|Mr. B’s Notes on the Opposition to the New Deal
Roosevelt and the Supreme Court
FDR’s First Term
All told, 1933 and 1934 brought 17 new agencies into the government many of which continued throughout the 20th century.
The New Deal improved conditions for some Americans after 1933. Unemployment dropped by two million by 1935. Still, over nine million were without jobs.
There is no doubt that the economy grew during the first two years of Roosevelt’s first term. However, the actual success of the many agencies created by the New Deal was debated at the time and is still being debated by historians today.
The New Deal was not popular with all Americans. The New Deal programs were criticized as an inefficient way to provide relief. The critics of the New Deal argued that job creation by the government was more expansive than handouts. The programs were also attacked as being anti-capitalist by interfering with the free market, thereby leading to socialism.
Finally, in May 1935, a hostile Supreme Court found many laws unconstitutional on the grounds that they granted the president powers that violated the intend and words of the Constitution. The Supreme Court immediately voided any program established under the National Recovery Act (NRA).
The Supreme Court ruled the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) unconstitutional in 1936. The court showed itself to be hostile to a large government role in the economy.
The court’s decisions led the Roosevelt administration to follow two paths:
The first path was to craft new laws that would meet court scrutiny.
The second path was to alter the Supreme Court itself to being more favorable to government involvement.
In April, 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created. Included within the WPA were projects for writers, musicians and artists.
In June 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, a bill guaranteeing labor rights, including the right to collectively bargain.
In August 1935, Congress passed a law creating the Social Security System, a retirement contribution programs for workers.
Despite the Supreme Courts’ decisions which found many of the New Deal programs unconstitutional, many New Deal programs continued to operate. But the threat of the court caused Roosevelt to seek major change.
FDR’s Second Term
After his landslide reelection in November 1936, FDR prepared to execute a plan to pack the court. The plan he submitted to Congress proposed that there be a new justice added to the court for each justice over the age of 70. This meant that he would be able to name six new justices who would rule in his favor.
Roosevelt’s frustration with the court was understood by the public. The New Deal was not popular with all Americans. However, most Americans thought that the New Deal was a success. But even FDR’s supporters disapproved of the obvious attempt to weaken the independence of the third branch of the U.S. government.
In the interim, the president’s action created a change in the court’s rulings, specifically Justice Owen Roberts who began to rule in favor of the administration.
Whether out of a genuine change of judicial philosophy or, more likely, as a response to avert a possible constitutional crisis or a court damaged by a lack of the public’s trust, the Supreme Court’s rulings upheld the new laws, allowing increased federal government in the economy.
Other Opposition to the New Deal
The Supreme Court’s response was disappointing to those who favored FDR’s programs, but it was welcomed by the opponents of the New Deal.
FDR was opposed by those on the left, including the Communist and Socialist Parties, for doing too little change the economic structure of the country.
Greater opposition came from the Republican Party. Many businessmen and bankers felt the New Deal targeted them. They argued that FDR got the government too involved in the free market. They also argued that the government weakened their companies by forcing needless and harmful regulations on them. Some conservatives hated Roosevelt so much that decades after the Great Depression they would not even carry a Roosevelt dime (issued first in 1946, the year following his death.)
Political opposition was also voiced by three charismatic men of vastly different backgrounds, each of whom commanded national attention:
Francis E. Townsend:
Townsend, an elderly doctor from California, proposed his alternate program, the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan, after seeing many senior citizens living in destitute conditions in his city of Long Beach.
The central concept of the plan was that the elderly should retire and leave jobs to young people, thus lowering unemployment. The retirees would get a monthly payment of $200 from the government. Within two years his organization had more than a million members. Townsend became a significant political force and elements of his program made it to the House floor to be voted on.
The bill was defeated, but many congressmen were intimidated by his fame and following. Almost half of the House of Representatives abstained from the vote. Townsend’s influence declined after the bill’s defeat, but the popularity of his proposals did lend momentum to the expansion of Social Security in later years.
Father Charles E. Coughlin
Coughlin, originally from Canada, was a Catholic priest who had a small parish near Detroit, Michigan. He started broadcasting sermons in 1926. In 1931, CBS signed him to preach on nationwide radio. Eventually, the audience of Hour of Power reportedly reached over 40 million listeners each weak. As the severity of the Great Depression solidified, Coughlin turned his sermons to economics. He spoke about universal economic rights and the responsibility of people to help those in need within their communities. He broadcasts included proposals to nationalize the banking system of the U.S.
During the 1932 election, and the first two years of FDR’s presidency, Coughlin voiced strong support. But after being denied access to the White House that he felt he had earned, and seeing Roosevelt reject many of his economic proposals, Coughlin became a voice of the opposition.
After Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, Coughlin spoke positively about fascism in Italy and Germany, proclaiming that neither capitalism nor democracy was the answer to the country’s economic problems. He also published a magazine called Social Justice. Articles in the magazine and commentaries on the radio became increasingly anti-Semitic. Some radio stations censored his broadcasts or dropped his program as a result.
But serious opposition to his views mounted when he expressed criticism of the entry of the U.S. into the Second World War, even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Senator Huey P. Long
The Louisiana Senator (“the Kingfish”) rose to power in Louisiana by attacking banks, oil companies, utilities and their supporters. As a United Sates Senator taking office in 1931, he supported Roosevelt’s run for the presidency.
Roosevelt lost Long’s support shortly after taking office. Long proposed an alternative plan called the Share Our Wealth Plan- a plan to redistribute wealth. Long claimed that by seizing all accumulated wealth over $5 million. The government would be able to guarantee every worker an annual wage of $2500-much higher than the median family income of $1500 per year in 1935.
The Share Our Wealth Society eventually accumulated a membership list of about four million. His popularity never reached the heights necessary for his proposals to gain hold in the Senate. But his voice was a constant reminder to the administration that there was significant support for policies to the political left of FDR’s New Deal.
Summary: There was significant opposition to the New Deal from the left and the right. While the majority of Americans supported the president’s policies, the strength of the forces against him did limit New Deal legislation, especially as the Great Depression continued into the latter half of the decade.