Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"FDR and Chief Justice Hughes" by James F. Simon (2012)

The old saying about how everything changes, yet remains the same, is highlighted in this book highlighting the battle between the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Charles Hughes, and Franklin Roosevelt, the President of the United States, over the Presidents “New Deal” policies. More than just a chronicle of events, the author takes the time to study each man’s past in an effort to more fully understand the differences in the two.

Within the first 5 days of his administration taking over the office of the Presidency, FDR enacted sweeping changes which put him; as well as the changes he did manage to make permanent; at odds with certain interests in the financial community. That chasm still exists today. And that’s what makes this book so important to read. At a time when we should be using the success of the New Deal to wriggle our way back to financial security as a nation, we seem to be having the same old arguments about how that recovery should take place.

Harry Truman once said that “The only thing new is the history you don’t know.” I quote that often, mainly because it is true. Within days of his taking office, FDR had declared a bank holiday, and suspended trading in silver and gold, using the Banking Acts of the First World War as his precedent to do so. He then went on radio to deliver the first of his “fireside chats”, explaining to the average American just how the financial system worked. After only three days the banks which had been allowed to reopen showed twice the amount of deposits as they did withdrawals. By the 15th of March, a mere 2 weeks after the new administration took control, Wall Street re-opened, surging well ahead of the markets in Europe, and racking up the highest gains in 6 months.
Of course these changes did not sit well with many people in the banking profession. Particularly glaring were the changes regarding the Gold Standard, which had many of the more well-heeled industrialists fulminating. Eventually the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Hughes, struck down the New Deal as being Unconstitutional, leaving an exasperated FDR to come up with a new plan which would pass the courts muster. This is the part where he tried, through a failed attempt at legislating the age of retirement for the Justices on the Court, 6 of whom were over the age of 70. He hoped to be able to “pack” the court with Justices who would uphold his legislation. Although his motives may have been pure, his thinking was not.

The framers of the Constitution had made a point of having Supreme Court Justices appointed for life. They did this for a very good reason. In order to keep the Supreme Court from becoming a “plumb” position; handed out as a reward to political lackeys; they envisioned the positions to be life-long. This ensured that no party, no matter how long they might retain control of the Executive Branch of Government, could maintain control of the Court. The Court, like the Executive and Legislative Branches, was to act separately, answering only to their interpretation of the Constitution under which it was formed.
The book is filled with the history of both Franklin Roosevelt and his family, as well as that of Chief Justice Hughes. Even if the book were completely devoid of the struggle between the two men over the New Deal, the histories of their respective families would be interesting enough on their own.

Throughout the book, as the two men circle one another over this issue, the reader cannot help but admire the tenacity of both parties as they struggle to do what they feel is right for the American people. Both men were brilliant statesmen, making the tale of their adversity all the more remarkable.

Fully researched, and deftly written, this is the perfect book to help you get through both Conventions. It contains the seeds of the economic struggle which still rages in America today, as the “haves” try their best to bring back the days when the rest of us were “have nots.”

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