The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt

The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt

by William E. Leuchtenburg
     
 

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For almost sixty years, the results of the New Deal have been an accepted part of political life. Social Security, to take one example, is now seen as every American's birthright. But to validate this revolutionary legislation, Franklin Roosevelt had to fight a ferocious battle against the opposition of the Supreme Court--which was entrenched in laissez faire

Overview

For almost sixty years, the results of the New Deal have been an accepted part of political life. Social Security, to take one example, is now seen as every American's birthright. But to validate this revolutionary legislation, Franklin Roosevelt had to fight a ferocious battle against the opposition of the Supreme Court--which was entrenched in laissez faire orthodoxy. After many lost battles, Roosevelt won his war with the Court, launching a Constitutional revolution that went far beyond anything he envisioned. In The Supreme Court Reborn, esteemed scholar William E. Leuchtenburg explores the critical episodes of the legal revolution that created the Court we know today. Leuchtenburg deftly portrays the events leading up to Roosevelt's showdown with the Supreme Court. Committed to laissez faire doctrine, the conservative "Four Horsemen"--Justices Butler, Van Devanter, Sutherland, and McReynolds, aided by the swing vote of Justice Owen Roberts--struck down one regulatory law after another, outraging Roosevelt and much of the Depression-stricken nation. Leuchtenburg demonstrates that Roosevelt thought he had the backing of the country as he prepared a scheme to undermine the Four Hoursemen. Famous (or infamous) as the "Court-packing plan," this proposal would have allowed the president to add one new justice for every sitting justice over the age of seventy. The plan picked up considerable momentum in Congress; it was only after a change in the voting of Justice Roberts (called "the switch in time that saved nine") and the death of Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson that it shuddered to a halt. Rosevelt's persistence led to one of his biggest legislative defeats. Despite the failure of the Court-packing plan, however, the president won his battle with the Supreme Court; one by one, the Four Horsemen left the bench, to be replaced by Roosevelt appointees. Leuchtenburg explores the far-reaching nature of FDR's victory. As a consequence of the Constitutional Revolution that began in 1937, not only was the New Deal upheld (as precedent after precedent was overturned), but also the Court began a dramatic expansion of Civil liberties that would culminate in the Warren Court. Among the surprises was Senator Hugo Black, who faced widespread opposition for his lack of qualifications when he was appointed as associate justice; shortly afterward, a reporter revealed that he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite that background, Black became an articulate spokesman for individual liberty. William E. Leuchtenburg is one of America's premier historians, a scholar who combines depth of learning with a graceful style. This superbly crafted book sheds new light on the great Constitutional crisis of our century, illuminating the legal and political battles that created today's Supreme Court.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Leuchtenburg (history, Duke Univ.), a renowned historian of the Franklin D. Roosevelt era, provides a collection of his essays concerning FDR's attempt to "pack" the United States Supreme Court in 1937. The essays, some previously published, give broad historical views of the constitutional conflicts between FDR and the U.S. Supreme Court. Leuchtenburg gives careful analysis to various social and political movements during the mid-1930s. His essay, "The Origins of Franklin D. Roosevelt's `Court-Packing' Plan," offers groundbreaking analysis of this key juncture in executive-judicial relationships. This collection of essays is highly recommended for individuals and scholars who wish to understand the separation of powers in the American national government during a time of national turmoil.-Steven Puro, St. Louis Univ.
David G. Barnum
The constitutional revolution of 1937 holds a continuing fascination for constitutional scholars, political scientists, historians, and many others -- for almost anyone, in fact, with even a passing interest in contemporary American history and the way in which the Supreme Court has shaped, and been shaped by, that history. Notwithstanding the fair assumption that the Supreme Court's acquiescence to the policy initiatives of the New Deal was all but inevitable, few if any constitutional events have been as distinct, as dramatic, and as consequential as the famous "switch in time that saved nine." Historian William Leuchtenburg's THE SUPREME COURT REBORN consists of nine essays. All but one originated as an article or lecture devoted to a relatively specific dimension of the constitutional crisis of the 1930s, and as such most of the chapters of the book can be read independently of one another by anyone interested in the specific subject they address. Taken together, however, their purpose is to provide a coherent and multi-faceted picture of the events of the 1930s and the personalities who shaped them. Four chapters of the book examine specific Supreme Court decisions: (1) Buck v. Bell (1927), a case well worth study but only tangentially relevant, at best, to the constitutional crisis of 1937; (2) Retirement Board v. Alton R. Co. (1935), an early anti-New Deal decision invalidating the Railway Retirement Act of 1934 and alerting the Administration (even though Roosevelt had not been enthusiastic about the legislation itself) that other New Deal legislation might be in grave trouble with the Court; (3) Humphrey's Executor v. United States (1935), repudiating Roosevelt's ouster of William E. Humphrey from the Federal Trade Commission, and (4) West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), the case which, because it was decided only seven weeks after Roosevelt's February 5, 1937, announcement of his Court-packing proposal, and because it upheld a Washington state minimum wage law in the face of directly contrary precedents, was viewed by many as the Court's gesture of capitulation to the New Deal. Two chapters examine the origins of the Court-packing proposal and the political maneuvering that accompanied its presentation to Congress and eventual defeat. One chapter looks at the confirmation battle over Hugo Black, nominated by Roosevelt to succeed Willis Van Devanter, who had resigned in the midst of the Court-packing debate. The next-to-last chapter covers "The Constitutional Revolution of 1937," that is, the string of decisions commencing in 1937 in which the Court uniformly upheld New Deal economic and regulatory legislation. The final chapter, "The Birth of America's Second Bill of Rights," is a survey of the incorporation controversy from John Marshall's decision in Barron v. Baltimore (1833) (affirming the historical understanding that the Bill of Rights restricted only the federal government) to the eventual application to the states, by 1969, of all of the important "civil liberties" Page 193 follows: protections of the first ten amendments. The lectures and articles on which most of the chapters are based were originally delivered or published (or both) over a twenty-five year period from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. In each case, however, they have been updated and revised for inclusion in THE SUPREME COURT REBORN. One chapter, on the Railroad Pension case, was written for inclusion in a projected two-volume history of the Court which will evidently be titled THE SUPREME COURT IN THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT. Given that THE SUPREME COURT REBORN consists of chapters on discrete but overlapping aspects of the constitutional crisis of the 1930s, there is some repetition. Leuchtenburg acknowledges this feature of the book, however, and has taken pains to make the book as seamless as possible in order to render it useful both to those interested in specific questions and to those seeking an integrated overview of the events of the time. The two chapters of greatest interest to political scientists may be those on the Court-packing plan itself. Leuchtenburg indicates in his introduction to the "origins" chapter that his account is "markedly different...from that set forth in the standard version of Joseph Alsop and Turner Catledge" (p. 82) and that it draws in part on the papers of Homer S. Cummings, Roosevelt's attorney general. Those papers became available after the publication of Leuchtenburg's own article on the Court-packing episode in the 1966 SUPREME COURT REVIEW, and as a result Leuchtenburg's revised account should be of great interest to students of the Court-packing episode and the scholarly controversies it has generated. Leuchtenberg concludes that many "putative architects" of the Court-packing plan had little or nothing to do with it (p. 130), that "[s]ave for Cummings, no one in the Cabinet, not even the ubiquitous [Harold] Ickes, knew of the plan" (p. 126), and that the ultimate decision to propose that the Court be enlarged by the appointment of additional justices -- rather than to propose, for instance, that the Constitution be amended to give the federal government greater power to regulate commerce or that the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction be restricted. --was developed by a small group of Justice Department officials, including Cummings and Departmental consultant and Princeton professor Edward S. Corwin, with the President himself "intimately involved throughout" (p. 130). THE SUPREME COURT REBORN is suffused with quotes from the diaries of Cummings and Ickes and others, from correspondence among New Deal decision makers, and from a wealth of other original sources. The book also draws extensively on the Supreme Court decisions of the period, on contemporaneous newspaper, magazine, and book-length accounts of the Court-packing proposal and other events, and on the mountain of scholarship that the constitutional crisis of the 1930s has generated. Leuchtenburg's own interpretive contributions are confined to the interstices of his text and are perhaps fewer and less bold than one might wish. The book is capably written and meticulously documented but is not a fertile Page 194 follows: source of provocative historical insights or memorable prose. Its greatest value lies in the care with which it has collected and presented the factual ingredients of one of the most intriguing and consequential periods of American constitutional history.
From the Publisher
"Excellent....Leuchtenburg writes like a novelist."—Choice

"Highly recommended for individuals and scholars who wish to understand the separation of powers in the American national government during a time of national turmoil."—Library Journal

"An engaging and able guide."—Newsday

"There is no match for the FDR era, and essayist Leuchtenburg's collection is matchless as well."—Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199839384
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
10/10/1996
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

William E. Leuchtenburg is William Rand Kenan Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Visiting Professor of Legal History at Duke Law School. Winner of both the Bancroft and Parkman prizes, he is the author of many books, including The Perils of Prosperity and Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

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