Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘New Deal’

Packing the Court – the Judical Procedures Reform Bill of 1937

Monday, April 6th, 2015

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So it is 1936 and you are President Roosevelt, you just won an incredible ass-kicking of a re-election campaign, the country is slowly lumbering towards something resembling economic recovery, but you want to do more.  Beyond that, several critical pieces of legislature that make up part of your legislative reform efforts, commonly known as the New Deal, were up for review by the Supreme Court only a year ago and they got significantly spanked, specifically the Court sharply limits your ability to remove people from appointed offices that disagree with you, shuts down a key piece of bankruptcy protection law that shields debtors from banks, and crushed your National Industrial Recovery Act.  To add further insult to injury all three rulings were read on the same day, 27 May 1935, to increase the public attention and humiliation factor.

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Now the first option would be to accept these setbacks with quiet dignity and attempt a new method of achieving the same legislative ends.  The problem with that is it would take time, the cooperation of Congress, and would still face the same Supreme Court that was hostile to your earlier efforts.  Alternatively you could take a new approach and attempt to exercise the power that Congress has over the Supreme Court, specifically its power to shape the Supreme Court, including defining how large it was.  Hence Roosevelt’s 1937 Judicial Procedures Reform Act, which at its heart allowed the President of the United States to appoint additional judges to the Supreme Court, subject to Congressional approval, beyond the current nine, with a maximum allowable addition of six extra judges.  However there was a caveat, new judges could only be appointed at the rate of one per judge who was older then 70 years and six months of age – i.e. for every “old fuddy judge who doesn’t like the New Deal” you can appoint a new shiny younger judge who will probably be open to the new ideas of the New Deal.

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Roosevelt attempted to win the American public to his legislative reform ideas with a fireside chat on 9 March 1937 and Congress took up the legislation for debate, however from the start his idea was not warmly received.  Republican opponents referred to it as an effort to “pack the Court” and key members of the Democratic party, both party bosses and members of Congress, found the bill a distasteful effort by the President to exert undue influence on the Supreme Court.  It was killed in the House, in Committee, and also failed in the Senate due to vigorous opposition from the Republicans.

In the end, the effort failed, however later in 1937 the Court was more open to New Deal legislation and, in general, the Supreme Court’s justices stated that most of the problems with the New Deal legislation they dealt with was due to it being poorly written, and far too broad, rather than conceptual issues.

For those curious about applicability, if that bill was in force today the President would be able to appoint four additional justices, if those slots had not already been filled.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Judicial Procedure Reform Act of 1937

Alf Landon – Liberal Republican

Monday, April 28th, 2014

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Meet Alf Landon (1887-1987), one of the greatest examples of a Progressive (a.k.a. Liberal) Republican to grace United States politics in the 1930s.  Landon made his initial career working in the petroleum industry and by the 1920s was a wealthy man – war veteran from World War I.  Landon got into politics in 1922 serving as secretary to a governor of Kansas and lead the successful Republican Presidential and Gubernatorial campaigns of 1928 in Kansas.   With the onset of the Great Depression Landon entered politics for himself, running for governor of Kansas in 1932 and winning despite the overall implosion of the Republican party in reaction to the economic collapse of 1929-1932.  Landon ran again in 1934 and was the only Western Republican to retain his seat as governor – due to this electoral success and the success of his policies at combating the depression in Kansas while remaining more centrist economically led to his being selected as the Republican nominee for the Presidency in 1936.  Running against Franklin Roosevelt Landon received a mighty electoral spanking, winning 16 million votes to Roosevelt’s 27 million and only scoring a total of eight electoral votes.  (Maine and Vermont respectively backed him, Landon did not even carry his own home state.)  After his 1936 electoral defeat Landon left politics and did not seek further political office, although he remained an influential member of the Republican party.

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So the question then is why should the average reader care about a losing Republican Presidential candidate like Alf Landon – the simple answer is because Landon represented a type of Republican that was briefly viable during the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.  Landon and others like him grabbed controlled of the Republican party when it was reeling from the electoral losses of 1932 and 1934 and helped push the party towards a Centrist-Right, and even somewhat Centrist-Left, position in electoral policies to meet the demands of the American voter while also keeping closer to the views of some progressive conservatives that the nation needed reform but not the seeming revolution Roosevelt was offering.  Some of the policies enacted by Landon while governor of Kansas illustrate this philosophy:  tax reductions, a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, state supported local relief, and several emergency banking laws.  However Landon achieved those goals for Kansas without increasing the state deficit.  His ideas didn’t end the Depression for the state but they took some of the sting out of it.

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Landon held to the idea that government had social obligations that it needed to focus upon, and social ideals the government should approach, but he sought to do so in a framework of fiscal conservancy.  Landon did not oppose Roosevelt on his social programs but instead attacked Roosevelt on the control the federal government had taken over the overall United States economy.  Landon wanted a federal government that was active but lean.

Whether or not his ideas might have worked is a what-if of history we’ll never know, but Landon represented a wing of the Republican party that remained a factor in United States elections up until the Richard Nixon era.  It wasn’t until Nixon, and later Reagan, that the Republican party really gave up its Progressive wing almost entirely and instead focused upon courting the more conservative elements in the United States electorate (and also scooped up the solid South once and for all.)

Sources:  Wikipedia on Alf Landon, Kansapedia on Alf Landon, Kansas State University page on Landon Lectures.

Federal Theater Project

Monday, January 13th, 2014

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During the New Deal the United States federal government undertook to support a wide range of projects related to the arts through a series of special programs.  The goal of this federal funding was to keep various creative professions viable during the worst of the Great Depression – one of the more interesting of these efforts was the Federal Theater Project.  From 1935 to 1939 this program underwrote a series of live performances to provide individuals with low to no income a chance to experience the theater and also to keep live theater viable as an art form in the United States.  This productions took on all sorts of forms but one of the most common, and most enjoyed by the general public, were called Living Newspapers were clippings from newspapers discussing issues taking place in the 30s were turned into short plays performed on stage.

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Unfortunately the Living Newspaper productions rapidly ran afoul of the Congress because those in charge of writing and staging the productions often took a critical view on government policies they disagreed with and the performances often swung to the political left when discussing issues.  The Living Newspaper also caused tension for the federal government when it tackled foreign affairs, often putting a particular “spin” on events that ran afoul of the federal governments efforts to avoid entanglement in the deteriorating political situation in Europe.  The performances though covered a wide range of performances, including more traditional stage shows and presentations.  One of the most famous of these though was a performance titled The Cradle Will Rock.

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This performance angered many because of its attacks on capitalism, political corruption, opportunism, and its strong pro-union message.  In essence this musical was focused on how a major steel capitalist (named Mr. Mister) owns and runs the entire social and political structure of the town in which his company operates.  The play focuses on efforts to unionize the towns workforce combined with flashbacks showing how Mr. Mister built up his empire of influence.  The musical also touches on themes of corruption and crime in 1930s America.  Initially blocked just before opening by the Works Progress Administration – the overall group funding the Federal Theater Project – the cast got around the ban by the director of the show playing music on stage and the cast singing their parts from the audience.

Eventually the Federal Theater Project had its funding entirely cut by 1939, mainly due to the political nature of the performances.  However it remains an interesting moment in U.S. history, when the federal government for a short window put considerable funding behind public theater aimed at mass consumption.  Also, apparently, it funded circuses too:

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Sources:  Wikipedia entry on The Cradle Will Rock and the Federal Theater Project

Meaning of US coins

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

An interesting argument that I have run into while cruising the internet is the argument made by some that US coins used to express core US ideological values, such as liberty, freedom, democracy, and that since the 1930s US currency has changed to reflect leaders/historic figures to hide those values from us.  Although an extreme opinion I also find most people today are used to the coins in their pocket reflecting the heads of former US leaders, the consistency of design is a symbol of solidity to the US public today.  For many I believe coins are considered a symbol of the country, symbols generated through careful design and an attention to history.  One might think our ancestors put the same thought into the coinage – in reality though I think it safe to say not so much.  Actually, more often, I believe it simply came down to putting something on the coins that looked neat.  Observe:

That is a 19th century “Indian Head” Penny – named because they put a girl on it in an Indian headdress.  Because why not?  Note the useful indication on the back of what the coin is.  No fancy building images or symbols from our past, just a statement that this coin is worth one cent with a cool wreath around it.

This is called the “Liberty Cap” dime – because the lady on it is wearing a liberty cap – note how the word Liberty is on the hat.  You may wonder at the unusual look of the hat, that is because it is actually a French hat, worn by the peasant classes, during the French Revolution, a cap which eventually become associated with the ideals of the French Revolution.  It was also associated in ancient times with a freed slave as a symbol of their being free.  In neither version of the cap was the word “Liberty” actually put on the cap but our ancestors felt driving home this association was critical.  Notice on the obverse side we have a pretty bad-ass rendition of the Seal of the United States.

This is an Indian Head/Buffalo Nickel minted in 1935, notice the sinister New Deal design motif, mainly of a giant Indian Head and a Buffalo.  This nickel was minted because apparently Theodore Roosevelt felt US coinage was not artistic enough and a new neater design was needed.  Hence this nickle, I believe under the heading that bison looked cool and Indian heads were also cool.  (Really, from what I read not a great deal more thought went into this design beyond “It looks awesome!”)  Apparently though the coin wore down too quickly and after twenty-five years was replaced with the Jefferson design.  Not due to some major ideological shift, just because Jefferson didn’t wear down as quickly.

This is a Mercury Dime – because Mercury was an interesting Greek god and the helmet with wings looks nice.  Please note the date, 1927.  Please note the obverse of the design, a Fasces – a bundle of sticks held together with rope wrapped around an axe – an ancient Roman symbol of authority still on our dime today.  If you ever meet anyone who tells you this was added to the dime with Roosevelt’s head as a sign of the powers taken over by the Presidency, and these people are out there, please laugh at them for me.

Finally – the Liberty Head nickel, a really infamous coin with a cool story behind it – but I’m going to save that story for a future Fist.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Buffalo Nickle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_nickel)