My son saw another FDR book under my arm the other day and asked, "How many books on Franklin Roosevelt have you read?!?" The answer, incidentally, is dozens. I think the point of the question was: "What else could you possibly learn about Roosevelt that you don't already know?" Ah, now that's a question asked only by those who haven't yet read dozens of books on FDR. I could read nothing but FDR books for the rest of my life and still not get 100% of the essence of the man. His presidency of twelve years so impacted his own and our own centuries that I think we can now safely say that historians will never run out of topics to explore about the man.
Roger Daniels makes his latest foray into the Franklin Roosevelt historiography, with the first of his planned two-part biography of FDR: Franklin D. Roosevelt - Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939. The 386-page first-volume concentrates primarily on domestic policy and takes us to the beginning of 1939. Daniels states that his goal once volume two is published, "is to make it clear how Franklin Roosevelt managed to achieve liberal results in peace and war in a nation whose people were far from liberal and with a Congress that was increasingly conservative." Daniels' work is a political biography, largely leaving FDR's personal life out of the story.
From the start, let me commend Daniels on his unique [I've never seen it] usage of inserting into the text the year of birth and year of death for every character introduced to the story. This is particularly helpful, I think, to those not yet well-read in the FDR-era, to give a sense of whether an individual mentioned lived beyond FDR ; whether they didn't survive to see the success of the New Deal; etc. It is also worth noting the large number of characters who lived on into the 1970s, 80s and even a few into the 1990s.
Daniels shares what all FDR-philes know: "Despite a professional life spent reading, writing, and, above all, thinking about Franklin Roosevelt, I have not the slightest notion of what his inner essence was like. None of the attempts to describe that essence, including those of his wife, inspires confidence." Daniels relies strongly on FDR's speeches to get at what he believes really mattered to Roosevelt.
After a preliminary look at Roosevelt's life prior to his 1910 election to the New York General Assembly, Daniels posits that his service in Albany - despite being brief [two full years] - had two significant effects on his future as a politician: first, it brought FDR and Louis McHenry Howe together. Howe would go on to become the single greatest force in Roosevelt's political career, until his death in 1936. Secondly, FDR's brief legislative career gave him some basic lessons in practical politics. As Daniels notes, "He learned, some critics would say too well, that while it was good to fight for principles, it was necessary to know when to compromise. He soon came to understand that he needed to embrace urban issues as well as those that chiefly concerned his largely rural constituency."
After his service in the Wilson Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR became a national political figure with a May 1919 speech at a national Democratic Party dinner in Chicago. This led to talk about FDR as a possibility for the vice presidential spot on the 1920 Democratic ticket. Daniels argues that FDR wanted the position because he knew the ticket would lose - that is, he never had any intention of actually becoming vice president. But the campaign itself would provide him with wonderful opportunities to network nationwide for 1924. Indeed, when he was nominated for vice president, Daniels notes of FDR, "Unlike every other major party vice president nominee since Theodore Roosevelt in 1900, Franklin was regarded as a nominee with the future rather than a past."
Although the James Cox-FDR ticket was soundly defeated in 1920, Daniels postulates that, "had someone else been chosen as the vice presidential nominee in 1920, or had Franklin, once chosen, not campaigned seriously, it is highly unlikely, given the disabling polio attack that struck less than a year after the campaign, that he would ever have become governor of New York, much less President. His campaign swings left an image of a vigorous and buoyant extrovert in the minds of many thousands of political activists from Maine to California. And it also provided the names and addresses of persons he met that were entered on file cards and formed the basis of the extensive political correspondence that Roosevelt and his staff conducted throughout the years in which he held no public office."
Daniels recounts FDR's contracting polio and the effects on his political career. Daniels differs from many authors, however, in that he is not convinced that FDR contracted polio at a Boy Scout camp he visited prior to his affliction. That has become the conventional wisdom among historians as to the origins of FDR's disease. Daniels notes that, while the Boy Scout camp is certainly a possibility, "it is impossible to know exactly where or when [FDR's exposure to the virus] occurred". Daniels also says that FDR himself never made a connection between that trip and his subsequent polio.
While there was an absolutely calculated campaign of misinformation to hide the seriousness of Roosevelt's disability from the very beginning, Daniels agrees with medical historian Naomi Rogers that Roosevelt transformed polio from a disease associated with immigrants and urban slums, "to one associated with cleanliness and occurring largely among those children - and occasionally adults - who had been protected from contact with the virus in early infancy [only to be exposed to it later]." Daniels also praises FDR for his fundraising efforts that eventually became the March of Dimes. Daniels writes, "Almost certainly, without the associated glamor of Roosevelt's presidency that helped raise the funds to finance the search for the vaccines that virtually rid America and other modernized societies of the once dreaded disease of infantile paralysis, the vaccines would not have been developed nearly as soon as they were."
Daniels makes a convincing argument that FDR knew from the very beginning that New York Governor Al Smith could, "never be a force to unify the Democratic Party and lead it to national victory." Yet, since FDR saw his own road to the White House running through the governor's mansion in New York, having its current occupant - Smith - running for President was a good way to get Smith out of Albany, freeing up the job for himself. Supporting Smith helped FDR gain the backing of Tammany [not to mention Smith himself].
Smith's first run for the White House came in 1924 - a crucial year for FDR. As Daniels notes, "The importance of the 1924 campaign in Roosevelt's political career cannot be overemphasized. When added to the prestige of his name, wartime service, and the 1920 vice presidential campaign, his showing [nominating Smith at the. Democratic Convention; his first public appearance in nearly three years] before the assembled Democrats made him a person who could not be ignored when possible presidential candidates were discussed. For any politician only forty-two years old, this would have been a considerable accomplishment. For one who was crippled and had been out of office and largely out of sight for almost four years, it was an amazing situation."
Once elected governor of New York in 1928, FDR used those four years in Albany to prepare himself for what he expected from the very beginning - a run for the White House [although, before the severity of the Depression became apparent, FDR anticipated that he would run in 1936 rather than challenge the incumbent Herbert Hoover in 1932]. As Daniels notes, FDR's years in Albany were important because, "they enabled him to hone his skills of management and conciliation, to learn about many issues with which he would have to deal as president, and, after the Great Depression began to set in, to gain the kind of knowledge of and contact with the problems of mass poverty and work relief that were invaluable in his early years in the White House."
With regard to the Depression, perhaps Daniels' most important contribution to the Roosevelt historiography is his analysis of FDR's reaction to the early days after the Stock Market crash in 1929, and his subsequent pre-White House years dealing with the fallout. While conventional wisdom is that FDR was immediately proactive and the antithesis of the foot-dragging Hoover, in fact, Daniels finds that Roosevelt's reactions to the aftermath of the crash were interchangeable with those of Hoover. As Daniels notes, "The notion that Roosevelt's first term as governor was the genesis of the New Deal, put forth by [FDR's longtime aide] Sam Rosenman and others, is unconvincing...The degree to which Roosevelt actually believed in October 1930 that state as opposed to federal policy was chiefly responsible for economic health is impossible to measure. But the claim that Roosevelt was in 1930 an incipient New Dealer, ready to reverse almost a century-and-a-half of state primacy, is difficult if not impossible to demonstrate from anything he had done or said up to that time."
Indeed, Daniels says FDR's message to the State Assembly on August 28, 1931, "is the first evidence, it seems to me, that Roosevelt was something more than an advanced progressive." FDR established a three-person Temporary Emergency Relief Administration [TERA], funded with $20 million on May 31, 1932, and named Harry Hopkins its executive director. Ironically, Daniels says, "Roosevelt played no part in this fateful appointment of the man who, apart from his wife, would become his most important political associate."
Despite the fact that FDR's 1932 presidential campaign speeches, "presented no clear picture of what the new administration would propose", and despite the fact that Daniels finds that, "there is no evidence that Roosevelt had any clear notion of how he would proceed" if, elected, Roosevelt stunned Hoover in both the popular vote [22.8 million vs. 14.8 million; 42 states vs. 6 states] and the electoral vote [472-87].
Daniels is adamant that FDR did not have a firm plan as he entered the White House. Daniels writes, "The notion that once Franklin Roosevelt became president he had a plan in his head called the New Deal is a myth that no serious scholar has ever believed." Yet ordinary people in 1933 - and for 80+ years thereafter - believed that the combination of the slew of legislation that came out of Washington combined with FDR's superb self-confidence were proof positive that Roosevelt had known all along how he was going to proceed.
Daniels also take aim at the myth that the New Deal ended the Depression. In fact, Daniels argues, the president's closest advisers seriously underestimated the difficulties of restoring the stricken nation to prosperity, and none of the nostrums of the man who delighted in calling himself Dr. New Deal produced anything like prosperity." Indeed, according to Daniels, the real cure for the Depression was World War II.
Indeed, the first three items FDR attacked upon taking office had little to do with creating jobs: the banking issue, the Economy Act, and the Beer Act. Daniels says the first action that may be considered the beginning of the New Deal was the fourth action item, the Agricultural Adjustment Act [AAA]. Although proposed in mid-March, it took much longer than FDR expected [it would not be signed until May 12, 1933].
On that same day, FDR was able to sign the Federal Emergency Relief Administration [FERA]. Daniels notes, "why it took more than two months to make significant provision for those who had lost their jobs, once Roosevelt had declared in the Inaugural Address 'that our greatest primary task is to put people to work', is one of the largely undiscussed anomalies of the Hundred Days." Overall, Daniels' assessment of those First Hundred Days is mixed. Much was accomplished, he says, but it was really never geared at "the forgotten man" but rather on the middle class in an effort to help them regain their former levels of security.
Daniels cites as the first real change in Roosevelt's approach to the Depression the Civil Works Administration [CWA] in October 1933. The plan, proposed by Hopkins, called for massive work relief. Daniels says that Roosevelt's acceptance of, "this radical program of work relief signals a little remarked change in his approach. From the inception of his presidency - and before that in his campaign - the stated purpose was to put people to work, but his emphasis had been on restoring the economic health of employers so that what we now call the private sector could provide the jobs. The failure of the National Recovery Act [NRA] to reach its reemployment goals impelled Roosevelt to try something else, as he had promised."
The issue of FDR's relationship with - and help to - African Americans is also addressed, particularly within the context of federal vs. states rights. Daniels concludes that, "Despite his daring innovations, Roosevelt remained bound by his notions of the appropriate division of responsibility between federal and state governments." Roosevelt's view that states rights were still paramount, "left millions of Americans, and a majority of black Americans, at the mercy of state governments that neither had the ability nor the desire to care for their most disadvantaged citizens."
The role of the Supreme Court and its rulings on the New Deal is a topic handled thoroughly. Daniels believes that FDR's first mistake was believing that - once the Supreme Court upheld the Gold Clause Act as Constitutional - he was in the clear on the Constitutional questions about the New Deal. His mistake became crystal clear on May 27, 1935, when the Court unanimously declared the NRA unconstitutional. It shocked not only FDR but the country as a whole. While some historians - such as William Leuchtenberg - have claimed that this decision created a massive crisis in the White House - Daniels disagrees. He argues that the only evidence for this comes from the diary of Roosevelt aide Rex Tugwell. Otherwise, Daniels argues, the evidence suggests that, Roosevelt, the habitual optimist that he was, continue[d] to believe that minor adjustments could be made, as the administration had done in response to [an earlier Supreme Court defeat, the Hot Oil Act], that would bring the NRA into line with what the Court might accept."
As with the efforts to rebuild the middle class rather than lift up the forgotten man, Daniels argues that FDR's farm policies were geared toward helping the larger commercial farmers. While, "no large group of Roosevelt constituents was served as well as the established commercial farmers who survived the depression," Daniels says, "for millions of farmers, sharecroppers, and farmworkers, white, black, and Latino, there were no such benefits." Indeed, "farm laborers, unlike most other American workers, were excluded from the benefits of Social Security."
Roosevelt's reelection in 1936 was never really in doubt. His triumph was thorough and complete. Six million more people voted in 1936 than in 1932. FDR carried every state save Maine and Vermont. He received 60.8% of the vote over Alf Landon. He won in the Electoral College 523-8. Democrats picked up six Senate seats [for a total of 75] and 11 more Democrats would sit in the House [for a total of 331]. Of the election, Daniels writes, "The election of 1936 was what many students of politics describe as a transforming election in that it made the Democratic Party the majority party in the nation for many elections to come. It welded disparate groups of voters into an effective block."
Daniels also delves into the Court Packing plan of 1937. Although somewhat complex, FDR's proposal basically stated that - for every sitting federal judge who reached or would soon reach age 70, and had been on the bench for at least 10 years - the president could appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate, an additional judge to sit on that Court. The appointment of new judges was subject to the following limitations: a maximum of 50 judges could be appointed under the bill's provisions, no judge could be appointed if that appointment would result in more than 15 members of the Supreme Court or more than two additional members of other appellate and special courts, or more than twice the number of judges now authorized for any district court. Based on the current makeup of the Court, if the bill had passed it would have allowed FDR to appoint six new Supreme Court justices immediately. He would also have been able to appoint 44 more judges for lower federal courts.
FDR mistakenly believed he could sell the plan as an overall restructuring of the entire court system, focusing more on the lower courts and the positive effect it would have there. Daniels points out, however, that this argument never got off the ground. To the pubic, it was always about the simple question of whether the president would get to create new Supreme Court judges. Daniels notes, "The failure of that attempt [to keep the focus on the lower courts] epitomizes the other ineptness of Roosevelt's strategy and tactics. Why this masterful politician was so uncharacteristically ineffective for so long [during the five months of fighting for the plan] remains a mystery that no biographer has adequately explained. The suggested explanations - overconfidence after a stunning victory, hubris, miscalculation, the absence of Louis Howe [who died in 1936] as a naysayer - are perhaps adequate to explain his initial errors, but not his continuing intransigence."
Of course, the Supreme Court itself settled the issue in West Coast Hotel vs. Parish, which upheld minimum wage law. This is the famous "switch in time that saved nine". Yet the chronology of the case disproves the theory that the Court was reacting to Roosevelt's Court-packing plan. Although Daniels believes they were reacting to the 1936 election. The voting on the case had actually done by the Justices in January 1937 - a month before FDR announced his plan. Still, why did Justice Owen Roberts change his vote? And what role did Justice Charles Evans Hughes play in convincing him to make that switch? While for years scholars speculated that Hughes had influenced Roberts, none could offer evidence to support it. Only in 2005 was William Leuchtenberg, using remarks made by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in an oral history interview, able to show that Hughes' putative effort to change Roberts' mind might have occurred in the summer of 1936, as a preemptive strike against the onslaught he expected to come from Roosevelt after he won the election." Daniels concludes, "It may well be that Hughes, who was concerned for the country and the court, influenced Roberts' crucial vote....Had Roberts voted against [the minimum wage] it would have provided further ammunition for those supporting the President's plan."
And yet, Roosevelt refused to accept victory and shelve the Court plan. He had gotten what he'd wanted - the Supreme Court on board - and the subsequent battle he made to get the bill was wasted energy. Daniels agrees with the "pummeling" that scholars have given Roosevelt over both his strategy and his tactics during the court fight. However, he disagrees with the idea that the fallout from the Court plan was the reason for the New Deal failures in the second term. Daniels writes, "Such an analysis gives too much weight to the court fight and ignores the fundamental difficulties Roosevelt faced in trying to modernize America with the party and a congressional base that gave disproportionate power to southern oligarchs intent on preserving the system based on segregation and inequality."
The Court plan was followed by the so-called Roosevelt Recession of 1937. Most historians give Roosevelt failing grades for his performance as economist-in-chief. But Daniels suggests that a sounder judgment, "it seems to me, is that Roosevelt did err badly in taking his foot off the economic gas pedal after the 1936 election and was slow to realize that a serious recession was in progress [in mid-1937]...But within a few months, he put together and sold to Congress a collection of measures that ended the decline and resumed the pattern of economic improvement that had begun in the Hundred Days [in 1933]." Indeed, Daniels believes that FDR had learned a great deal since 1933. Daniels writes, "Compared with his initial understandings of the economy in 1933, his perception and understanding of the nation's economic processes had expanded enormously [by 1937]."
The third trauma of the second term was the attempt to purge some sitting conservative Democrats in various 1938 primary elections. For Daniels, it was in a Jackson Day speech in 1938 that Roosevelt struck a new note in speaking about the need for change of the Democratic Party. According to Daniels, "this marks, it seems to me, the first hint of what became the celebrated attempt to purge some sitting conservative Democrats in various 1938 primary elections." By June 24, 1938, in a Fireside Chat, Roosevelt confirmed that, "he would intervene in the year's Democratic party primaries, as had been rumored for months."
Daniels' take on what has long been considered an unfathomable political mistake by such a shrewd politician is unique. Daniels argues, "Roosevelt made a distinction that few presidents, or for that matter scholars, make: the difference between his role as president of the United States and as leader of the Democratic Party. He would not, as president, ask the voters to vote for Democrats in November, nor was he, as president, taking part in Democratic primaries. But he insisted that as head of the Democratic Party he had every right to speak in the few 'instances where there was a clear issue involving basic principles or involving a clear misuse of my own name.'"
The so-called purge targeted three Southern Democrats who had voted against FDR's Court plan - all three attempts failed. He was successful in two cases [retaining Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson; and jettisoning Chair of the House Rules Committee John O'Connor]. Daniels agrees with the general consensus of historians that the purge and the subsequent general election in 1938 were set-backs for FDR. But he questions some scholars [James MacGregor Burns and David M. Kennedy to name two] as to the severity of the setback. "They and others have magnified the significance of the purge and underplayed the importance of other aspects of domestic politics in 1938."
In conclusion, Daniels does not view FDR as on the wane by the end of 1938. He writes, "The general notion that by the end of 1938, the New Deal had (James MacGregor Burns writes) 'been reduced to a movement with no program, with no effective political organization, with no vast popular party strength behind it, and no candidate' has been iterated and reiterated for more than seven decades. It is true that Roosevelt would never again, in peace or war, have the same control of Congress that he had once exercised, but there would be future New Deal victories, not so much in new programs, but in the refinement and expansion of existing ones. And, of course, there would be a most successful candidate (FDR)."
And, for that story, we await Volume II.