The Strange Career of Frank Murphy: Conservatives, State-Level Politics, and the End of the New Deal

Article excerpt

"I ASSERT MY FIRM BELIEF in the leadership of President Roosevelt and his valiant efforts to bring social security to our people." With those words in 1936, Frank Murphy declared his support of the New Deal and launched his campaign to become Michigan's governor. By the end of the year, Murphy had won a smashing victory by nearly 50,000 votes, tossing out a Republican Party that had so dominated the state since the Civil War that one commentator called Michigan a "company town." Murphy's election, as part of a national landslide that brought unprecedented Democratic majorities to the U.S. Congress and state legislatures across the country, seemed to herald a new political order where New Dealers could promote progressive programs at will. And indeed, Murphy did just that, signing legislation that enhanced assistance for the unemployed, aged, and infirm; increased funding for education; and improved Michigan's mental health facilities, among other things. By the end of Murphy's two-year term, his agenda left him widely regarded as a leading New Dealer, a barometer of Franklin Roosevelt's popularity, and by his supporters as a possible presidential candidate. At the same time, his conservative opponents, chiefly Michigan Republicans and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), characterized him as a traitor and a Communist sympathizer for the way he handled the Flint sit-down strike in 1937. In the end his opponents proved more vocal: Murphy, the man who so nearly embodied the spirit of the New Deal, lost his 1938 bid for reelection by some 93,000 votes. (1)

This article analyzes the strange career of Frank Murphy in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the New Deal ended. In so doing, it builds on a vast body of scholarship on the 1930s. Early studies of the New Deal era, typified by the works of William Leuchtenburg and Paul Conkin, centered on Franklin Roosevelt and national politics. Certainly Leuchtenburg paid heed to important regional events of the time--Huey Long's rise, Upton Sinclair's defeat, and so on--but the "Roosevelt Revolution," as Leuchtenburg termed it, was first and foremost a national phenomenon. Newer studies, taking their cue from James Patterson's The New Deal and the States, have examined the contours of New Deal politics at the state and city level. Jo Ann Argersinger, Richard Keller, and others have sought what Richard Wade and Charles Trout called "a fresh perspective on the whole period ... [that gives] a fuller sense of the New Deal's workings." By looking at the state and local level, these scholars argue, we can see more clearly the importance of local leaders in implementing New Deal policies, the limits of those policies, and the way average Americans got involved in federal programs. This article draws on the insights of these scholars to examine the New Deal in a particular place, but it extends their thinking by considering more closely the demise, rather than the development, of the New Deal. (2)

To be sure, the New Deal's end has been the subject of some study, but there is little consensus on what happened. Richard Chapman, James Patterson, and Clyde Weed, for instance, focus on congressional conservatives and their anger over the court-packing plan and the 1937 attempted purge of conservative Democrats. George Wolfskill and others demonstrate an attempt by businessmen to curb the New Deal through the Liberty League. John Egerton argues that it was "the veteran Southerners in Congress [who] ... dealt such crippling blows to Roosevelt and the New Deal." And Alan Brinkley shows how philosophical changes within the administration led most New Dealers to retreat from their more far-reaching plans. While these interpretations are not wrong, these scholars do not go far enough in tying together national and state politics or in treating the conservative attack on the New Deal as a new and creative process effectively designed to win the hearts of the American public. …