executive power stronger than Congress. (It is) bound to be a bad thing, especially when a man of weaker personality succeeds him in office." (p. 266, note 3) It was to be the sad culmination of his life's work that FDR himself would become that very man.
FDR is the father of our nation, and by this time America can scarce imagine any other world than the one he created for us. It is high time we took him down from the pedestal he sits on and examine more closely the man he truly was. Buried deep in the footnotes of Fusfeld's book is an appraisal of FDR by a contemporary who described him as, "An opportunist who did every act from the standpoint of how it would benefit him politically; he had no standard of right or wrong in the ordinary sense." (p.2 59, note 3)
Fusfeld's book is an excellent place to begin bringing FDR back down to earth — even if the author never meant it to be.
CJ Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. All opinions expressed are his alone. He blogs for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website and the DailyKos. His first book is Back to the Land (Arthurdale, FDR's New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning).