How did the New Deal recast the meaning of American freedom?

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The biggest single contribution made by the New Deal in redefining American freedom was in changing the attitude of most people towards the role of government. Before The Great Depression, most Americans had a healthy suspicion of government, seeing it as a potentially dangerous source of tyranny and control. This...

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The biggest single contribution made by the New Deal in redefining American freedom was in changing the attitude of most people towards the role of government. Before The Great Depression, most Americans had a healthy suspicion of government, seeing it as a potentially dangerous source of tyranny and control. This was a holdover from the Revolutionary War, when Americans fought valiantly against a strong, centralized government which they believed was a standing threat to their liberty.

However, in the aftermath of The Great Depression, there was a sharp change in the general attitude of the American public towards the role of government. As the New Deal rapidly expanded both the size and scope of what the government could do, many came to see government no longer as a threat to freedom, but as an enabler of it. Rampant individualism was all well and good when the economy was doing well; for the most part, people could get by on their own, or with the help of extended family networks.

But in the midst of mass unemployment and widespread poverty, it became clear that only a substantial and concerted effort by the Federal government could possibly restore certain key freedoms—such as the freedom to work and freedom from want—that had been so cruelly snatched away from millions during the depths of the worst economic crisis in history. Far from denying individuals their freedom, government was now seen by many, and not just those who'd suffered the worst of the Depression, as giving people the means to stand on their own two feet again.

Leaving people to their own devices was no longer a viable option; the government needed to intervene in order to restore and maintain the freedom of its citizens, the very people it had originally been established to serve.

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Ideas about American freedom and identity are often rooted in self-sufficiency ("pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps"), rugged individualism, and personal property. While these ideas can be motivational, they do not take account of the fact that some people do not have the abilities nor opportunities that others have. They also do not account for greed, inequality, and the fact that, in America, one person's freedom very often relied on another person's lack of freedom.

The New Deal was meant to address those inequalities and corrected the impact of the previous era's ideas, some of which assumed that those who did not succeed were personally at fault and were unable to adjust, due to Social Darwinist ideas which ruled them as "unfit." For this reason, Supreme Court decisions, such as Lochner v. New York (1905), which ruled that limits on work hours violated the Fourteenth Amendment and the right of employees and employers to negotiate their own contracts, was overturned in the 1930s, when maximum-work hours were ruled to be constitutional.

The New Deal put limits on banking to avoid the excesses to which the financial industry is prone. It also created social net programs, such as Social Security—guaranteed income for the disabled and the elderly—and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures bank accounts against bank defaults.

The New Deal's policies re-framed American freedom within the contexts of government protection, welfare, and social responsibility. Unchecked liberty, particularly among banks and corporations, could, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's view, lead to freedom for a few and great loss for the majority. The ideal, for him and other Democrats, was to create protections to help as many people as possible achieve financial security.

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