Roosevelt, Franklin D. (1882–1945)

Author:Arthur M. Schlesinger

Page 2287

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, four-time President of the United States, received his formal instruction in the constitutional system at Harvard College (1900?1904) and Columbia Law School (1904?1907). The mood of the Progressive period, however, was more potent than academic doctrine in shaping his understanding of the constitutional process.

His kinsman THEODORE ROOSEVELT, for whom he cast his first presidential vote in 1904, saw the Constitution "not as a straitjacket ? but as an instrument designed for the life and healthy growth of the Nation." T. R. further saw the courts as "agents of reaction" and the President as the "steward of the people." If necessary, the President must be prepared to act as the savior of the Constitution against the courts, a role in which T. R. cast himself when he proposed the recall of judicial decisions in 1912. Service under WOODROW WILSON confirmed the young Franklin Roosevelt's belief in a spacious reading of executive authority, and experience as assistant secretary of the navy in wartime Washington showed him how emergency expanded presidential initiative.

After the Wilson administration, Roosevelt's return to legal practice was interrupted when he was crippled in 1921 by poliomyelitis. Elected governor of New York in 1928, he soon confronted the consequences of the Wall Street crash of 1929. He foresaw no constitutional objections to his state programs of unemployment relief, public power development, and land planning. "The United States Constitution," he said in a 1930 speech, "has proved itself the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written." Though Roosevelt's purpose in that speech was to vindicate STATES ' RIGHTS, he proved marvelously elastic himself when elected President in 1932. Favoring the concentration of power at whatever level of government he happened to be serving, he became thereafter a resolute champion of federal authority.

Page 2288

"Our Constitution," he said in his first inaugural address, "is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form." He hoped, he continued, to preserve the normal balance between executive and legislative authority. However, if the national emergency remained critical, "I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis?broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency." He thus combined optimism about the essential elasticity of the Constitution with an understanding that extraordinary executive initiative must rest, not on inherent presidential power, but on the delegation to the President of powers possessed by Congress. To this he added a certain pessimism about the federal courts, assuming, as he had said during the 1932 campaign, that the Republican party had been in "complete control of all branches of the Federal Government ? the Supreme Court as well."

For this last reason he was in no hurry to send NEW DEAL legislation through the gantlet of the Supreme Court. The first major test came in February 1935 over the constitutionality of the congressional JOINT RESOLUTION of June 1933 abrogating the so-called gold clause in public and private contracts. If the Court invalidated the resolution, the result would increase the country's total debt by nearly $70 billion. Roosevelt prepared a radio speech attacking an adverse decision and planned to invoke EMERGENCY POWERS to mitigate the effects. But while the Court, in PERRY V. UNITED STATES (1935), held the repudiation of the gold clause unconstitutional with regard to government bonds (though not to private obligations), it also held that, because the plaintiff had suffered no losses, he was not entitled to compensation. The administration's monetary policy remained precariously intact. (See GOLD CLAUSE CASES.)

But three months later in a 5?4 decision the Court nullified the Railroad Retirement Act as an invalid use of the commerce power. Then on May 27, in SCHECHTER POULTRY CORP. V. UNITED STATES it struck down the NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL RECOVERY ACT on two grounds: that the act involved excessive DELEGATION OF POWER by Congress, and that it exceeded the reach of congressional power under the COMMERCE CLAUSE. The vote against the National Recovery Administration was unanimous, as were two other decisions the same day?"Black Monday" in the eyes of New Dealers?one holding the FRAZIER-LEMKE FARM BANK-RUPTCY ACT unconstitutional, the other denying the President the power to remove a member of a regulatory commission without congressional consent. If the Court was warning Roosevelt not to go to extremes, Roosevelt responded by warning the Court not to go to extremes either. Calling the SCHECHTER decision "more important probably than any decision since [ DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD (1857)]," he said that it carried the Constitution back to "the horse-and-buggy definition of INTERSTATE COMMERCE."

Undeterred, the Court majority prosecuted its attack. In January 1936 six Justices in UNITED STATES V. BUTLER pronounced agriculture a "local" subject, beyond Congress's power, and set aside the AGRICULTURAL ADJUSTMENT ACT. Justice HARLAN F. STONE protested a "tortured construction of the Constitution" in an eloquent dissent. The Court majority, however, proceeded to strike down the Guffey...

To continue reading