John Francis Knott’s political cartoon titled, “Look!” published on Wednesday, March 31st, 1937, depicts eight anthropomorphized scrolls outside of a building labeled “Supreme Court”. All eight scrolls are seen outside this building, however, three are walking out of the building with a smile on their faces and a big “OK” stamped on their sides, whereas the other five, battered and bruised, incredulously peer up from the side of the stairs. Each of these scrolls, made to look like people, are labeled. Among the injured scrolls, the words “NRA”, “AAA”, and “Guffey Act”, with the others reading: “RR. Labor Act”, “Frazier-Lemke Act”, and “Minimum Wage Law” (Knott 2). In his political cartoon, John Knott is depicting some of FDR’s New Deal acts and administrations that were ruled unconstitutional in contrast to others that were upheld. The cartoon also illustrates the power struggle between Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and the United States Supreme Court regarding the implementation of the New Deal. The cartoon indexes to the dynamic between the Supreme Court, FDR, and his attempts at court-packing by increasing the number of justices in the Supreme Court that would sway the balance of opinion (“Court Packing Plan”).
The accompanying editorial, “The Court Decides,” provides background information and context for the cartoon in regards to the decisions made by the Court the previous Monday, March 29th, 1937. It explains how the Supreme Court had been reviewing cases involving the New Deal and had actually sustained and upheld over 60% of the New Deal legislation, contrary to the popular belief that it had struck down most of the laws and acts of FDR’s national recovery plan. It further describes the American public’s trust in the Court and the Court’s dedication to “interpret the Constitution as it stands” as they “do not have their ears to the ground, they keep their feet on it.” (“The Court Decides” 2).
As a result of the Wall Street stock market crash on October 24th, 1929 and widespread panic that ensued, The Great Depression of the 1930s was an economic breakdown that began in the U.S. and ultimately led to a worldwide economic collapse. It is the most severe depression of the Western world to date. The United States alone suffered a 30 percent decline in real gross domestic product and unemployment rate was at around 20 percent at its highest point. The American public was desperate for work and the American spirit was at an all-time low (Romer and Pells).
Upon becoming the 32nd president of the United States in the midst of the Depression in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not hesitate to begin working towards nationwide recovery. The United States was in shambles and needed political and economic reform as most of the nation’s banks came to a close, industrial production plummeted, and as many as 15 million people were unemployed. Roosevelt was burdened with responsibilities as he had been elected president to solve the worst economic problem in the history of the United States (“The Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)”). In his first 100 days in office, known as his great productive opening period, FDR worked with the new democratic congress to enact bills that would begin to stimulate the economy and increase public confidence (Freidel and Sidey). With his New Deal legislation, Roosevelt hoped to put an end to deflation, lighten lower-income group debt, and provide employment to those who had become unemployed as a result of the depression (Dickinson). However, the Supreme Court ultimately stepped in between 1935 and 1936 and struck down eleven pieces of New Deal legislation, explaining that they violated the separation of powers and intruded on states’ reserved powers (“The Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)”).
These decisions made by the Supreme Court are ultimately what John Knott is referring to in his political cartoon. The three pieces of legislation depicted on the side of the steps of the Supreme Court building in the cartoon, battered and bruised, are the NRA (National Recovery Administration), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), and Guffey Act. The National Recovery Administration or NRA, was a government agency established to work to implement codes promoting fair-practices. The NRA was an element of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of June 1933 that was intended to work to eliminate unfair trade practices and reduce unemployment. The agency established codes that affected around 22 million workers across several workforces, but came to an abrupt end in 1935 when the Supreme Court invalidated it when ruling it unconstitutional beginning with a specific provision dealing with petroleum industry regulations, but ultimately coming to the conclusion to invalidate the entire act and administration, stating that the NIRA “unconstitutionally extended the power of Congress to regulate commerce among the states to intrastate commercial transactions-that is, business dealings occurring entirely within the boundaries of a state” (Brand).
The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933 was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. A prominent feature of the New Deal alongside the NRA, the AAA aimed to aid the agriculture industry by restoring purchasing powers to farmers, as they had experienced before World War I. The act was “designed to restore parity prices for ‘basic agricultural commodities’—initially defined as wheat, cotton, corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk—by reducing supplies in artificial scarcity. Benefit payments would compensate participating farmers who agreed to curb acreage or kill excess livestock” (Chen). This was made possible through a tax levied on processors of agricultural commodities. This tax increased commodity prices by reducing supplies and enhanced famers’ purchasing power, but faced invalidation as the Court stated that it, like the NRA, intruded on the reserved rights of the states to regulate production. The Court used the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution in their argument as it states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” “Assuming that Congress could not directly compel farmers to reduce acreage or cull livestock” (Chen). However, the AAA was rewritten in 1938 and upheld by the Court in Mulford v. Smith in 1939.
The last of the unconstitutional acts portrayed in the cartoon is The Guffey Act of 1935. Originally named The Bituminous Coal Conservation Act, the Guffey Act was named after its sponsor, Joseph Guffey, a Senator from Pennsylvania, and was passed by congress to regulate and bring stability to the coal industry. The act outlined a minimum price for coal and protected the rights of those who worked for the industry. Additionally, this act worked to established wages and improve working conditions as coal mining had a reputation of being a “sick” industry with frequent worker strikes due to unhealthy and dangerous working conditions. However, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional in 1936 as it interfered with private commerce, similar to the NRA and AAA (O’Neal).
Although many of FDR’s New Deal policies fell under the jurisdiction of the Court and bankers and businessmen turned more and more against his New Deal programs, fearing the way he allowed for deficits in the budget, he was re-elected by a large margin in 1936 (Freidel and Sidey). Because of the problems his New Deal legislation faced in the eyes of the Supreme Court, when re-elected, Roosevelt proposed a new plan to change the Supreme Court. His plan, later known as “Court-Packing” proposed that “for every judge over seventy who did not retire (there were five) the president could appoint an additional justice” (“FDR’s Supreme Court”) Roosevelt claimed the purpose in his proposition to be to expedite the Court’s work, but many believed it was an attempt to place justices that would support his programs. He was met with a heated debate and suffered a loss in credibility in the eyes of the public as they had supported the New Deal, but did not agree with the idea of interfering with the Supreme Court.
Although Roosevelt’s New Deal had suffered a lot by the hands of the Court’s rulings, there were some acts that remained as they were constitutional. The acts Knott decided to include in his cartoon are the R.R. (Railroad/Railway) Labor Act, Frazier-Lemke Act, and the Minimum Wage Law.
The Railway Labor Act (RLA) was a very important piece of labor legislation implemented prior to FDR’s New Deal; however, it was amended in both 1934 and 1936 during President Roosevelt’s first term, and later in 1951 and 1966. The act secured the rights of railway workers and employers in light of numerous strikes that began happening in the late nineteenth century. The1934 amendment to the act addressed concerns of railway workers and unions. Criminal penalties were introduced “in the case of violation of the act’s provisions related to collective bargaining” (McCartin). It allowed for workers to choose their collective bargaining representatives and also created the National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB), a board of 34 members that equally represented carriers and unions that corresponded with disputes before they advanced to the National Mediation Board. The amendment of 1936 extended the act to apply to common air carriers of both interstate and foreign commerce as well as transporters of the U.S. mail (McCartin). The decision the Court made on Monday, March 29th, 1937, sought to avoid interstate commerce from being interrupted as a result of strikes and disputes between employers and workers that concerned wages or working conditions on the railroads. It upheld and promoted the practice of collective bargaining in which negotiation could be held between an employer and a labor union as it was a “declaration of public interest and policy”.
The Frazier-Lemke Act, also known as the Farm Bankruptcy Act, was named after its sponsors: North Dakota Senator Lynn Frazier and North Dakota Representative William Lemke. It was passed by congress in 1934 as part of FDR’s First New Deal, its purpose was to restrict banks as they began to repossess farms that faced hardship during the Great Depression. This act allowed the federal courts to lower a farmer’s debt to a level proportional to the existing value of his property. They, under certain conditions, could give these farmers a three year stay of foreclosure in which they did not have to begin debt repayment right away. This law was sustained by the Supreme Court on March 29th, 1937 as it was an amended version that secured creditors’ property rights (Bonner and Eriksson).
The Minimum Wage Law referred to in the editorial explicitly claims that it regarded women. In making this reference, one can conclude that Knott’s political cartoon refers to the Court’s decision on West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish made that previous Monday. The court case involved the West Coast Hotel Company and Elsie Parrish, a maid who worked at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. Parrish sued the company due to a discrepancy in her pay and the decision the Court made was in her favor as the Court concluded that the state had an authority to interfere in labor contracts if it “appeared that the parties were not equal in bargaining power or where the failure to intervene would endanger public health” (Goble). The Court argued that in denying a woman a living wage was a danger to their health and community, and subsequently warranted the enactment of a minimum wage law for them.
Look! is a political cartoon by John Knott published in the Dallas Morning News that illustrated the constitutionality of different acts of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. As FDR worked tirelessly to implement legislation for the betterment of the American economic system, he was faced with continual backlash from the Supreme Court in terms of unconstitutionality in regards to some of his acts. Knott’s use of portraying the individual acts as men dressed up as scrolls that have either been approved or kicked ‘to the curb’ can show how the “majority of conservative America” had the “utmost confidence” in the Supreme Court’s ruthlessness and dedication to uphold the constitution as well as the continuing power struggle experienced between the Courts and FDR (“The Court Decides” 2).
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