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Unfortunately for Smith, most Democrats saw things differently. Joseph Robinson, who had been Smith’s running mate on the 1928 presidential ticket, derided Smith for addressing the Liberty League’s “billion-dollar audience.” He “has turned away from the East Side with those little shops and fish markets,” Robinson sneered, “and now his gaze rests fondly upon the gilded towers and palaces of Park Avenue.”
Though Smith continued to enjoy hometown popularity in New York, he was basically excommunicated from the party. In 1936 he crossed the aisle to support Republican presidential candidate Alfred Landon, declaring, “I am an American before I am a Democrat.” Four years later he campaigned on behalf of Republican Wendell Wilkie. FDR trounced them both.
As Smith remarked of his harsh treatment at the hands of one-time friends and allies, “Unless you’re ready to subscribe to the New Deal 100 per cent and sign your life name on the dotted line, you’re a Tory, you’re a prince of privilege, you’re a reactionary, you’re an economic royalist.” It took his support for FDR during World War II to repair the damage.
The Switch in Time
A similar impatience with the New Deal’s critics would famously reappear in FDR’s war on the Supreme Court, culminating in his failed court-packing bill of 1937, which would have allowed Roosevelt to appoint as many as six new Supreme Court justices. Among other things, that conflict transformed the fiery progressive Sen. Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT) from a longtime friend into a deadly foe.
On February 5, 1937, FDR submitted his plan to reorganize the federal judiciary by allowing the president to appoint one new federal judge to match every sitting judge who had served at least 10 years and hadn’t retired or resigned within six months of turning 70. “A lower mental or physical vigor leads men to avoid an examination of complicated and changed conditions,” FDR argued. “Little by little, new facts become blurred through old glasses fitted, as it were, for the needs of another generation.” In other words, the Court’s commitment to such “horse and buggy” notions as property rights and limited constitutional government kept getting in the New Deal’s way. Most ominously, in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), the Court unanimously struck down FDR’s beloved NRA.
So Roosevelt bided his time, waiting until after his sweeping reelection in 1936 to strike against the “nine old men.” As historian William E. Leuchtenburg put it, the court-packing scheme “bore the mark of a sovereign who after suffering many provocations had just received a new confirmation of power.” Senator Wheeler would have agreed with that description, particularly the sovereign part. Wheeler thought the whole thing reeked of unbridled executive power.
And Wheeler, much more than Flynn or Smith, was a true-believing New Dealer with impeccable credentials. In 1924, he served as the running mate of Progressive Party presidential candidate Robert M. La Follette. As chairman of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, Wheeler played an indispensable role in the 1935 passage of FDR’s bill to regulate utility holding companies. And on a personal note, when the Supreme Court nullified the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 in United States v. Butler (1936). Wheeler’s son-in-law, an economist at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, was tossed out of work.
But none of that changed Wheeler’s low opinion of FDR’s court-packing plan. As Wheeler wrote in a letter to the socialist leader Norman Thomas, “It is an easy step from the control of a subservient Congress and the control of the Supreme Court to a modern democracy of a Hitler or a Mussolini.” Addressing a national radio audience less than two weeks after FDR introduced the plan in Congress, Wheeler moved in for the kill: “Every despot has usurped the power of the legislative and judicial branches in the name of the necessity for haste to promote the general welfare of the masses—and then proceeded to reduce them to servitude. I do not believe that President Roosevelt has any such thing in mind, but such has been the course of events throughout the world.”
Against Wheeler’s incendiary rhetoric and crafty legislative maneuverings, the court-packing bill failed to garner the necessary votes and died in the Senate by a final tally of 70-20. Wheeler’s “conservative” stand thus helped preserve some degree of judicial independence. (Though FDR did eventually get what he wanted. By the time of his death in 1945, he had “packed” the Court with eight New Deal–friendly justices. And the plan itself is widely credited with influencing swing vote Justice Owen Roberts, whose newfound support was called “the switch in time that saved nine.”) Today’s pro-Roosevelt liberals might take a moment to contemplate what George W. Bush would have done with those courtpacking powers.
But outside of the court-packing battle, did the fight against the New Deal really matter? As Smith discovered, the voters didn’t seem to have any problem with Roosevelt, and most historians still praise him today for ending the Depression and “saving capitalism.” Is there anything to learn from the principled liberals who stood athwart the New Deal yelling stop?
Albert Jay Nock thought there was. An acclaimed journalist, editor, and biographer, Nock remains one of FDR’s most intriguing opponents. Though he’s normally remembered as a founding father of the modern libertarian and conservative movements, Nock actually championed a unique brand of Jeffersonian anti-statism that has never fit comfortably on the political right. An advocate of free trade and minimal government, he also opposed the private ownership of land, taking his cue from Henry George’s 1879 bestseller Progress and Poverty, which argued that the government should be funded exclusively via a “single tax” on collectively owned land.
Indeed, Nock’s political and economic views owed as much to the progressive historian Charles A. Beard as they did to the libertarian theorist Herbert Spencer. In his best remembered book, Our Enemy, The State, Nock combined Spencer’s emphasis on free trade and social cooperation with Beard’s thesis that the U.S. Constitution represented an “unscrupulous and dishonourable” coup d’etat waged explicitly by “the speculating, industrial-commercial and creditor interests.” As historian Charles Hamilton observed about the Freeman, the political magazine Nock edited for its entire 1920–1924 run, readers “couldn’t decide if it was liberal, conservative, Bolshevik, revolutionary, anarchist, or Georgist.” Hamilton might as well have been writing about Nock himself.
And although Nock was never a New Deal supporter, he was nonetheless shoved to the right by the Rooseveltian juggernaut. As Brian Doherty observed in his definitive libertarian history, Radicals for Capitalism, “Nock had never stopped thinking of himself as a radical. He found it bitterly ironic that in the post-New Deal era, conservative businessmen became his primary audience.”