The President and the People: Public Responses to FDR’s Court-Packing Plan

Last year I was taking a history class on twentieth-century America. For my end-of-the-semester research paper I decided to write about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to increase the size of the Supreme Court. I am primarily interested in political and constitutional history, and I thought that this topic would include both, since it involved a political battle between all three branches of American government over a constitutional proposal. While researching this paper I decided that I wanted to include some information on the public response to the court-packing plan, and I found a great book called The Fireside Conversations: America Responds to FDR During the Great Depression. This book is a collection of letters that Americans wrote to Roosevelt in direct response to his fireside chats, and a significant portion of the book is devoted to letters responding to the court-packing plan. While reading this book I came across numerous quotes stating that while Roosevelt had won an enormous electoral victory in the recent 1936 election, the people voting for him had not expected him to try to alter the Constitution, and did not approve of his attempts to do so. One woman wrote that she “along with 99% of the Iowans who voted for you did not give you a mandate to change the Constitution or the Supreme Court,” and another man wrote that “There is no clear outspoken command from the people to accomplish this thing. Even the tremendous personal popularity of the president, which would write a blank check for him on most issues, is apathetic and in many cases revolted by this proposal.” I was surprised by how frequently this point of view came across. People who had voted for Roosevelt, people who clearly supported his New Deal policies, were opposed to his court-packing plan, even though it most likely would have led to the preservation of those same New Deal policies, which the Supreme Court at the time was trying to overturn. It therefore seemed that Americans opposed the court-packing plan, not because they thought it would lead to policies with which they disagreed, but because they had some vested interest in the preservation of the balance of powers between the three branches of government. I sometimes feel as though conventional wisdom states that people are self-interested, and care about politics only as much as politics can be used to directly improve their own lives. In this case, however, the opposite seemed to be true. Roosevelt introduced his court-packing plan in the midst of the Great Depression. People could certainly be forgiven for only thinking about their economic security. Instead, however, at least some Americans seemed to care about preserving the constitutional balance of powers, even if doing so did not directly help improve their own personal situations. In my research paper for this fellowship, I plan to try and address why this was the case, and whether this example shows that Americans care more about the Constitution more than some pundits believe.

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About elizab18

Hi! I'm Eliza Blanchard and I'm a senior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie New York. I am a double history and political science major with a minor in religion. I spent the last two summers in Washington D.C. working for nonprofit organizations, and I'm currently applying to law school. For this fellowship I'm writing about President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan to increase the size of the Supreme Court in 1937.
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