By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
All over America, there were schemes bubbling up to solve the economic problems and end the Great Depression. It was the only period in American history where, briefly, membership in the American Communist Party became widespread. It was never as much as one percent, but many young intellectuals, in the cities particularly, believed that capitalism was failing and wanted to turn to Communism instead.
Reshaping the Supreme Court
One of the legislative changes of 1935 was an increase of taxes called the ‘soak the rich’ tax. It raised rates for the wealthiest people.
Though there was passionate dislike of Franklin Roosevelt, at least among some Republicans, it was not an electorally significant, or significant enough, group. Safely returned to the White House, then, Roosevelt rationally tried to reshape the Supreme Court. In his view, there was no point passing all the legislations if the Court was later going to nullify it.
The Constitution itself specifies the existence of a Supreme Court, but doesn’t say how many members it should have, although by the time of the 1930s, the New Deal, for more than a century, a tradition had developed that it would have nine, to make it very unlikely to get deadlocked in any case.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Expanding the Supreme Court
Roosevelt planned now to start expanding the Court by appointing Democratic nominees, people sympathetic to New Deal legislation, who were likely to judge the complicated constitutional issues in his favor rather than against, and also to encourage the old Supreme Court justices to retire. His plan called for one new judge to be appointed each time one of the older ones reached the age of 70, up to a maximum membership of 15.
It wouldn’t, strictly speaking, have been unconstitutional to do that, but even within the Democratic Party, many senators and congressmen balked at the idea.
However, in the face of this threat, one of the judges who had been voting against New Deal policies suddenly began to vote in favor of them. This was Justice Owen Roberts who began to vote for New Deal legislation in 1937.
Then, another of the old justices retired, giving Roosevelt the chance to appoint another sympathizer, Senator Hugo Black. He scandalized many politicians, because he had so little judicial experience. On the other hand, though, he was a member of the Senate, which has always been something of a club. He was very easily accepted by the senators who had to vet him and install him.
High Rates of Unemployment
From then on, New Deal policy was routinely upheld, but it is important to remember that the New Deal, although it restored confidence in the nation, did little to alleviate unemployment, and did not bring the Great Depression to an end. Unemployment remained very high throughout the 1930s, and was only finally eliminated as America began to rearm for the Second World War in 1939 and 1940.
We’ve got a large and fascinating literature about the Great Depression because many people still living today can remember it from their own childhoods. Many of them remember the monotony and the hardness of life, and the fact that so many things that they might have had access to, they were excluded from because of their family’s poverty.
Many remember the bruising affront to men’s idea of their own value in circumstances where they were simply unable to get work, not because of any deficiency in themselves really, but simply because of objective conditions.
Hardships of Poor People
Poverty forced people to do without many of the labor-saving devices that had been invented by then and that wealthier people had been able to buy for several decades, but which their own poverty made impossible.
Russell Baker, a journalist and a TV personality, was born in 1925, and in his memoir, called Growing Up and published in the early 1990s, he describes growing up as a child in the Great Depression in Morrisonville, Virginia. He says of his mother and grandmother:
Their lives were hard, endless, dirty labor. They had no electricity, no gas, plumbing, or central heating, no refrigerator, no radio, no telephone, no automatic laundry, no vacuum cleaner. Lacking indoor toilets, they had to empty, scour, and fumigate each morning the noisome slop jars which sat in the bedrooms during the night. For baths, laundry, and dishwashing, they hauled buckets of water from a spring at the foot of a hill. To heat it, they chopped kindling to fire their woodstoves. They boiled laundry in tubs. They scrubbed it on washboards until their knuckles were raw, and they wrung it out by hand.
A bit further on in the book, he goes on to say:
My Uncle Tom was well off. His house contained a marvel I’d never seen before, an indoor bathroom. The white majesty of the toilet bowl, through which gallons of water could be sent rushing by the slightest touch of a silver lever, filled me with envy. A roll of delicate paper was placed beside it.
The book, thus, gives a vivid description of the privations of life for a poor family in the monotonous days of the Great Depression.
Common Questions about the Successes and Failures of the New Deal
‘Soak the rich’ tax was one of the legislative changes of 1935. It increased the taxes for the wealthiest people.
Roosevelt planned to start expanding the Court by appointing Democratic nominees, people sympathetic to New Deal legislation, who were likely to judge the complicated constitutional issues in his favor rather than against, and also to encourage the old Supreme Court justices to retire. His plan called for one new judge to be appointed each time one of the older ones reached the age of 70, up to a maximum membership of 15.
The New Deal restored confidence in the nation, but it did little to alleviate unemployment, and did not bring the Great Depression to an end. Unemployment remained very high throughout the 1930s, and was only finally eliminated as America began to rearm for the Second World War in 1939 and 1940.