Limits of Liberalism

Since the New Deal, historians have debated the degree of change brought by Roosevelt’s reforms. Initially, scholarly works by mainstream liberals celebrated innovations of the 1930s. Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, now a classic, Carl N. Degler’s Out of Our Past, and William E. Leuchtenburg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 characterized it as a “revolution” that dramatically altered government and business relations at all levels. They, along with others, focused on the president and Congress.

Other perspectives differed.  Barton J. Bernstein, from the Left, in his essay in Towards a New Past, criticized Roosevelt for not introducing more radical reforms, especially given capitalism’s weakness in America at the time. In the late 1960s, James T. Patterson in The New Deal and the States, however, shifted the focus of New Deal studies to the state level where it was applied by the bureaucracy. He discovered various obstacles that severely restricted the New Deal. Subsequent studies on several states have generally reinforced Patterson’s assessment. In John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody, eds., The New Deal, vol. 2, The State and Local Levels, scholars concluded that in Massachusetts, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Colorado, the New Deal had little long-term  impact, while in Louisiana and Pennsylvania there were exceptions. Historians have concluded that in the urban North, where reforms should have thrived, local forces stymied change: such studies include Charles H. Trout in Boston, the Great Depression, and the New Deal, Bruce M. Stave in The New Deal and the Last Hurrah: Pittsburgh Machine Politics, and Jo Ann E. Argersinger in Toward a New Deal in Baltimore. Robert R. Ingalls in Herbert H. Lehman and New York’s Little New Deal did conclude that Roosevelt’s programs brought some reform.

According to scholars, the New Deal encountered even greater resistance in the South.  James C. Cobb and Michael V. Namorato, eds, The New Deal and the South; Michael L. Holmes, The New Deal in Georgia; Roger Biles, Memphis in the Great Depression; Douglas L. Smith, The New Deal in the Urban South; and Ronald L. Heinemann, Depression and the New Deal in Virginia comprise the major contributions to this perspective. In South Carolina and the New Deal, Jack I. Hayes, Jr. concluded that Roosevelt’s efforts had little impact in the Palmetto state. Mill owners backed by state government squelched one of the signal moments of Depression-era radicalism: the 1934 textile strike. In the 1930s, the state of Calhoun and Tillman was not interested in extremism.

North Carolina’s experience in the 1930s fits the current historiography of discounting the New Deal as an era of dramatic change.  The conservatism of the state’s Democrats, in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., limited the impact of the reforms.  North Carolina Senator Josiah W. Bailey emerged as the most formidable New Deal opponent. A progressive before World War I, Bailey, from a pro-business and states’ rights perspective, fought much of the economic changes set forth by Roosevelt. Business interests and large landowners retained their grip on the state and minimized the impact of the New Deal for the urban poor and sharecroppers. Anthony J. Badger in Prosperity Road, a study of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) in the state, recognized that while the program brought economic recovery to farmers, it was a limited program. The AAA, with reductions in product, perpetuated the status quo socially and economically. Large landowners disproportionately benefited more than the small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers. Businessmen co-opted the National Recovery Administration (NRA) by dominating the creation and implementation of industry codes. While workers did get higher wages and improved working conditions, businessmen blocked any significant unionization. The major issue for the state legislature in the 1930s was shifting the tax burden from property and business taxes to the sales tax. Business and property owners successfully pushed the sales tax through the General Assembly despite the opposition of merchants, tenants, and eastern sharecroppers.

The issues of the 1930s intensified sectionalism in North Carolina. Eastern counties typically opposed the sales tax, although landowners there supported it. Those same counties were generally poorer and had a higher percentage of the population on relief. White tenants and sharecroppers also in that part of the state generally supported insurgents in Democratic primaries, more Liberal candidates fought the conservative Democrats. Piedmont industrial and banking interests strengthened the core of the state’s Democratic conservative base, which supported the sales tax. There were exceptions to the east-west divide along Liberal-Conservative lines. In a bit of political “fine-tuning,” the 1936 pro-New Deal candidate for governor came from a Piedmont county, and Gardner’s protégé in the governor’s mansion was from the northeast.

In a southern context, North Carolina’s response to the New Deal was a moderate to conservative one.  Tar Heel politicians were not as extreme as Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia and Senators Carter Glass and Harry F. Byrd of Virginia. On the other hand, Governors Olin D. Johnston of South Carolina and E. D. “Ed” Rivers of Georgia brought more New Deal reform to their states. Along with Florida, North Carolina made agricultural progress during the 1930s, while the rest of the South declined. In relief statistics, however, North Carolina remained near the bottom in the region.

Conservatives adeptly limited the New Deal in the state. While they supported certain programs out of loyalty to the Democratic Party, or more importantly out of economic desperation, they usually maintained the socioeconomic status quo. As long as the NRA, for example, helped textile interests, business people would support it; when the prospects of unions, strikes, and higher wages seemed favorable, they turned against it. Likewise, farmers supported the AAA when prices for their crops rose, but later in the decade, they rejected it when they deemed it no longer necessary, only to return to it the very next year. Farmers and business people fought New Deal relief as a threat to cheap labor.  In other words, economic self-interest–not genuine reform–motivated Tar Heel business people and farmers.

An examination of the New Deal on a state level, like in North Carolina, reveals a more realistic picture of the limits of reform. Rather than blaming Roosevelt for shortcomings, one could credit conservatives at the state and local levels with thwarting the New Deal. Rather than seeing New Deal failures, one could see conservatives successfully constraining reform. Despite the money poured into North Carolina in the 1930s and the impressive record of physical achievement, Roosevelt’s wide-reaching reforms remarkably changed little in the state’s society, economy, and politics by the end of the decade. 

North Carolina’s conservatism in the 1930s contradicts the state’s progressive image, or rather, the myth of its progressivism, born of developments before and after the 1930s: Governor Charles B. Aycock’s advances in education, influential scholars at the University of North Carolina, W. Kerr Scott as governor in the late 1940s, the appointment of Frank Porter Graham to the U. S. Senate, and the crusading liberalism of the Raleigh News and Observer, energized by Josephus and Jonathan Daniels. The record of the New Deal era contradicts that image. Gardner, Ehringhaus, Hoey, and Bailey were clever enough to use the progressive image as an argument that further change was not really necessary in the state.

The opposition to the New Deal also created momentum for postwar conservatism and a viable two-party state and region. Forces that fueled the politics of Senator Bailey, for example, could easily move over to a conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms by the 1970s. Even pragmatic Democrats like Gardner could serve as a model for a Jim Hunt in the coming decades. Genuine liberalism, New Deal or otherwise, one could argue, has yet to capture the Tar Heel state.


Douglas Carl Abrams,  Conservative Constraints: North Carolina and the New Deal (Jackson, 1992) and Anthony J. Badger,  Prosperity Road: The New Deal, Tobacco, and North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1980).