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Building New Deal Liberalism
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  • Page extent: 300 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.61 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 338.973/009/043
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: HC106.3 .S537 2006
  • LC Subject headings:
    • New Deal, 1933-1939
    • United States--Economic policy--1933-1945
    • United States--Economic conditions--1918-1945
    • United States--Politics and government--1933-1945
    • Liberalism--United States--History--20th century

Library of Congress Record

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 (ISBN-13: 9780521828055 | ISBN-10: 0521828058)

  • Also available in Paperback
  • Published November 2005

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$110.00 (P)

Building New Deal Liberalism
The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933--1956

This book provides the first historical study of New Deal public works programs and their role in transforming the American economy, landscape, and political system during the twentieth century. Reconstructing the story of how reformers used public authority to reshape the nation, Jason Scott Smith argues that the New Deal produced a revolution in state-sponsored economic development. The scale and scope of this dramatic federal investment in infrastructure laid crucial foundations – sometimes literally – for postwar growth, presaging the national highways and the military-industrial complex. This impressive and exhaustively researched analysis underscores the importance of the New Deal in comprehending political and economic change in modern America by placing political economy at the center of the “new political history.” Drawing on a remarkable range of sources, Smith provides a groundbreaking reinterpretation of the relationship between the New Deal's welfare state and American liberalism.

Jason Scott Smith is an assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico. He previously held a Mellon Fellowship in American Studies at Cornell University, where he was a visiting assistant professor in the department of history and the department of government. In 2001–02 he was the Harvard-Newcomen Fellow at the Harvard Business School, where he taught courses on the history of capitalism. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Journal of Social History, Pacific Historical Review, Reviews in American History, and the Journal of Interdisciplinary History.

Building New Deal Liberalism

The Political Economy of Public Works,

   University of New Mexico

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA
Information on this title:

© Jason Scott Smith 2006

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2006

Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Smith, Jason Scott, 1970–
Building New Deal liberalism : the political economy of public works, 1933–1956 /
Jason Scott Smith.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-521-82805-8 (hardback)
1. New Deal, 1933–1939. 2. United States – Economic policy – 1933–1945.
3. United States – Economic conditions – 1918–1945. 4. United States –
Politics and government – 1933–1945. 5. Liberalism – United States –
History – 20th century. I. Title.
HC106.3.S537    2005
338.973′009′043 – dc22    2005006335

ISBN-13 978-0-521-82805-5 hardback
ISBN-10 0-521-82805-8 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for
the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or
third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication
and does not guarantee that any content on such
Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


List of Illustrations page vi
Acknowledgments ix
Common Abbreviations in Text and Notes xiii
1   Reevaluating the New Deal State and the Public Works Revolution 1
2   Economic Development and Unemployment during the Early New Deal 21
3   Making a New Deal State: Patronage and the Public Works Administration 54
4   The Dilemma of New Deal Public Works: People or Projects? 85
5   “Boondoggling” and the Welfare State 135
6   Party Building and “Pernicious Political Activities”: The Road to the Hatch Act 160
7   Public Works and New Deal Liberalism in Reorganization and War 190
8   Public Works and the Postwar World 232
9   Epilogue: Public Works and the Building of New Deal Liberalism 258
Sources 267
Index 273


1   Triborough Bridge, New York City page 123
2   Water Purification Works, Cincinnati, Ohio 123
3   Alameda County Courthouse, Oakland, California 124
4   Reservoir and Water System, Los Angeles, California 124
5   O’Shaughnessy Dam, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, California 125
6   Port of Oakland, California 125
7   State Capitol, Salem, Oregon 126
8   Coast Bridge, Oregon 126
9   Pierre S. DuPont High School, Wilmington, Delaware 127
10   Surgical Hospital Building, Hopemont, West Virginia 127
11   Overseas Highway, Florida 128
12   Cold Storage Plant, Mobile, Alabama 128
13   Administration Building, Municipal Airport, Fort Worth, Texas 129
14   Davidson County Courthouse, Nashville, Tennessee 129
15   Armory, Minneapolis, Minnesota 130
16   Allegheny County Bridge, Pennsylvania 130
17   Central Fire Station, Louisville, Kentucky 131
18   Surgical Operating and Ward Building, Boston, Massachusetts 131
19   Public Library, De Pere, Wisconsin 132
20   Grade School, Parco, Wyoming 132
21   Williamsburg Houses, Brooklyn, New York 133
22   U.S.S. Yorktown 133
23   Federal Trade Commission Building, Washington, D.C. 134
24   U.S. Bullion Depository, Fort Knox, Kentucky 134


I owe a great debt to many people and institutions for their support of this project. This book began as a dissertation in the history department at the University of California, Berkeley, and took shape over several years while I held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and at Cornell University. At Berkeley, I owe more than I can say to Robin Einhorn, not only for her amazingly fast and perceptive readings of chapters, but more importantly for teaching me what history is all about. I cannot imagine a better adviser, nor a more steadfast friend and colleague as I navigated the academic job market. I am grateful to David Hollinger and to Kiren Chaudhry for their encouragement and guidance, both as they served on my committee and afterward. Jim Kettner always had time to offer his quiet blend of kindness and insight, and I am saddened he did not live to see this book completed. Paul Sabin, Phil Soffer, and Anne Woo-Sam provided counsel at an early stage, and Guian McKee, Monica Rico, Chad Bryant, J. P. Daughton, Brad Hunt, and Kaarin Michaelsen supplied advice on a number of the chapters. Randy Starn and Tina Gillis at the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities provided a fellowship and support while I began writing. Hee Ko, Mabel Lee, Chaela Pastore, Michelle Tusan, Diana Selig, Susanna Barrows, Yuri Slezkine, Dan Rolde, Robert Avila, Paul Romano, Nils Gilman, David Milnes, Judy Rummelsburg, Kevin Chen, Anthony De Ritis, and Stephen Cole helped in multiple ways.

   At Harvard, I was fortunate to hold the Harvard-Newcomen fellowship at the Harvard Business School. This was a wonderful experience, in great part because it meant that I got to know Thomas McCraw. Tom's intelligence and encouragement have meant a great deal to me, and our conversations about the New Deal and capitalism helped to sharpen my arguments. At HBS, Walter Friedman read the entire manuscript with care and Yankee ingenuity. David Moss, Jeff Fear, Geoffrey Jones, Nancy Koehn, Richard Tedlow, Dan Wadhwani, and Stephen Mihm provided helpful insights and friendship. Margaret Willard edited the manuscript and saved me from many errors and infelicities. Across the Charles River, Sven Beckert proved a generous and thoughtful colleague, and the seminar on political economy that he directed at the Charles Warren Center was continually stimulating. Alice O'Connor generously commented on an early conference paper I presented at the Policy History Conference in St. Louis, and has been a friendly source of wisdom and insight, both during her time as a Fellow at the Warren Center and subsequently. I also learned much from presentations made by Paul Samuelson, at the Business History Seminar at HBS, and by John Kenneth Galbraith, in a forum arranged by Richard Parker at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Regina Abrami, Gunnar Trumbull, Meg Jacobs, Chris Capozzola, Anthony De Ritis, Veronica Ryback, and Jonathan Zatlin helped to make Cambridge and Boston feel like home.

   Many comments and suggestions from audience members at various conference presentations have proven exceedingly helpful, and I apologize for not being able to acknowledge by name all of the people who asked such interesting questions. I am grateful to Catherine Collomp and Mark Meigs for an invitation to present my work at the Université de Paris VII, at the conference “Beyond the New Deal.” Conversations there with Lizabeth Cohen, Allida Black, Marianne Debouzy, Cathy Turner, and Bob Cherny helped a great deal. At the International Planning History Society conference in Barcelona, I learned much from my co-panelists Kelly Quinn and Brad Hunt, and I thank Bob Breugmann for his incisive critiques of our papers. I want to thank Richard John for the opportunity to give a paper at the Technology, Politics, and Culture seminar at the Newberry Library in Chicago, as well as for his generous assistance on a number of matters. Brian Balogh thoughtfully located my work in the growing “new political history” in his comments on a paper I presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, and conversations with a number of people at the Policy History Conference, including Bill Novak, Ajay Mehrotra, Gail Radford, Margaret O'Mara, and Michael Bernstein, helped me clarify what is at stake in examining the New Deal through the lens of historical political economy.

   At Cornell, I am grateful to Larry Moore and Elizabeth Sanders for selecting me as a Mellon Fellow, and for the opportunity to serve as an assistant professor in the department of history and department of government. I have thus been able to complete this book while living in a remarkable community of scholars, and I have learned much from conversations with Bernadette Meyler, Sandra Greene, Val Bunce, Richard Bensel, Richard Polenberg, Fredrik Logevall, Ed Baptist, Derek Chang, Holly Case, Aaron Sachs, and, in Cornell's Mellon Humanities Seminar, Robert Frank, Harry Shaw, Ron Kline, and Michele Moody-Adams.

   At the University of New Mexico, I thank Jane Slaughter, Virginia Scharff, Tim Moy, Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, Cathleen Cahill, and the members of the history department for their engagement with my work and for providing such a warm welcome to the Southwest. Lew Bateman and everyone at Cambridge University Press have been a tremendous help in the publication process, and I greatly appreciate their assistance. Mark Leff and Ed Berkowitz provided detailed advice as readers for Cambridge, and they subsequently took me out for a memorable lunch. I hope I can somehow repay their multiple investments in this project.

   This book simply would not exist without the work done by many talented archivists and library staff, and I thank them all for helping me locate and gain access to so many obscure sources. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., and in College Park, Maryland, the manuscript division of the Library of Congress, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, are terrific places to work. The helpful staff of these archives, and of the vast library systems of Berkeley, Harvard, and Cornell, was indispensable to me. I am also grateful to the University of California Press and the Pacific Historical Review for permission to draw upon aspects of my article, “New Deal Public Works at War: The WPA and Japanese American Internment.” The University of California, Berkeley, department of history, the Mellon Foundation, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the Newcomen Society, and Harvard Business School's Division of Research provided financial support for this project. While all of these people and institutions have helped me, the ultimate responsibility for this book is mine.

   Finally, I owe a great debt to my parents, Daniel and Yvonne. I thank them not only for their love and support, but also for giving me such a wonderful sister, Sarah.

Common Abbreviations in Text and Notes

ACA Advisory Committee on Allotments
AALL American Association for Labor Legislation
AFL American Federation of Labor
AGC Associated General Contractors of America
CCC Civilian Conservation Corps
CWA Civil Works Administration
ERCA Emergency Relief and Construction Act
FERA Federal Emergency Relief Administration
FWA Federal Works Agency
GSA General Services Administration
NIRA National Industrial Recovery Act
NPB National Planning Board
NRA National Recovery Administration
NRPB National Resources Planning Board
PECE President’s Emergency Committee for Employment
PWA Public Works Administration
PWR Public Works Reserve
RFC Reconstruction Finance Corporation
TVA Tennessee Valley Authority
WRA War Relocation Authority
WCCA Wartime Civilian Control Administration
WPA Works Progress Administration (after 1939, Work Projects Administration)
FDRL Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
     OF Official File
     PPF President's Personal File
     PSF President's Secretary’s File
JERS Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records
LC Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
NA National Archives, Washington, D.C.
NA–College Park National Archives, College Park, Maryland
RG Record Group

Building New Deal Liberalism
The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933--1956

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