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First One Hundred Days

On the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, a crowd estimated at nearly 100,000 heard his inaugural address in Washington DC. The moment was critical. Banks were closing and people were losing life savings. A quarter of the workforce was unemployed and some were beginning to doubt the capacity of a democratic government to cope with the economic situation.

Almost with his first words, Roosevelt expressed the opinion that the situation was indeed within the capacity of Americans to solve:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
Immediately, he launched legislative and executive program that would become known as the Hundred Days. In three months, the federal government passed more legislation with wider impacts than had ever been accomplished in such a short period.

Roosevelt`s attitude stood in sharp contrast with that of Herbert Hoover, who as his predecessor in the White House had stood against the introduction of untried and potentially dangerous innovations. Roosevelt realized that there was no road map to recovery in the unprecedented situation he faced. He had made this clear during the campaign, when he said, "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

The new president`s first act was executive rather than legislative. The banking problem had been building since the start of the year and had reached crisis proportions. States were already acting to declare their own bank holidays. On the very day of his inauguration, Roosevelt declared a national bank holiday, which he extended until Congress, which he brought back in emergency session, could pass the Emergency Banking Act.

In his inaugural address, Roosevelt made it clear that he was prepared to move beyond what Congress would support if he felt it necessary.

It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption. But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
In the event, Congress was not inclined to obstruct him. Democrats were eager to join his efforts and Republicans either agreed with them or saw the folly in resistance. As Will Rogers put it, "Congress doesn`t pass legislation any more, they just wave at the bills as they go by."

Industrial recovery was a constant theme during the Hundred Days. A bill proposed by Senator Black of Alabama called for capping work weeks at 30 hours and forbidding the interstate transportation of goods produced by workers employed at longer than 30 hour weeks. This was the "spreading of work" principle in its simplest form. If there was work for 75% of the population at 40 hours, it should allow everyone to work 30. Congress, however, wasn`t interested. Business Week commented that every businessman seemed in favor of national control of the economy in general, but had reservations about its application to his own industry.

What passed instead was the National Industrial Recovery Act.