Modern history

Chapter 8


A series of floods greeted Roosevelt after he took the oath of office for his second term. The Ohio and other rivers overflowed their banks during January 1937. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found itself under more than ten feet of water. The Ohio River rose eight feet higher than ever before in Cincinnati, Ohio, seven feet in Louisville, Kentucky. Only heroic efforts by local residents kept Cairo, Illinois, from being overrun by the river. The flooded river drowned nine hundred people and drove half a million from their homes. This was a natural disaster of major proportions. It would not be the only disaster Roosevelt would face.

Court Packing

President Franklin D. Roosevelt headed the executive branch of government. Congress, the legislative branch, was solidly Democratic and appeared to be on the president’s side. That left the judicial branch of government, headed by the Supreme Court.

Roosevelt chafed at Supreme Court decisions which had gutted some of his New Deal programs. The Court had nixed the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and National Recovery Act and declared state minimum wage laws unconstitutional. One critic wrote:

The Court not merely challenged policies of the New Deal but erected judicial barriers to the reasonable exercise of legislative powers . . . to meet the urgent needs of the twentieth-century community.1

The Supreme Court did not reflect the feelings of the voters, who reelected Roosevelt in 1936 by a landslide. FDR did not have the opportunity to name any justices during his first term. All but two had been appointed by Republican presidents. Roosevelt proposed a plan that would prevent the high court from undoing his work.

Former United States Attorney General James C. McReynolds, the most anti-Roosevelt Supreme Court justice, once wrote a suggestion that the president have the power to appoint a new justice for every justice over age seventy who had served at least ten years and refused to retire. Roosevelt’s attorney general, Homer Cummings, saw that document. McReynolds’s words would return to haunt him.

Without consulting Democratic leaders beforehand, Roosevelt told them his court plan. Under it, the president could appoint a new judge for every federal judge over age seventy who did not retire. This proposal could expand the Supreme Court up to fifteen members, depending on how many resignations occurred. Roosevelt could appoint up to six new justices. These appointees could assure him a Supreme Court majority.

The reaction to his plan might have shocked the president. Not only Republican foes but also Democrats blasted the idea. His enemies disliked Roosevelt anyway, but even some allies felt his proposal tampered with the Constitution. Hatton Sumner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told his colleagues, “Boys, here’s where I cash in my chips.”2 The former Roosevelt ally became a solid opponent afterwards.

Roosevelt finally gave up his “court packing” proposal. But the “nine old men” on the high court got his message. Instead of striking down every New Deal proposal, the court suddenly upheld them.

Aging Justice Willis Van Devanter resigned soon after the court packing announcement. Others also followed him. Roosevelt filled the Supreme Court with his own selections. Three of them—Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas—would later be considered among the greatest justices in Supreme Court history.

The court packing issue had its effect on Roosevelt. He had won a battle because the Court no longer opposed him. But he still suffered a loss. Opposition from Congress and the public showed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt no longer was invincible.

The Roosevelt Recession

“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” President Roosevelt said in his second inaugural address.3 Although the economy showed some improvement by early 1937, Roosevelt’s view was correct.

By Inauguration Day, the economy was beginning to improve. This upturn was short-lived. An August recession cost 4 million workers their jobs. Production, sales, and the stock market plummeted for the next seven months. Roosevelt accepted blame for what his critics called the “Roosevelt Recession.”

Roosevelt decided government spending was the answer. He would create new federal programs, even if it meant creating a budget deficit. Three billion additional dollars went to relief, flood control, public works, and housing.

This “Second New Deal” met with less acclaim than the first. The programs were created to solve existing problems, although many were less than successful. The Resettlement Administration (RA) sought to help tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and migrant workers. The RA worked to end racial discrimination, which aroused opposition from many Southern politicians.

Roosevelt signed a labor bill in June 1938. This instituted a minimum wage of twenty-five cents an hour (eventually rising to forty cents) and a maximum work week of forty-four hours (to be reduced to forty). It also outlawed child labor for those under sixteen years of age.

He called it perhaps the “most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted in this or any other country.”4 Not everyone agreed. Southern business owners, many of whom paid extremely low wages, disliked this forced wage hike. Some labor unions feared the government was taking over their power. Republicans and even conservative Democrats voiced opposition to the second New Deal.

Roosevelt targeted several Democratic congressional foes in the 1938 Democratic primary elections. His attacks backfired. All of his detractors won. Republicans posted gains in the November general elections. They picked up eight Senate seats and eighty-one seats in the House of Representatives. Statehouses saw thirteen new Republican governors. Even with those gains, Democrats still held wide majorities in Congress and among governors.

By 1939, it appeared that the economy was not going to heal itself fast. It would take some outside force to turn America around. That force was coming.

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