A "Great Cause for Better Citizens"? Attitudes Towards the New Deal

In this activity students read letters from ordinary people to government leaders in the Roosevelt Administration. Then they interpret the range of attitudes about the changing role of the federal government during the New Deal. The letters for this activity all contain reading supports and teachers can differentiate this activity for different levels of learners by choosing which letters to use in the activity.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze letters from the 1930s to identify the impact of the New Deal on the lives of ordinary people.  

  • Students will interpret people's attitudes towards the New Deal and changes it caused in the role of the federal government.  

Instructions

Step 1:  The teacher should choose at least two letters for students to read. The teacher may alter the activity by giving students letters that express a range of opinions or letters that directly contrast with each other. The teacher may also choose to give different sets of letters to different groups of students. The teacher can differentiate the lesson for different levels of students by selecting which letters to give to students. 

Step 2: (Optional opening discussion) Ask students to describe the reasons why someone might write to the president or another elected official. Do they think people write to criticize, to praise, or both? Do students think the letters matter to elected officials? Do they think it matters when ordinary people write to officials? Conclude the discussion by telling students that during the New Deal, millions of ordinary people wrote to President Roosevelt and members of his administration to tell him their hopes and concerns about the New Deal. These letters are a remarkable window into the lives of ordinary people and their views on the changing role of the government during the New Deal.  

Step 3: Tell students that they will be working in groups (or pairs) to analyze letters that ordinary people wrote to the government about their views on the New Deal. Divide students into pairs or small groups. Give each group a set of 2 to 6 letters and a graphic organizer. Students should work in their groups to read the letters and complete the graphic organizer.  

Step 4: Either in writing or discussion, students should answer the question on the graphic organizer based on their readings of the letters:

  • Based on these letters, how was the New Deal affecting people's attitudes towards the federal government?  

Historical Context

The New Deal was a turning point in the role of the federal government in the everyday lives of ordinary people. The relief programs of the New Deal altered the social contract, giving the federal government a much greater hand in providing for the basic needs of its citizens. Consequently New Deal programs provided, for the first time, direct relief in the form of payments, food, household supplies, and jobs. The New Deal also entailed a great deal of protections for consumers (especially in the security of bank deposits) and workers. The majority of Americans were extremely grateful for the changes in the federal government; some even demanded more radical changes. However, some feared that the New Deal would make people too dependent on the government; others called it socialism outright. 

No matter what their views, however, Americans wrote to President Roosevelt and other members of his government to tell him how they felt. During his presidency the White House (alone!) received around 8,000 letters a day, compared with about 800 a day during the Hoover Administration. Roosevelt worked hard to cultivate a personal bond between himself and the voters through his Fireside Chats. During these radio broadcasts, which were announced with great fanfare and drew millions of listeners, Roosevelt explained in everyday language the goals and workings of his various New Deal programs. The president encouraged his listeners to write to him and their other elected officials to tell what they thought of the programs. In this way he built a strong constituency for his agenda.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning, 2009
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning
Rights |

Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. 

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning, “A "Great Cause for Better Citizens"? Attitudes Towards the New Deal,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 30, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1483.