Franklin D. Roosevelt's Rhetorical Presidency

By Halford R. Ryan | Go to book overview
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Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

President Roosevelt, as well as the Americans who voted for the New Deal and the Congress that enacted it, faced a serious threat from the Supreme Court's anti-New Deal rulings. From 1790 to 1930, the Court overruled only sixty congressional acts, yet in FDR's first term it voided twelve New Deal laws. The coup de grâce came on Black Monday--a bitter and dark metaphorical allusion to Black Thursday, October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed--when, on May 27, 1935, the Court struck down the National Recovery Act and the Frazier-Lemke farm mortgage foreclosure act. In response to these rulings, FDR made a swipe at the Court in his press conference on May 31: "We have been relegated to the horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce." With the Wagner Act, which legalized collective bargaining, and the Social Security Act on the Court's docket, Roosevelt had reason to fear the Court would continue to make its adverse rulings. The issue was whether the New Deal could do anything under the Constitution, as interpreted by the Court, to solve a national economic Depression. Herman Pritchett posited that "a Court whose politics and values lead it to the proposition that an economic depression is constitutional and that efforts to combat it are unconstitutional puts itself in the grave peril of being neither right nor representative." Roosevelt did not move against the Court in his first term, but his landslide victory over Landon convinced him that he could move on the Court in his second term. 1

One proceeds on the premise that Roosevelt lost both the battle and the war with the Court. Although Roosevelt claimed success and Leonard Baker concurred, Dixon Wecter, Herman Pritchett, and John Gunther subscribed to a lost- the-battle-but-won-the-war dictum. On the other hand, Edgar Robinson, Basil


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