New Deal vs. Nine Old Men

Wall Street Journal, March 16, 1995.


The story told by Frank Leuchtenburg in The Supreme Court Reborn: Constitutional Reform in the Age of Roosevelt (Oxford, 350 pages, $30) should be a familiar one, although it may not be. (Opinion surveys show that high-school students, among others, know next to nothing about the New Deal — or, for that matter, the Civil War.) It’s the story of the 1937 conflict between Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration and an obstinate Supreme Court; of the “nine old men” who resisted FDR’s reforms and his ill-fated “court-packing” bill, which would have increased their number to 15; of Justice Owen Roberts’s timely change of heart (the famous “switch in time that saved nine”); and of the president’s ultimate victory on behalf of his legislative agenda. FDR’s victory was probably inevitable. In 1936, he had been re-elected with 61% of the popular vote (and 523 of the 531 electoral votes), and his party had won overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate. His popularity was manifested in other ways as well. Businesses around the country displayed the Blue Eagle, the symbol of the National Recovery Administration, and public schoolchildren in Chicago (and, for all I know, elsewhere as well) opened the school day not with a prayer but with a song. Set to a tune popular at the time, it ended with these rousing lines: “We’re out to finish what we began in 1933 / From millionaire to forgotten man we’re all with Franklin D. / Marching along together, proud to be with the NRA.”

American Enterprise Institute