When UNC-Chapel Hill Professor William Leuchtenburg gave the Mecklenburg County Law Day address 35 years ago, I couldn’t have dreamed I’d be helping celebrate his 100th birthday the week last.
Or that I would remember the substance of that speech all these years later.
Leuchtenburg is a leading expert on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the presidency in general, as explained in a tribute published by the Department of History at UNC-Chapel Hill:
“Leuchtenburg became a leading scholar of 20th-century United States history and the American presidency and FDR’s preeminent expert, writing deeply influential books, including “The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-1932 “.”
The tribute noted that his “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940″ won both the prestigious Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize” and remains “the best single-volume treatment of the subject. His later publications steadily enhanced his historical influence and stature.
Surprisingly, Leuchtenburg is still writing, working on a history of presidents from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt.
What was the subject of the Mecklenburg Law Day speech that so captivated me? It was one that comes at the right time today: “the short film”.
Leuchtenburg returned to the subject of court packing in a May 2005 “Smithsonian Magazine” article titled “When Franklin Roosevelt ran into the Supreme Court – and lost”.
In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt was overwhelmingly elected to a second term. Leuchtenburg described FDR’s elation and despair: “As the first election results reached his homestead in Hyde Park, New York, one night in November 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt leaned back in his wheelchair, his door -signature cigarette at an arrogant angle, blew a smoke ring and shouted ‘Wow!’ His huge margin in New Haven signaled he was being swept into a second term in the White House with the largest popular vote in history at the time and the best performance in the Electoral College since James Monroe ran. unopposed in 1820.”
Leuchtenburg pointed out that during his first term, FDR won congressional approval for a host of programs aimed at overcoming the Depression, including a “cavalcade of alphabet agencies.”
But the court “reversed more important acts of Congress – including the two cornerstones, the NRA (National Reconstruction Administration) and the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), of Roosevelt’s program – than at any other time in the history of the nation, before or since.”
However, as Leuchtenburg explained, the jubilation of election night “was tempered by an inescapable fear – that the Supreme Court of the United States might undo Roosevelt’s achievements”.
By February of the following year, Roosevelt was ready to act. He “shocked Congress, his closest advisers, and the country with a thunderbolt. He asked Congress to give him the power to appoint an additional judge for any member of the court over the age of 70 who has not retired. He has sought to appoint up to six additional justices to the Supreme Court, as well as up to 44 justices to lower federal courts.
Leuchtenburg continued, “Roosevelt’s message sparked the greatest struggle in our history between the three branches of government. It also sparked the most intense debate on constitutional issues since the early weeks of the Republic. For 168 days, the country was gripped by controversy, which dominated newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts and the news, and sparked countless rallies in cities ranging from New England to the North Shore. Peaceful. Members of Congress were so inundated with mail that they couldn’t read most of it, let alone respond to it.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court backed down from declaring FDR’s programs unconstitutional, and a judge who had opposed FDR’s programs announced his retirement. With these developments, support for FDR’s court proposal evaporated. On July 22, 1937, the Senate buried him.
“A change in the weather saved nine,” some observers joked.
Summarizing, Leuchtenburg wrote, “The 168-day contest also bequeathed some salutary lessons. He asks presidents to think twice before touching the Supreme Court. »
President Biden should listen.
“At the same time,” wrote Leuchtenburg, “it teaches judges that if they unreasonably interfere with the functioning of democratic branches, they can precipitate a crisis with unforeseeable consequences.”
Members of the Supreme Court should take note.
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