(photo credit 12.1)
In October 1935, New Dealers Rex Tugwell and Aubrey Williams made speeches calling on Democrats “to surge forward with the workers and farmers of this nation,” and to enlist in the struggle between the “have-nots” and the “haves.” Such terms became commonplace in the year before Roosevelt’s reelection. Although the President had made no firm shift in ideology and even said in the fall of 1935 that the New Deal had reached a “breathing spell,” the political advantage of maintaining a left-leaning posture was too great to pass up.
Whenever Roosevelt thought of trying to re-form an alliance with business, political considerations pushed him further into an anti-big business stance. The election year saw little in the way of new legislation. Members of Congress, like the President, had their eyes on November and their main concern was to end the session early enough to leave them plenty of time to gear up their campaigns. The President did advance his anti-business campaign by calling for a new tax on undistributed corporate profits. Congress passed a watered-down version of the bill before adjourning its lackluster session.1
The most important aspect of the New Deal from a political perspective in 1936 was the Works Progress Administration. Created by executive order after the huge Emergency Relief Appropriation of 1935, the WPA was placed under the direction of Harry Hopkins. The President divided the nearly $5 billion made available by Congress in 1935 among several different agencies. Part went to the new National Youth Administration, which gave part-time employment to more than 2 million high school and college students, thus helping them stay in school. The NYA also assisted the 2.6 million young people who were not in school. Harold Ickes’s PWA and the CCC received generous slices of the appropriation, too, but the largest share—$1.39 billion—went to the new WPA.
Although there were a sufficient number of make-work projects under the WPA to lend some credence to conservative complaints about one crew digging holes and another filling them up, the shovel-leaning and leaf-raking were only one side of a many-faceted organization. The WPA could not equal the PWA’s accomplishments in public building, but it did construct or improve more than 20,000 playgrounds, schools, hospitals, and airfields.
There were, however, serious problems connected with the WPA. Although work relief was far more expensive than direct payments to the unemployed, almost everyone preferred government jobs to a dole. The brief CWA experience had been gratifying. “A workless man,” Harry Hopkins observed, “has little status at home and less with his friends.” “Give a man a dole,” the WPA administrator said on another occasion, “and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.” Many WPA workers agreed. “Please continue this W.P.A. program,” a group of workers in Battle Creek, Michigan, wrote to the President in 1936. “It makes us feel like an American citizen to earn our own living. Being on the dole or relief roll makes us lazy and the funds are not enough to live decent on.” A county relief administrator in West Virginia noted as early as 1934 that work relief people “consider themselves as government workers—badly paid, or rather, inadequately employed. The general attitude seems to be,” she went on, “that by going on relief one is working for the government.… People frequently call me up and say: ‘I’ve been working for you for so long. Can’t you do this or that for me[?]’ ”
Some WPA projects met the goal of sustaining workers’ morale; many, unfortunately, did not. Pay was miserable. The nationwide average was $55 a month, much better than FERA relief payments, but an annual income of $660 amounted to barely more than half of a minimum subsistence budget of $1200. Nor was much security provided even for this tiny income. Working hours were often short, thus preventing laborers from obtaining their full potential pay. And there were no guarantees that jobs would continue or that checks would arrive on time. Such problems were frequently subjects of complaint by workers. “[W]hy can’t every one be paid regularly as agreed or is it inafficiancy[?]” a Texas WPA worker asked Hopkins in a 1935 letter. “Here in Ft Worth the mens’ pay is from 4 to 6 days behind; + some of them have to go home because they are too week to work.” A group of Wisconsin workers who said they were “not red, but red-white-and blue” criticized the President for saying American workers should be paid decent wages and then not doing it.
There were two fundamental reasons for the low wages. The first was obvious: there was not enough money to go around. The second concern was in some respects more significant. Committed as they were (hysterical charges by the Liberty League to the contrary notwithstanding) to maintaining the free enterprise system, Roosevelt and Hopkins wanted to be sure that work relief was not attractive in comparison with private employment. Hence they had to be sure that WPA earnings were kept at a sufficiently low level that the government would not be competing for workers with private enterprise. This was, of course, a rather silly concern while the unemployment rate was in the double digits, but the New Dealers remained convinced that strong incentives must be provided for those on work relief to return to the private sector as soon as any opportunity arose.
Yet this policy was in direct conflict with the stated objectives of using work relief to build morale and distinguishing WPA work from charity. Harry Hopkins correctly pointed out that “those who are forced to accept charity, no matter how unwillingly, are first pitied, then disdained” by others. People on direct relief were unable to avoid the stigma attached to charity and the resulting assumption that they were responsible for their own plight. People on the dole had to go through a humiliating “means test.” The original hope—fulfilled briefly under the CWA—was that a work relief program could dispense with this demeaning procedure. The goal was summed up by New York social worker William Matthews when he said, “The sooner work relief can be given as nearly as possible the same status as that of work under regular conditions … the sooner it will command the respect … of the worker.…”
The trouble, simply, was that New Dealers wanted on the one hand to make work relief like a “real” job, but on the other to make it unlike such employment. They sought to make WPA jobs attractive, so as to boost worker morale, at the same time they strove to make them unattractive, so as to encourage people to return to private employment. The result, inevitably, was a highly contradictory program. This was embodied in a policy that attempted to provide hourly wages similar to those paid by private businesses for the same sort of work, but limited the total monthly income of a WPA worker to far less than he might hope to make in the private sector. Hence those with the highest-paying jobs were allowed to work the fewest hours per month.
This was no way to provide a sense of security or build morale. WPA planners also failed to understand that manual labor was not a seamless web. Little attempt was made on most projects to match the strength, experience, and ability of a blue-collar worker with the job assigned to him. This was an indication of unconscious discrimination against lower-class people. When it came to the middle-class unemployed—or even to artists and writers—Hopkins and his associates tried to create jobs appropriate to their careers. (Hopkins was partial to artists. His family summered in Woodstock, New York, the noted artists’ colony.) Manual laborers, though, were thought of simply as manual laborers.
There were other problems. President Roosevelt had promised when the organization was launched that the work would be “useful … in the sense that it affords permanent improvements in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the nation.” Yet critics soon complained that much of what the WPA did was not “useful.” In some cases they were right, but one of the principal reasons was that Roosevelt had pledged that the WPA would not compete with private enterprise. One wonders what such critics would have said if the organization had started to do useful things and thus had begun to compete with private business.
Behind the other conservative misgivings lay the fear that bureaucrats like Hopkins—intellectuals who had never “met a payroll” or “faced an electorate”—were using the relief agencies to secure positions of power for themselves. There was also some concern that Hopkins and his assistants wanted to keep large numbers of people on relief so that they would be politically subservient to the WPA. Particularly disturbing to Vice President Garner was the practice of referring to WPA workers as “clients.”
Other WPA rules were as constraining as the prohibition on competition with private industry. Concentrating on helping the unemployed get through a “temporary” crisis, New Dealers used all available funds for payrolls and provided scarcely any training to help workers obtain permanent employment. Similarly, the requirement that 90 percent of those hired must come from the relief rolls—well intentioned though it clearly was—served both to discriminate against those who had held out longest against going on the dole and to prevent the employment of skilled workers needed to undertake many “useful” projects. Finally, a WPA rule allowing only one member of a family to be employed discriminated against women (who never represented even one-fifth of WPA workers) and large families. Some of the latter actually found themselves with lower incomes under the WPA than they had received on the dole.
The greatest failing of the WPA, however, was that it never provided work for most of the unemployed (the figure hovered around 30 percent of the jobless on WPA rolls between 1935 and 1940). This left upward of 5 million jobless Americans on the tender mercies and empty treasuries of state and local governments. When he chose the work relief option, President Roosevelt had decided to end federal relief, which he characterized in words worthy of Herbert Hoover (but none the less accurate for that) as “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” That the states were not up to the task they had amply demonstrated in the early thirties, but Roosevelt dumped back in the laps of the governors and legislatures the “unemployables.” The results were similar to those that might be expected if Ronald Reagan had obtained enactment of his New Federalism plan in the 1980s. They are best symbolized by New Jersey’s decision to issue licenses to beg to those who could not be helped by exhausted state funds. Also like the New Federalism plan, Roosevelt’s 1935 decision that Washington “must and shall quit this business of relief” meant that the states with the greatest needs would have the smallest resources with which to meet them. By the end of the decade, ten poor southern states were paying less than $10 per month per family, considerably less than half the national average.
Despite all of the drawbacks, the WPA was far better than what had gone before it (which is almost to say that it was far better than nothing). For those who got jobs on its projects, the pitiful wages were usually, if not always, better than relief. For all the obstacles to the goal of morale-building, an unemployed person was more likely to maintain a bit of self-respect working on a WPA project than he was receiving direct relief. And the agency did add substantially to the common wealth—material and artistic—of the American people. The WPA was much less than it could have been and it was less innovative than might have been expected in the Depression era. It was, for that matter, a good deal less daring than its precursor, the CWA, had been. Yet it was innovative and daring in some ways, most notably in its attempt to provide public patronage for the arts.2
A combination of factors—economic need, resurgent democratic values, Rooseveltian paternalism, and the quest for a distinctly American culture—came together in the mid 1930s to create the most notable experiment of the work relief program, Federal One. This was the use of a small but highly significant portion of WPA funds for an experiment in providing federal support for the arts in America. Although he had no special appreciation for “high culture” himself, as a gentleman Franklin Roosevelt believed fine music, art, and theater were essential to the good life. As part of his general attempt to democratize American life, Roosevelt wanted to make such culture available to the masses.
The 1935 relief appropriation included money designated for use in helping unemployed professionals. The WPA proceeded to set up four programs under Federal One: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writers’ Project. (A fifth, the Historical Records Survey, was made a separate unit in 1936.) Harry Hopkins was among those who thought it was foolish and wasteful to put a concert violinist or a Shakespearean actor to work laying bricks. But Hopkins and a number of those who became involved with the WPA arts projects saw them as far more than a way to provide “suitable” relief work for artistic or educated Depression victims. They saw Federal One as a grand opportunity to fuse “high culture” with American democracy. The relationship between culture and democracy had long been a troubling question in the minds of some Americans. As democrats, some in the American arts community were concerned with bringing the arts to the people at large. At the same time, however, they feared that emphasis on numbers would inevitably lessen quality. Moreover, the dependence of artistic people on wealthy patrons often distanced the arts from “ordinary” folks.
A possible solution to some of these difficulties seemed to be federal patronage of the arts. In any case, private financial support practically dried up during the early Depression. As with so many other areas of American life, the Depression left many artistic people with nowhere else to turn for help but Washington. Dependence on federal financial assistance was not an unmixed blessing, however. Two principal, if vastly different, problems arose. The first was winning public support for the idea. Many people had a hard time accepting singing and acting as work. (We seem to have no trouble accepting the right of performers to make huge sums of money while working privately, but we balk at paying them much smaller amounts from our taxes.) Public support for federal arts projects was never strong. In the end, this proved fatal.
The other problem was the possibility that as Washington began paying the pianist it would want to call the tune. Even if there were no conscious interference—and who could be sure there would not be?—the possibility that bureaucracy would stifle creativity was omnipresent. Yet this possibility never seriously materialized. Instead, the WPA arts projects gave several million Americans their first opportunity to experience “high culture” and many people were enabled to participate in WPA-sponsored community symphonies, amateur theaters, and the like.
The least controversial of the Federal One projects was the Historical Reeords Survey, which inventoried local government records across the country. It performed a useful service and did so efficiently and without stepping on many conservative toes. The same could nearly be said about the Federal Writers’ Project. Writers had originally been left out of the plans for arts projects, but after some of them complained the FWP was created. Although the Historical Records Survey succeeded in using previously untrained personnel, good writing was not so easily obtained. Many self-described “writers” who joined the project might not have been so classified by literary critics. In fact, many people—teachers, librarians, and others from white-collar occupations—who were not writers but did need relief were assigned to the Writers’ Project. Trying to make a virtue of necessity—as well as to emphasize the democratic nature of the project—FWP Director Henry Alsberg said, “We must get over the idea that every writer must be an artist of the first class, and that an artist of the second or third class has no function.”
Be that as it may, the FWP suffered no shortage of first-class writers. Among those who were employed by the Writers’ Project were Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Jack Conroy, Conrad Aiken, Ama Bontemps, and Margaret Walker. Several of these great talents would likely have gone undeveloped had it not been for the FWP. The project did not allow much creative writing on WPA time, but working hours usually amounted to only thirty per week. “The simple act of providing writers and would-be writers with jobs that gave them a livelihood without unduly taxing their energies,” FWP executive Jerre Mangione later contended, “turned out to be the most effective measure that could have been taken to nurture the future of American letters.” Richard Wright was perhaps the best example of what the project could do for a young writer. He used his spare time to write Native Son, which won him acclaim while he was still an FWP employee. Ralph Ellison summed up the effect of working on the project: “Actually to be paid for writing … why that was a wonderful thing!”
What they were paid to write was a variety of what has been called “American stuff.” Included was a series of inspired state guides. This was part of the mid-thirties revival of interest in all things American. It extended in the work of the FWP to the collection of folklore, studies of ethnic groups, “life histories” of individuals from many backgrounds, and the reminiscences of some 2000 former slaves. The last item, in particular, was a priceless historical treasure that would have been lost if not for the work of the Writers’ Project. These efforts, under the guidance of Benjamin Botkin, emphasized the belief that “history must study the inarticulate many as well as the articulate few.”
Federal Music Project Director Nikolai Sokoloff was also concerned about the inarticulate many, but he sought to raise them to an appreciation of fine music. An elitist where culture was concerned, Sokoloff of necessity had to reach for a mass audience if he was to find employment for some 15,000 out-of-work musicians. And the wide variation in their talent and skills obliged him to be more eclectic than he desired. Since instrumental music was unlikely to be perceived as carrying leftist messages, the FMP remained less controversial than some of the other WPA arts projects. The Music Project organized orchestras across the nation in cities that had not known them before, but it was prevented by political opposition from taking classical music to many areas its leaders had originally intended to reach. Concerts and music lessons were provided free or for nominal charges.
The accomplishments of the Federal Music Project were significant, but came to far less than some hoped for. Charles Seeger of the Music Project, along with Alan Lomax of the FWP, undertook a remarkable effort to collect and preserve America’s folk music. Their accomplishment was magnificent, but Seeger’s grand hope to integrate “popular, folk, and academic music into a distinctively American idiom” was never approached. Nor did the advances made by the FMP generally survive. Orchestras formed after World War II appear to have had their roots in WPA symphonies in fewer than ten cities.
More controversial than the historical, writing, or music projects was Holger Cahill’s Federal Art Project. Project Director Cahill and his associates were firm believers in the ideal of cultural democracy; they expressed their goal as “art for the millions.” Cahill insisted that the audience for plastic arts under the FAP be broadened greatly from those who had frequented galleries and museums in the past. Franklin Roosevelt agreed with the objectives, if not always with the content of the art that was aimed at the millions. The President guessed—optimistically—that only 10 percent of the American people had ever had an opportunity to view a “fine picture.” For a brief time the FAP changed that. By 1938 works done by Art Project painters and sculptors were on view in many parts of the country. An FAP exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1940 was seen by more than 2 million people. The most lasting—and perhaps the most impressive—of the Art Project’s achievements were the murals its artists painted in public buildings across the nation. The decisive influence came from Mexican painters of propaganda murals, particularly Diego Rivera and Clemente Orozco, who spent the early years of the Depression being paid large fees by the likes of the Ford and Rockefeller families to paint anti-capitalist murals in such incongruous places as the San Francisco Stock Exchange Club, the Ford-supported Detroit Institute of Arts, the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, and the Dartmouth College Library. Like the products of other WPA arts projects, the FAP murals represented part of the renewed interest in American life. Victor Arnautoffs “City Life” in San Francisco’s Coit Tower is one of the best examples. The subjects of many, however, were too labor-oriented to suit conservatives in Congress. Charges of “Communism” grew louder as the Depression decade neared its end.
The quality of the work done by FAP employees varied widely, of course. So did the opinions of critics on its overall merit. As with the Writers’ Project, the Art Project provided a livelihood for some artists who would go on to great careers, among them Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Anton Refregier, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Critical controversy, like that over social content, centered on the murals. Post office murals (most of which were done outside the FAP jurisdiction) tended to celebrate the “masses” and the oppressed laboring class. While Ford Madox Ford, the English art critic, said the quality of FAP work was “astonishingly high,” American photographer Alfred Stieglitz said he had nothing against putting unemployed artists on the federal payroll, but they should not be allowed to get near paint. Stieglitz characterized some of the project’s work as “the rape of the walls.” President Roosevelt, as was his wont, took a middle ground on the murals: “Some of it good,” he said, “some of it not so good, but all of it native, human, eager and alive—all of it painted by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things that they know and look at often and have touched and loved.” Roosevelt’s knack for understanding the public mood was once again evident in this assessment.
If the social content of a mural could raise the eyebrows of members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a theatrical production could appear to be outright subversion. The Federal Theatre Project, directed by the former head of the Vassar College Experimental Theatre, Hallie Flanagan, was the most important, the most controversial, and hence, the shortest-lived of the Federal One projects. Flanagan had been a classmate of Harry Hopkins at Grinnell College. One actress who worked with her described her as having “the spirit, the soul, and the dedication, and the drive” of Eleanor Roosevelt. The FTP director was dedicated to building a truly national theater, one that would provide food for thought as well as for actors’ stomachs. One of her ideals was to use drama to create public awareness of social problems. Hopkins promised a theater that was “free, adult, uncensored.” That was a tall order, but in its brief history the FTP often approached the ideal.
The FTP played a role similar to those of the other arts projects in stimulating and encouraging talents that would remain important for decades after the program’s demise. A very abbreviated list of its directors, playwrights, actors, producers, composers, and technicians gives an idea of the FTP’s contribution: Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, Dale Wasserman, John Huston, Joseph Cotten, Jack Carter, E. G. Marshall, Will Geer, Arlene Francis, Canada Lee, Howard Da Silva, Burt Lancaster (who began as an aerialist in an FTP circus), John Houseman, Lehman Engel, George Izenour.
Even more important than the individual careers that were spurred on by the FTP was the stimulus the project provided for the American stage through its openness to new ideas. Far more than other government agencies of the Depression era, the Theatre Project treated black Americans as highly capable, basically equal human beings. The FTP established sixteen “Negro Units” around the country. Casts almost always remained segregated (the notable exception being a Newark production of The Trial of Dr. Beck), but the roles were not. That is to say that black actors were no longer confined to “Negro” roles. The great departure was initiated by John Houseman, who codirected the Harlem FTP unit with black actress Rose McClendon. When the Federal Theatre began, the Harlem riots of 1935 were only a few months in the past and the usual offensive roles for black performers were wholly unacceptable. Houseman decided to put on a black production of a Shakespearean classic. If the idea was to be accepted it would have to be a first-rate production, and Houseman needed the best possible director. His friend Orson Welles, not yet twenty years old, quickly agreed to take the job. Welles’s wife, Virginia, had the inspiration to make the first production Macbeth, set in Haiti with Voodoo priestesses as the witches. A troupe of African drummers (including a genuine witch doctor) was hired. At their request WPA requisition forms were filled out for five live black goats, which they proceeded to sacrifice in the theater’s basement, so that the skins could be stretched for drums. With such authenticity, the Voodoo Macbeth was a smashing success.
Despite a few cases of attempted censorship, the Federal Theatre was remarkably uninhibited in its offerings. Most notable among its innovations were the “living newspapers.” These were plays in the new form of documentaries that took a stand on issues of the day, provided information about them, and advocated a course of action. The New York group first put on Triple-A Plowed Under, a play that called for farmers and consumers to work together against greedy middlemen. Despite its agrarian subject matter, Triple-A Plowed Under was a stunning success, both critically and at the box office. So were such other living newspapers as Power, which demanded public ownership of utilities; Injunction Granted, a play that dramatized the anti-union actions of the courts; and Created Equal, which dealt with conflicts between property owners and citizens throughout American history. Right-wing critics charged that such productions were propaganda for the New Deal—or for something worse. Garrett Caret wrote in The Saturday Evening Post in June 1936 that Triple-A Plowed Under employed such “logotypes of Communist propaganda” as “hunger” and “starvation.” Two months later another piece in the same periodical claimed that the Federal Theatre’s “hair [was] full of Communists” and Flanagan was trying to “Russianize” the American stage.
Although the conservative critics finally had their way, the accomplishments of the Federal Theatre Project in its brief history are most impressive. In addition to its remarkable efforts in the legitimate theater, the FTP put on radio drama, children’s plays, puppet shows, and circuses. In less than four years, approximately 30 million people attended productions of the FTP. Here, albeit all too briefly, was art for the millions.
The Federal Theatre’s success was achieved in the face of constant obstacles and opposition. Some of the problems, though serious, were survivable. Many of the project’s best people, for instance, were lured away by private companies. But the freedom and lack of commercial emphasis kept enough talent with the FTP so that this problem could be overcome. Political opposition, though, could not, in the end, be defeated. In 1938 and 1939, in a foretaste of the techniques that were used by Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, and others in the late forties and early fifties, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) “investigated” the FTP as part of a larger exploration of “un-American propaganda activities” in the nation. It was a classic witch hunt in which the conclusions were reached before any testimony was taken. One Republican on the committee, J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, told a news conference before the hearings began that “startling evidence” indicated that the FTP was “serving as a branch of the Communistic organization.” What he meant by that was apparent when Thomas added that the Federal Theatre was “one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda machine.”
After months of hearings in which people were coaxed to provide hearsay evidence, Hallie Flanagan was finally allowed to testify. She misjudged her interrogators. When she quoted Christopher Marlowe, one of the congressmen interrupted her to ask who Marlowe was and whether he was a Communist. Others laughed, but Flanagan realized that this was tragedy, not comedy. The HUAC report ignored her refutation of the earlier testimony and when the House debated the new WPA budget in 1939, the FTP was cut. The Senate tried to save the project, but it did not survive the conference committee and President Roosevelt had little choice but to sign the relief appropriation bill without the Federal Theatre.
The other arts projects and the WPA itself (rechristened with a more conservative name, Works Projects Administration) limped along until 1943. Their service to the nation was invaluable, but it has been widely recognized only since the 1960s. The arts projects collected a huge amount of raw material that has proved to be of enormous value to subsequent artists and historians. They helped in incalculable ways to lift the spirits of a depressed nation and add to its culture. The WPA as a whole, like its arts projects, was certainly not without serious flaws, but the frequent complaint that it was nothing more than an attempt to provide “bread and circuses” is unjustified. The WPA proved, in fact, to be one of the leading examples of government recognition of the values of Depression America. Its emphasis was on public works and arts for the people as a whole. The attitudes behind the expenditures on public buildings and “art for the millions” reflected the decline of self-centeredness evident among Americans of the thirties in so many other ways. These buildings, plays, concerts, and murals were to be accessible, to be shared and enjoyed by others.3
The President began the election year of 1936 by making it clear that, as far as rhetoric was concerned, the breathing spell for business was over. Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress, delivered on the evening of the Court’s rejection of the AAA, called upon Congress to “wage unceasing warfare” against “our resplendent economic autocracy” which sought “power for themselves, enslavement for the public.” This was only the beginning. Five days later FDR delivered a rousing speech over a radio hookup to some 3000 Jackson Day dinners around the nation. Roosevelt compared himself with the seventh President, saying the American people loved Jackson “for the enemies he had made.” “History repeats,” Roosevelt declared, picturing himself as a kind of New Hickory. He called upon Americans to keep up the fight against “the forces of privilege and greed.”
Talk is cheap, of course, and Roosevelt offered no specific new programs to combat those selfish interests. He was careful to point out repeatedly that the enemy was not businessmen in general, but that small number of financial and industrial leaders whose self-serving dedication to “free enterprise” was unbending. In his budget message the President said the federal budget would soon be balanced. As winter drew to a close, he ordered spending cuts and a reduction in WPA employment. Still, the symbolic importance of FDR’s verbal attacks on the “greedy” should not be underestimated. Public response to the Jackson Day speech was overwhelmingly favorable. More than 95 percent of those who wrote to the President about the speech praised his class-tinged phrases. “I am in complete sympathy with your fight on greed and the favored classes,” a Philadelphia man wrote to Roosevelt. “At last we have a Man in the White House and not a puppet of organized Wealth,” an Oregon woman wrote.
And if Roosevelt’s rhetoric was not enough by itself to win the support of the forgotten man, wealthy conservatives were always glad to help. In this regard no group was more obliging than the American Liberty League. Two weeks after Roosevelt’s Jackson Day speech, Al Smith, who had completed his graduation from brown derby to white tie and tails, viciously attacked the New Deal before a crowd of twelve Du Ponts and 2000 of their fellow travelers in Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. The New York Timescalled this Liberty League confab “the greatest collection of millionaires ever gathered under one roof.” The millionaires—and those who aspired to be—who overflowed the hotel’s main ballroom that evening were hungry for raw, red meat. Smith served up generous portions: “It is all right with me if they want to disguise themselves as Karl Marx or Lenin or any of the rest of that bunch,” the Happy Warrior said of Roosevelt and his followers, “but I won’t stand for their allowing them to march under the banner of Jackson and Cleveland.” As the crowd roared, Smith could not content himself with that bombast. His peroration brought the faithful in frenzy to their feet: “There can be only one capital, Washington or Moscow. There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clean, pure fresh air of free America, or the foul breath of Communistic Russia.” This was sheer poppycock, and few people outside the select Mayflower audience would swallow it. The impact was hardly what the Liberty League had had in mind. Smith and company simply made it easier for Roosevelt to paint the 1936 election as a contest, not between Washington and Moscow, but between Roosevelt and the Du Ponts, between compassion and selfish indifference. If the Democratic National Committee had to choose the most effective way to spend its limited funds, it should have considered contributions to the league.
Rich businessmen would not have achieved their positions had it not been for their ingenuity. They demonstrated this quality in 1936 by finding ever new ways to aid Roosevelt inadvertently. There had been significant gains in recovery the year before the election. But when conservatives warned of an economic boom and said inflation was now the great danger, they merely convinced more people of their own callousness, and thus made Roosevelt all the more attractive. Such businessmen gave Roosevelt just the dramatic foil he needed for his role as champion of the people. That it worked was demonstrated in the comments many “ordinary” Americans made in letters to the Roosevelts. An Indiana admirer, for example, wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt in 1935 that she liked the President because “his most bitter opponents are the (Rich) the Chambers of Commerce Principaly the manufacturers.” In May of that year, Tugwell expressed the view that a sweeping attack the United States Chamber of Commerce had made on the New Deal was “perhaps one of the best things which has happened politically.” Given the climate of opinion, it seems unlikely that the Liberty League’s warning early in the election year that Roosevelt sought “redistribution of income on a grand scale” did the President any political harm.
Yet early in the year polls showed the President’s popularity was low. Republicans convinced themselves, as politicians usually do at the dawn of an election year, that their prospects were good. One problem remained, however: finding a candidate. This was not as easy as it may sound. Herbert Hoover was eager for a chance to vindicate himself, but few Republican leaders—as much as some of them might like the former President’s philosophy—were up to the level of self-deception necessary to think the voters could be convinced to accept the man many of them blamed for the Depression. And few other potential candidates were available. There were only seven Republican governors in the entire nation, and only one of these had been reelected in 1934. This qualification made Alfred M. Landon of Kansas the “most available” man. Landon was, in fact, the only GOP governor of a state west of the Mississippi, an area Roosevelt had swept in 1932. Therefore Republican leaders, who wanted to shed the party’s disastrous image as the tool of eastern financiers, had another reason to look to Landon.
Whatever image the Republican leaders might create, their true colors were shown by their reference to Landon as “the Kansas Coolidge.” The name said little about the governor, but spoke volumes about what many Republicans saw as the ideal chief executive.
Alf Landon was no Coolidge. Actually he had a progressive record and had supported much of the New Deal. Such sins were overlooked by the GOP powers not only because Landon was about all that was available, but because the Kansan had a reputation as a fiscal conservative. He had run Kansas on a balanced budget (albeit with three-fourths of the public funds expended in the state in 1935 coming from Washington, which led a Roosevelt adviser to point out that although the President “has not yet balanced his budget … he certainly has balanced Governor Landon’s”).
The Republican party was prepared to seek victory by nominating someone who did not see Roosevelt as an agent of Lucifer, but delegates to the party’s 1936 convention demonstrated what a reluctant compromise this was by cheering wildly during a speech by Hoover. The former President castigated Roosevelt for preaching “the gospel of class hatred.” The Democrat’s reelection, Hoover warned, would lead to “the succeeding states of violence and outrage by which European despotisms have crushed all liberalism and all freedom.” Despite several minutes of boisterous screams of “We want Hoover,” the convention eventually returned to the real world and nominated Landon without opposition.4
Roosevelt had more to worry about than Republicans, however. One factor that had scared him into his new, class-oriented course the year before was the rise of the demagogues. The Second New Deal and Huey Long’s death had eased the threat, but successful politicians never feel secure. Father Coughlin continued early in the election year to vacillate between attacks on Roosevelt and praise for him; Dr. Townsend was irate over what he called the “wholly unfair, inadequate and unjust” Social Security program; and the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith was claiming the mantle of Long and the leadership of the Share Our Wealth movement. Smith, who had latched onto the Long entourage in 1934, after a career as a preacher in Indiana and Louisiana, had proved to be an effective organizer for the SOW Society. As such, he was an asset to Long. Still, he made the Kingfish nervous. This is understandable. Smith liked to wear Huey’s used clothing and, one Long aide claimed, at least once slept on the floor near the senator’s bed “just so he could be close to Huey.” The Reverend Mr. Smith was not likely to fill the shoes of Huey Long figuratively, even if he did so literally. The possibility that he would unite with Coughlin and Townsend continued to worry Democrats, though. Early in 1936 such an alliance still appeared capable of taking many votes away from the Democrats, so much so that some wealthy Republicans secretly financed an effort to create a Coughlin-Smith-Townsend party for the 1936 campaign.
The alliance did ultimately come into being, but the Democrats’ fears proved to be greatly inflated. In June 1936, apparently at the urging of Coughlin, Representative William Lemke of North Dakota announced his candidacy for the presidency. The vehicle for Lemke’s campaign was called the Union party. It began with the backing of Townsend and Smith, but was essentially a combination of Coughlin’s organization with militant agrarians of the northern Plains. Lemke, a sincere populist, soon found himself in uncomfortable company. Coughlin’s fascism began to show; Smith never made much of an attempt to hide his. By mid-October the self-anointed heir to the Kingfish was proclaiming a nationalist movement to “seize the government of the United States.” “The democratic method is a lot of baloney,” Smith declared, “it doesn’t mean a thing.”
With backers like these, “Liberty Bill” Lemke (unkind critics liked to say that the nickname derived from the fact that the congressman’s head was in a condition similar to that of the famous Philadelphia Bell) may appear fortunate to have won 2 percent of the national vote. Like other third-party candidates, though, Lemke almost certainly had more support than was indicated by the votes counted for him. People are generally reluctant to “throw away their votes.” In August 1936, Lorena Hickok reported that many Iowans with whom she talked had told her: “I’d vote for Lemke, only I don’t think he can win. And I’d rather have Roosevelt than Landon.” When the size of the Long, Coughlin, and Townsend movements in 1935 is considered, it becomes clear that Lemke’s low vote total was not the result of a rejection of wealth-sharing or “social justice” by the voters, but principally of a growing awareness of the fascism of Smith and Coughlin. Most of the discontented Americans who had been attracted to the demagogues in 1935 apparently voted for Roosevelt a year later.5
This, of course, was exactly what the President wanted discontented voters to do. To assure this, he needed continued economic improvement and a strong identification as the defender of the down-and-out. To accomplish the first, he instructed government officials to do whatever was necessary to keep crop prices up and to be sure that there were no large reductions in WPA employment before the election. The second ingredient in FDR’s recipe for victory was obtained easily enough. The President made a series of “non-political” visits to victims of floods and drought, emphasizing the humanitarian concern of his administration. And, above all, Roosevelt continued to lash at big business and portray himself as the friend of the working class.
In the latter effort, FDR had much help. Landon was the first Republican presidential candidate to face two problems that would plague his successors for more than a generation: the specter (all too alive in the 1936 campaign) of Herbert Hoover and the question of whether, as Barry Goldwater put it twenty-eight years later, to offer voters a choice or an echo. Landon preferred to endorse the goals of the New Deal, but to criticize the inefficiency and poor administration of government programs. After following this course for a time, Landon realized that it looked like “me-tooism.” He then joined with other Republicans in direct assaults on the New Deal. It did not work. Alf Landon was no great speaker. (The most memorable line in his campaign was “Wherever I have gone in this country, I have found Americans.”) He denounced the Social Security program, but accepted its basic premise, thus alienating its supporters without gaining the confidence of its opponents. The Republican nominee went on to warn that the New Deal would lead to the guillotine. Landon aides insisted that Roosevelt was backed by Moscow. GOP national chairman John D. M. Hamilton solemnly warned voters that ballots cast for the President would further the “International Communist Conspiracy.” Republican campaigners informed workers that Social Security would soon be robbing money from their pay envelopes and that the system would bring regimentation to America. Such misrepresentations, half-truths, and bald-faced lies backfired. Figuratively, at least, many Americans believed that some of their rich neighbors deserved nothing so much as the guillotine; few Americans believed that Moscow was behind the President, but such stories enhanced Roosevelt’s image as an opponent of business. And when employers placed copies of the GOP attack on social security in pay envelopes, workers saw more clearly than ever the links between big business and the Republicans.
Given the sharp class division, businessmen could be counted upon for fewer financial contributions than usual to the Democratic cause. (Bankers, who had provided one-quarter of Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign funds, supplied only 3 percent in 1936.) Part of the slack was taken up by Roosevelt’s most important new ally, organized labor. Following the passage of the Wagner Act, many union leaders clearly saw the stake they had in keeping Roosevelt in office. Labor gave over $770,000 to the Democratic campaign in 1936, with nearly two-thirds of the total coming from John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers. Lewis and other unionists also formed Labor’s Non-Partisan League to hold rallies, distribute literature, and get out the vote for FDR. The President, never before noted as a great friend of organized labor, proudly displayed a union card given to him in New York at the beginning of October.
The Roosevelt campaign in 1936 mobilized blacks, Jews, Catholics, women, intellectuals, and independent and Republican progressives, to join with labor and the traditional Democratic strength in city machines and the South. It was a new sort of campaign, and the coalition formed in it made the New Deal party dominant in American politics for more than forty years. The 1982 congressional elections indicated that the Roosevelt coalition has life in it still.
The Republicans also introduced a new and lasting feature of presidential campaigns in 1936. For the first time the methods used to sell soap and soft drinks were tried on a large scale in marketing a presidential candidate. The effort to sell Alf Landon to the American people was extensive and expensive. The Republicans outspent the Democrats, $14 million to $9 million. Despite its failure, the massive advertising campaign had won a place for itself in American elections. The days of the H. R. Haldemans and David Gergens were still beyond the horizon, but American politics was on a path that led in that direction.
For his part, Roosevelt played up the class differences in the election and stepped up his “us-against-them” rhetoric. In his acceptance speech, the President drew the battle lines sharply. Denouncing the “economic royalists” and “privileged princes” who sought to impose a “new industrial dictatorship,” FDR said that Americans must take away the power of the “overprivileged.” He warned that these people were an “enemy within our gates” and pledged to continue to struggle against them. “Private enterprise,” Roosevelt declared, had become “too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.” The President admitted that mistakes had been made, but said his administration was warm-hearted and “lives in a spirit of charity.” “Charity literally translated from the original,” he said, “means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.” Once again FDR and his speech-writers had struck the chord of the values so many Depression-era Americans had adopted. “This generation of Americans,” Roosevelt declared, “has a rendezvous with destiny.” The crowd of 100,000 roared its approval.
And so it went through the campaign. The President continued to emphasize class in his speeches, and the enthusiastic crowds greeting him almost everywhere he went reached unprecedented size. In 1932 people had voted against Hoover; now they clearly were voting for Roosevelt. People were heard shouting, “He gave me a job,” or “He saved my home.” The only places where FDR was booed on the campaign trail were in the Wall Street area and at his alma mater. This hurt his cause not at all. At Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as at so many other campaign stops, Roosevelt linked himself to the Depression-era values: “Ours has been a program of one for all and all for one.” In the traditional end of the campaign speech in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the President summed up the theme of the campaign: The election was a contest between “the millions who never had a chance” and “organized money.” The “forces of selfishness and of lust for power,” Roosevelt said, had “never before in all our history … been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Roosevelt had turned the presidential election into a contest between the haves and the have-nots. In Depression America the latter were obviously far more numerous. Nonetheless, the highly respected Literary Digest straw poll, which had been correct in each of the four previous presidential elections it had forecast, predicted that Landon would win by an electoral college margin of 370–161. The actual balloting, however, gave Roosevelt the largest electoral vote victory ever recorded in a contested election, 523–8. The popular vote went to FDR by the huge margin of 27,751,841 to 16,679,491. The President had won 60.8 percent of the ballots cast. Landon carried only Maine and Vermont, leading to Democratic national chairman James Farley’s famous play on the old campaign saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” “As Maine goes,” Farley quipped after the election, “so goes Vermont.” From the other side of the political fence, newspaperwoman Dorothy Thompson remarked: “If Landon had given one more speech, Roosevelt would have carried Canada, too.”
The explanation of how the previously reliable Literary Digest poll could be so utterly wrong tells much about the mood of the electorate in 1936. In many areas of the nation the people polled were chosen from lists of automobile owners and from telephone books. This skewed the poll toward upper-income groups. Even in areas where a truly random selection of voters was conducted, the well-to-do were more likely to return their ballots. This, of course, had always been the case with Literary Digest polls, but in the past it had not mattered. That it did matter in 1936 is a strong indication that socioeconomic class made a difference that year as at no time since at least the Jacksonian era. In short, Roosevelt’s appeal to class had worked. His huge margin of victory came largely from people—presumably poor—who had not believed it mattered to vote in 1932, but now wanted to express their support for the New Deal. Approximately 6 million more people cast ballots in 1936 than had done so four years before; fully 5 million of these voted for FDR.
The 1936 Roosevelt vote increased in each successively lower-income group, varying from only 42 percent of the upper-income voters to 80 percent of the votes of union members, 81 percent of unskilled workers, and 84 percent of the people on relief. As the poor clustered around Roosevelt, the wealthy moved their wagons into an ever tighter circle around the Republican party. The Du Pont family donated more than half a million dollars to the GOP that year. It did not help. Their home city of Wilmington, Delaware, long a Republican bastion, voted Democratic. In Muncie, Indiana, where the Lynds noted in 1936 “perhaps the strongest effort in the city’s history by the local big businessmen (industrialists and bankers) to stampede local opinion in behalf of a single presidential candidate,” the results were similar. Muncie went for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since the Civil War, giving FDR nearly 60 percent of its votes. “We workers licked the big bosses here,” one laborer told the Lynds, “… by our majority vote for Roosevelt.”
The 1936 election showed that class had become, at least temporarily, the dominant element in American politics. On one class issue after another in the mid-thirties, the difference of opinion between Democrats and Republicans was striking. Asked in January 1936 if they favored an amendment to the Constitution allowing the federal government to regulate agriculture and industry, 69 percent of those classifying themselves as Democrats said yes; 88 percent of the Republicans said no. Similar differences were recorded on many other issues. The reason most often cited by voters for supporting Roosevelt was: “He helped the working classes.”
After the 1936 election it was clear that a fundamental shift in the American political alignment had occurred. The depression of the 1890s had made the Republicans the majority party in the United States. Now another depression, along with Roosevelt’s attempts to deal with it, had made the Democrats the majority party. Outside the South the nation had split politically along class lines. In the South most voters of all classes remained Democrats, but elsewhere the rich tended toward the GOP and the poor and lower-middle income groups flocked into the party of the New Deal. Obviously such shifts were far from absolute. Many poorer Americans retained their Republican loyalties, and certainly a number of those who were well-to-do remained Democrats. But the shift was one of the most marked in American political history. It seems appropriate to give workers the last words on the 1936 election. “Mr. Roosevelt,” one forgotten man said, “is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son-of-a-bitch.” An electrician in the nation’s capital vastly overstated the case, but pointed up the distinction in values that many Americans saw between the two sides in 1936, when he said of the election: “On the one side is pure and unadulterated greed and cruelty. On the other the crying need of a lost humanity.”6
“Wait until next year, Henry,” President Roosevelt had said to Treasury Secretary Morgenthau in May 1936, “I am going to be really radical … I am going to recommend a lot of radical legislation.” Now the way appeared to be clear. The Democratic majorities in Congress had swelled to 333–88 in the House and 75–16 in the Senate (and most of the 13 representatives and 4 senators from minor parties were to the President’s left). Roosevelt seemed to be in a position to move further to the left.
In his second inaugural address, Roosevelt indicated that new proposals would be forthcoming, that he would do something about the “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” That he could get away with a statement like this, not in criticism of an incumbent, but after having been president for four years himself, is one of the most impressive measures of Roosevelt’s powerful appeal.
As it happened, though, the radical action the President took in 1937 was not in the direction of new social programs. He had been painfully reminded in the preceding two years that there was a third branch of the government. His mandate from the people and the bulging Democratic majorities in Congress could be neutralized by five old men on the Supreme Court. Before he could try any new programs, Roosevelt believed he must protect what remained of the old by ending Court opposition.
The idea was not new. When the possibility had arisen in February 1935 that the Court might strip Congress of the power to regulate the currency by negating the devaluation of the dollar, Roosevelt had prepared a message to nullify the decision. Attorney General Homer Cummings had suggested that if the decision went against the government Congress should immediately be asked to increase the number of justices and produce a favorable majority. But the Court upheld the government’s action and both Roosevelt’s speech and Cummings’s idea went unused.
Later in 1935 and in 1936, however, it became clear that if the Supreme Court were not brought under control it would dismantle the New Deal. The background of the Court struggle of 1937 must be understood before Roosevelt’s proposal can be explained. Through FDR’s first term the Supreme Court continued to bear the imprint of Warren G. Harding, who during his two-and-one-half years as president had appointed four justices, three of whom still occupied their seats. As in the case of Richard Nixon a half century later, Harding’s Court appointments allowed his influence to live on long after his personal disgrace. After Roosevelt took office the judiciary was the only branch of government in Republican hands. In 1933, Republican federal judges outnumbered Democrats by more than 2.5 to 1. During his first term Roosevelt had no opportunity to alter this at the highest level. This was the first time in American history that a president had served four or more years without an opportunity to appoint a single Supreme Court justice. (Since Roosevelt finally did get to make appointments the distinction of being the only president to serve a full term and never appoint a Supreme Court justice goes to Jimmy Carter.) In their four-year administrations, Taft had appointed five justices and Hoover three. All this would have counted for little if the Court had not embarked upon an unprecedented spree of reversals of congressional actions. Between 1920 and 1933 the Court had invalidated portions of acts of Congress twenty-two times. When it is remembered that in the republic’s first seventy-six years the Court had taken such action only twice, the extent of judicial activism after 1920 becomes plain. As Senator Norris said, the Supreme Court had turned into “a continuous constitutional convention.” The Chief Justice also put it well. “The Constitution” Charles Evans Hughes said, “is what the judges say it is.”
Confronted with the opposition of the Court in 1935, FDR had considered submitting a constitutional amendment either to give new powers to Congress or to limit the power of the Court. The alternative, which Roosevelt found “distasteful” at the end of 1935, was to follow Cummings’s suggestion of ten months before and “pack” the Court with liberal judges. Ultimately, however, Roosevelt came to realize that the problem lay not in the Constitution, but in the Court’s interpretations. Accordingly, he gave up on the idea of seeking an amendment and during the election year he said little about what could be done about the Court.
Roosevelt’s overwhelming victory in 1936 was a misfortune for the nation and for him. Understandably, it convinced the President that his popularity was immense and that he could do no wrong. He believed the public would always be on his side. Coming now rather easily to identify his wishes with those of the American electorate, Roosevelt saw the Court as blocking the will of the people and decided to act.
Without consulting congressional leaders (who, after all, did not speak for all the people the way the President did), Roosevelt submitted a Court “re-form” proposal on February 5, 1937. The idea was essentially Roosevelt’s own; the details were worked out by Attorney General Cummings. The objective was transparent enough: FDR wanted to create a Court majority that would approve New Deal legislation, but he did not admit this. His proposal was, as a newspaper favorable to the New Deal said, “too damned clever.” He moved at the issue obliquely, seeking the power to appoint a new justice for every one with ten years’ service on the Court who did not retire within six months after his seventieth birthday. The reason, the President disingenuously declared, was that the Court was overburdened and the aging judges could not keep up with the workload.
What Roosevelt requested was in no sense unconstitutional. It is clearly within the power of Congress to alter the size of the Supreme Court; it had, in fact, been done several times in the nineteenth century. The proposal met with a howl of outrage all the same. Appearing to be an open grab for power that would upset the balance of the American system of government, Roosevelt’s “Court-packing” plan gave closet conservatives, heretofore afraid to attack the New Deal, a grand opportunity to assail the President.
Conservative opposition was expected, of course, and in itself would have concerned Roosevelt little. But many moderates and liberals—Senator Norris, William Allen White, and Oswald Garrison Villard, to name a few—soon joined the chorus of criticism. The reasons were several. One was the way FDR introduced the proposal. It seemed almost as if, with his new mandate from the voters, the President was ready to treat Congress the way Huey Long had treated the Louisiana legislature. A second reason for opposition was Roosevelt’s “clever” approach of indirect assault on the Court. The Court, as Hughes soon showed, was not falling behind in its work and, in any case, adding judges was more likely to slow than to speed deliberations. In raising the age question Roosevelt made another blunder. Louis Brandeis, one of the New Deal’s most consistent supporters and a highly respected liberal, was over eighty and the oldest justice. Nor were senators, many past or fast approaching seventy themselves, likely to agree that public officials ought to retire at that age.
Finally, and most importantly, liberals shared with conservatives a genuine fear that Court-packing would upset the American constitutional government. In one sense making the Court responsive to Congress and the President was a move toward greater democracy, but it was an unchecked democracy that could lead to a pseudodemocratic absolutism. Talk about the possibility that dictatorship might lie down the road for the United States was no longer confined to hysterical right-wingers. Many remembered uncomfortably what Roosevelt had said in the closing speech of his campaign a few months before: “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces [of selfishness and of lust for power] met their master.” In the eyes of most Americans, the world of 1937, replete as it was with Hitlers, Stalins, and Mussolinis, had quite enough “masters.” Even those who had no fears that Roosevelt might move toward absolute power shuddered at the thought of creating such a precedent for later abuse by a reactionary president. George Norris wondered how he would have reacted if “Harding had offered this bill.” Such people doubted that the immediate benefits of curbing the Court were worth the dangers the plan would create for the future. For a task that required the sculptor’s chisel, it seemed Roosevelt wanted to wield a sledgehammer. As much as he admired TR, the younger Roosevelt still sometimes confused soft-speaking problems with those calling for the big stick.
A crusade against the Court plan developed rapidly. Conservative Republicans wisely contained their urge to take the lead in denouncing the proposal. That job was left to Democrats whose motives were above suspicion, particularly to such impeccable progressives as Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler. Brandeis and Hughes lent their prestige to the opposition. The Chief Justice responded to Roosevelt’s charges of inefficiency in a public letter. Hughes left no doubt that there was no need to enlarge the Court.
Despite all the clamor President Roosevelt—still savoring his mandate—remained calm and confident. “All I have to do,” he assured Jim Farley, “is to devise a better speech, and the opposition will be beating a path to the White House door.” Before such pleasant events could occur, however, a series of actions by the Court intervened to seal the fate of the packing scheme. Justice Owen J. Roberts, who had joined with the conservatives in striking down several New Deal laws, had a change of heart. At the end of March the Supreme Court announced a 5–4 decision upholding a Washington State minimum wage law similar to a New York law the Court had disallowed a year before. Since the decision had been completed before Roosevelt made his proposal, Roberts’s “switch in time that saved nine” was not a response to the President’s threat. Rather, it seems to have been an acknowledgment of the election results. In mid-April the Court upheld the Wagner Act, again by a 5–4 margin. Then in May conservative Justice Willis Van Devanter announced his intention to retire, finally giving Roosevelt an opportunity to appoint a member of the Court. A few days later the Court approved the Social Security Act. If only Roosevelt had waited a few months …
But now the President’s prestige was committed, and he refused to give up. A bitter Senate debate ensued, with Roosevelt’s support crumbling. Finally, after majority leader Joe Robinson died in July, the President had to abandon the fight and accept (in an attempt at face-saving) an innocuous substitute bill to speed up the judicial process.
This, it may safely be said, was not Franklin Roosevelt’s finest hour. The casualties were many. A congressional session that had promised to be one of glorious new programs enacted by a liberal President with an overwhelmingly supportive Congress was wasted. The Court scheme united the Republican party, no small feat, and one party members were unlikely to have accomplished without Roosevelt’s generous assistance. But that was the least of it. The Court battle saw the rebirth of a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats. This coalition blocked most liberal legislation from 1937 onward. In the midst of the fray, it seemed that Roosevelt had achieved his objective of ending Court opposition to the New Deal. Within two and a half years the Court enjoyed a Roosevelt majority with the appointments of Hugo Black, Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, and Frank Murphy. Black, Frankfurter, and Douglas would ultimately prove to be among the ablest justices in the Court’s history. If victory it was, however, it was a very costly one. Roosevelt had gained a Court, but had expended much of his political capital.
Perhaps the most critical casualty of the Court battle was Franklin Roosevelt’s aura of invincibility. The Court-packing defeat was to FDR what the Battle of Adrianople had been to the Roman legions, what the Russian campaign had been to Napoleon, and what the Vietnam War would be to the United States. It showed that Roosevelt could be beaten. After leaving the New Deal once—and living to tell about it—it was much easier for a senator to oppose Roosevelt again. The New Deal, what was left of it, would never be the same.7