Lecture 10: Hard Times


The Great Depression and World War II are the defining events in what Tom Brokaw has made a lot of money by calling "The Greatest Generation" of Americans. This lecture takes up the causes of the Great Depression, the attempts of FDR's New Deal to ameliorate it, and some of the regional (Great Plains) environmental problems that accompanied it. In the context of the early 21st century, this lecture sounds a little like a parable.



The Great Depression of the 1920s was a stern test of American democracy.  President Franklin Roosevelt could not end the economic depression, but his “bold, persistent experimentation” did crystallize into some major changes in American life—the foundation of the welfare state, and the centralization of power.

The Great Bull Market

There was a terrific boom in business and industry during the 1920s.  This was reflected in the Great Bull Market, a boom in the stock market.  Were Americans sharing equitably and soundly in the new wealth that was being generated, however?  And was the bull market based on economic reality?

The Great Crash

The Great Crash of 1929 signaled fundamental problems with the American economy that had been hidden by the bull market.  The crash ushered in the Great Depression.  The Hoover administration, with its commitment to voluntarism, was inadequate in the face of economic crisis.  The Bonus Army symbolized the deep discontent of Americans as the depression bottomed out.

The New Deal

With his New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt made changes of both style and substance.  Beginning with a Bank Holiday, he commenced a full assault on the depression during the Hundred Days—a congressional session that reformed banking, provided relief for the unemployed, gave help to farmers, tried to get industry back on its feet, and established the Tennessee Valley Authority as an experiment in state socialism.

The Second New Deal

The innovations of the New Deal, and the continuance of economic hard times, emboldened opponents of FDR.  His response was not to retreat but rather to consolidate and extend reform with new legislation, the Second New Deal.  This not only expanded previous initiatives (for instance, increasing work relief with the WPA) but also posed long-term reforms, most notably Social Security.  As the New Deal runs out of steam, we are left to contemplate its continuing importance to American democracy.

The Dust Bowl

For residents of the Great Plains, the Great Depression was only half the story of hardship during the 1930s.  Plains folk also endured the greatest environmental disaster in American history, the Dust Bowl.  The Dust Bowl experience was the basis of a notable body of American art and literature, including the Dust Bowl ballads of Woody Guthrie.

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“That the Notions of Democratic Nations on Government Are Naturally Favorable to the Concentration of Power”

“That the Sentiments of Democratic Nations Accord with Their Opinions in Leading Them to Concentrate Political Power”

In these two chapters, Tocqueville argues "that the principle of equality suggests to men the notion of a sole, uniform, and strong government."


·         Why does equality lead to a more powerful government enforcing uniformity?

·         Why do you think I have asked you to read these chapters in connection with the study of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal?

·         Evaluate Tocqueville's conclusion: "I am of opinion, that, in the democratic ages which are opening upon us, individual independence and local liberties will ever be the products of art; that centralization will be the natural government."


Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni—Where were the CCC camps in your state?

Rambling Round: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie – from the American memory Project, Library of Congress

Film Review

The Plow that Broke the Plains

The Grapes of Wrath

A Night at the Opera


Book Review

Terkel, Hard Times

A pioneering work of oral history

Kennedy, Freedom from Fear

How the Great Depression and New Deal affected the American people

Brinkley, Voices of Protest

The great radio voices of dissent

Guthrie, Bound for Glory

Woody’s own patchwork memoir