Changes in the American Federal Government from 1876 to the New Deal

On numerous occasions since the end of Reconstruction, the American political system has demonstrated its ability to adapt to changing domestic and foreign policy requirements, often by extending the reach of its power. An examination of the actions of the federal government during three periods (the Progressive Era, World War I, and the New Deal) reveals some of the new functions and responsibilities that the federal government assumed. In the years directly following Reconstruction, attention was necessarily focused on domestic matters.

A shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one created new sets of needs and expectations for the American population. Progressive era reformers, notably Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson, responded to these needs by calling for reform: breaking-up monopolies; addressing corruption; enacting laws to protect women, children, and the large immigrant population; overseeing food and drug safety; and establishing regulations for sanitation and hygiene.

These reforms often required the establishment of new governmental institutions (for example, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Labor ). Many of these institutions are still in operation today. Beginning with the United States’ involvement in World War I, attention was redirected to foreign matters. Americans became increasingly involved in world affairs, not only through their involvement in the war efforts but also through the expansion of imperialist endeavors.

Though these campaigns had begun earlier, they rapidly increased following the acquisition of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico in 1898. These actions extended the reach of the federal government to overseas territories. With the Great Depression, attention once again necessarily shifted to domestic matters. In order to alleviate the effects of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt instituted massive changes referred to collectively as the New Deal.

These policies included massive relief efforts for the employed, the establishment of a minimum wage, the creation of Social Security, and the expansion of federal regulation of agriculture, industry, finance, and labor relations. One major result of FDR’s administration was the government gained the legal power to regulate the economy. During much of his administration, FDR kept the federal government’s focus on domestic matters as he sought to enact neutrality legislation to keep America out of the war in Europe.

vi It is significant that in times of economic crisis (such as those that directly preceded the Progressive era reforms and the New Deal), the federal government of this country turns its attention to combating corruption, regulating the economy, instituting public works projects, and enacting legislation that directly affects the lives of American citizens. In so doing, Wilson and F. D. Roosevelt focused their attentions primarily on domestic policy at the expensive of foreign policy.

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