The March 2nd 1937 issue of the Dallas Morning news included a John Knott cartoon titled “1940 Fantasy—Could He Resist?” and an editorial titled “Third Term Issue”, which combined, commented on the efforts of FDR to secure the momentum of his legislative reforms into totalitarianism through the manipulation of electoral procedures and court procedure. Nominating additional Supreme Court members was similar to the threat of a third term as president; in both, FDR would be able to expand his power indefinitely to ensure his own legislative agenda.
The newly inaugurated FDR had lofty ambitions for the United States in 1933. The country was in the midst of The Great Depression, and FDR’s predecessor, President Herbert Hoover, had failed to ease the uncertainty felt by the American people. Instead, Americans hoped that federal contributions would stimulate the economy (Venturini 260). FDR was elected, and with the support of a legislative branch desperate for solutions, he passed 15 bills within his first 100 days in office that would become the foundations for his New Deal.
In the wake of post-Civil War industrialization, the Supreme Court increasingly supported limited regulation on business, preventing the Federal government from acting as a regulatory agency (Barnum). By the 1920s, the number of Supreme Court decisions striking down laws, particularly those aimed to be regulatory, as unconstitutional “was almost double the number… in the preceding decade,” (McCloskey 106).
The Supreme Court had successfully established a reputation as a guardian of state and corporate rights. Despite this, many people believed the urgency of the economic crisis would garner Supreme Court sympathy.
This made it shocking when “the Court struck down no fewer than a dozen pieces of New Deal legislation, including some of Roosevelt’s most important and cherished programs” (Lasser 111) during the second half of Roosevelt’s first term.
The opposition in the courts to FDR’s expansion of executive power motivated the “Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937,” a proposal by Roosevelt to grant him the power to appoint a justice for every sitting member of the Supreme Court above 70 years of age. Roosevelt justified the proposal in a fireside chat on March 9th, 1937 by saying “the majority of the Court [had] been assuming the power to pass on the wisdom of these acts of the Congress—and to approve or disapprove the public policy written into these laws.” It appeared to many, however, that FDR was blatantly attacking the separation of powers, which allowed for the relationship between presidential and court power to enter the public dialogue.
Accusations of breach of executive power and long-term intentions were ultimately addressed in FDR’s February 28, 1937 interview with New York Times reporter Arthur Krock, in which FDR announced that he had no third term ambitions for presidency. Krock published that Roosevelt was not undermining democracy or attempting to unreasonably expand his executive power. In fact, he was protecting democracy from the dangers of “judicial supremacy” (Krock).
In general, the public and the media were not immediately convinced by this announcement that the “Judicial Procedure’s Reform Bill” was meant to bring efficiency to the court. On March 2, 1937, a Dallas Morning News editorial, titled, “Third Term Issue,” sympathized with the sentiment that democracy ought to be protected. However, the editorial dismissed the president’s intentions, likening FDR to a leader who is trying “to effectuate [his] plans for totalitarian States” (“Third Term Issue”). Though the proposal for judicial reform had not yet been rejected, as it eventually would be, the public was expressing their distaste with the plan. In a series of 12 Gallup polls, the public frequently sided with the Supreme Court powers. Though the President and his reform policies were popular, the sensation of the conflict between FDR and the Supreme Court brought a certain loss of confidence in the president (Caldeira).
In the same March 2nd issue of Dallas Morning News, Knott published a cartoon which would illustrate the appearance of Roosevelt’s struggle to maintain the political momentum to get his New Deal legislation approved. Entitled “1940 Fantasy—Could He Resist?”, it depicted FDR being pushed to the White House. Two men dressed in farm attire, labeled Maine and Vermont, are pushing FDR, saying, “We want Roosevelt,” while a group of men labeled “Prosperous Nation” are pulling him with a rope around his waist, saying “We want Roosevelt” and holding a sign saying “Draft Roosevelt”. Roosevelt is being pulled towards a White House with Third Term written across the top, and he is dragging his feet in front of him, as though he is resisting. However, FDR looks to the viewer with a smile on his face. The cartoon illustrates that Maine, Vermont and a Prosperous Nation are dragging Roosevelt to his third term as President.
The “Fantasy” being alluded to in the title is that of FDR. The cartoon suggests that Roosevelt has a fantasy to be re-elected by unanimous support, from even Maine and Vermont, which were the only two states to not vote for him in an otherwise landslide victory. The cartoon hyperbolizes an impossible delusion believed to be held by FDR: that his legislation and political action would always be supported by the American people, so much so that that he could be re-elected with even the support of the two states which did not vote for him before. However, the support of the Supreme Court from the media and public proved that this support was a fantasy.
The editorial and the cartoon both reflected a similar loss in confidence in the President. Though FDR stated in the Krock interview that he would not be running for a third term and that he encouraged the American people to support his restructuring of the Supreme Court, history shows that the opposite happened in both cases. The fact that he ended up running for and winning a third term gives credit to the John Knott cartoon and accompanying editorial for predicting the implications of his proposition to restructure the Supreme Court.
Barnum, David G. “New Deal: The Supreme Court Vs. President Roosevelt.” Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States. Ed. David Spinoza. Tanenhaus. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 384-87. Print.
Caldeira, Gregory A. “Public Opinion and The U.S. Supreme Court: FDR’s Court-Packing Plan.” 81.4 (1987): 1139-153. Web. 18 Oct. 2017.
Cowley, Robert, and Robert J. Allison. “”FDR’s Supreme Court: How Did the Supreme Court Weather the Attempt by Franklin D. Roosevelt to Increase the Number of Justices in Response to Its Rescinding New Deal Legislation?” History in Dispute. Vol. 3. N.p.: St. James, 2000. 24-31. Print.
Krock, Arthur. “The President Discusses His Political Philosophy.” The New York Times 28 Feb. 1937, Late City Edition ed., sec. 1: n. pag. Print.
Lasser, William. The Limits of Judicial Power: The Supreme Court in American Politics. N.p.: North Carolina UP, 1989. Print.
McCloskey, Robert G. The American Supreme Court. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1994. Print.
“Third Term Issue .” Dallas Morning News , 2 Mar. 1937, p. 4.
Venturini, Vincent J. “The New Deal (United States).” Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America. Ed. John Middlemist Herrick and Paul H. Stuart. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005. 259-62. Print.