Title Reviewed:
A Commonwealth of Hope: The New Deal Response to Crisis

Author Reviewed:
Alan Lawson



Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 104, Issue 2, pp 191-193

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Commonwealth of Hope
The New Deal Response to Crisis

By Alan Lawson
(Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Pp. xv, 280. Essay on sources, index. Clothbound, $45.00; paperbound, $19.95.)

Like many of the other one-volume syntheses of the New Deal, Alan Lawson's Commonwealth of Hope focuses on the potpourri of reformist ideas driving 1930s liberalism. However, rather than cataloging these ideas, and branding the New Deal an experimental goulash, Lawson identifies a singular undergirding theme, the "Cooperative Commonwealth." It is effective.

Briefly noting the European and early American roots of the term, Lawson sees the vision of a cooperative commonwealth among late nineteenth-century reformers (Edward Bellamy for example) who saw hope in the way the nation's activities and institutions were coalescing into larger units. Historian Robert Wiebe observed the same tendency among professionals, doctors, businessmen, lawyers, and other middle-class Americans engaged in "The Search for Order."

For philosopher economists such as Simon Pattern and Charles Van Hise, technological and economic innovation had debunked Spencerian and Sumnerian classical economics and made possible a new hopeful age of social progress. Society could replace greed with justice and shower the benefits of progress on all - rich and poor, farmer and industrial worker. Franklin D. Roosevelt, argues Lawson, internalized this progressive vision of a cooperative commonwealth. A lonely child, FDR found a father figure in headmaster Endicott Peabody, who preached a mix of moral Christianity and social compassion; it was a compassionate streak reinforced by FDR's wife Eleanor. By 1932 the Hyde Park "tree farmer's" ideological arsenal drew upon Louis Brandeis's passion for restoring competition, as well as the New Nationalism of Van Hise and Theodore Roosevelt. He distilled from this bundle of ideas called Progressivism a belief that through bold government intervention in America's flagging economy the nation could restore dignity to the common man, and that national planning could rescue struggling farmers and jobless steelworkers.

Lawson's interpretation of the New Deal era is heavily biographical and strongly focused on the agency of FDR himself. He traces the New Deal's social welfare program (including unemployment compensation) from the nineteenth-century Social Gospel movement, through the Freudian-influenced scientific casework of the 1920s, culminating in social security. The author naturally underscores economic theory and theorists, including, of course, Lord John Maynard Keynes, whom FDR found inscrutable but whose ideas (embraced by Harry Hopkins, Beardsley Ruml, and other New Dealers) clearly shaped the "Second New Deal." But Lawson never ignores the spiritual side of the New Deal. In WPA murals, in the photography of Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, the writings of Ralph Ellison and Eudora Welty, and in Mollie Flanagan's WPA theater, the New Deal brightened the vision of a cooperative commonwealth. His saga of the New Deal advances chronologically through the NRA, TVA, CCC, and FERA; Black Monday, the Second New Deal, the 1936 election, the Supreme Court packing debacle, Thurmond Arnold's crusade against monopoly, and World War II, where Keynesianism was vindicated. He punctuates his narrative with crisp vignettes of Felix Frankfurter, Brandeis, Keynes, and other key figures.

By 1936 American business that once embraced the commonwealth had abdicated. Yet, argues Lawson, the theme endured, evidenced by the success of a New Deal-spurred union movement that won self-respect for the American industrial worker. Small farmers fared less well. However, overall by 1960 (still in the glow of the New Deal) the income gap between the rich and the poor had considerably narrowed from 1929. Lawson's crepe-draped final chapter recounts the denouement of Ronald Reagan's Commonwealth of Hope through the wasteland of the Bush II years.

A Commonwealth of Hope provides a highly readable and illuminating synthesis of some of the best scholarship on the New Deal. My only reservation about an otherwise excellent narrative is that Lawson essentially ignores cities, and the significant urban housing and regional planning dimension of the New Deal. This untold story would have strengthened the author's conceptual framework. New Deal housing and urban planning programs had strong progressive origins, and despite conservative reaction, they survived through World War II. These ventures - the PWA Housing Division, the National Resources Planning Board, the Greenbelt Town planning, public housing, Lanham Act war housing - all fit neatly into Lawson's cooperative commonwealth thesis, and I was baffled by their absence. Otherwise, I regard this as an important and accessible contribution to the extensive scholarship on the New Deal and its legacy.

JOHN E BAUMAN is visiting professor in the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, Portland. He is the author of Public Housing, Race, and Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974 (1987) and, with Edward K. Muller, Before Renaissance: Planning in Pittsburgh, 1889-1943 (2006).

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.