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When FDR tried to ‘pack the court’

Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court and ‘purge’ his party is a cautionary tale — for Democrats and Republicans.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks in Providence, R.I. on Oct. 21, 1936.The Boston Globe

America, you need a history lesson.

Not only about the founding principles of the country, though that would do us all some good. Not only about the way Abraham Lincoln moved the nation through divisions far more significant than our own, though that would give us all some perspective. Not only about how John F. Kennedy infused America with a sense of national purpose, though we could use some of that right now.

Let’s start more modestly. Let’s concentrate merely on the period between Feb. 5, 1937, to Nov. 8, 1938 — a mere 642 days in the life of a country that in more than eight decades has changed utterly. And though America’s population has grown from 129 million to 333 million, the number of states has grown from 48 to 50 and the percentage of people of color has more than doubled, the lessons — one for Democrats, one for Republicans — from the period of Eddie Duchin, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington may be eerily applicable to our own period of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Ed Sheeran.

Frustrated by the Supreme Court’s opposition to many elements of the New Deal and fortified by his 46-state landslide reelection three months earlier, Franklin D. Roosevelt conjured a plan in the winter of 1937 to increase the size of the high court, boosting its membership to as high as 15. His proposal would have added an associate justice for every member older than 70 years 6 months with a decade or more of service.


It was a transparent effort to pack the court with justices more congenial to his view of the role of government in the lives of the country and to assure that “Black Monday” — when the court ruled against the 32nd president in three cases on one day, in 1935, and invalidated the National Recovery Act, which was at the heart of the New Deal — would never be repeated.


It was a blatant attempt at a power grab to disrupt the balance of power — which is exactly what Republicans will howl if the Democratic notion of adding justices to the current Supreme Court takes flight.

A year later, FDR sought to purge the Democratic Party of conservatives in an effort to create what he called a party of militant liberalism. The Democrats Roosevelt led were an uneasy coalition of Southern barons, many of them devout segregationists, and northern progressives, some of whom were further to the left than the activists constituting an important part of today’s Democrats. The president believed the American party system was an antiquated remnant of an earlier time, governed more by sentimentality than ideology: “Tweedledum and Tweedledee to each other,” he said, lacking in discipline and intellectual rigor. The future of rational politics in America, he believed, required that “one of its parties be the liberal party and the other be the conservative party.”

So he moved to “purge” — the word that inevitably adhered to his effort, just as it has been attached to the Trump supporters seeking to remove Trump critic Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from the number three position in the House GOP leadership — the New Deal skeptics in his own party. He targeted three senators for defeat: Millard Tydings of Maryland, Walter George of Georgia, and Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina. FDR’s effort failed — and a good thing, too, for it fortunately permitted what Williams College FDR expert Susan Dunn characterized in an interview as “the most militant anti-fascist and pro-British” lawmakers to be in office when Roosevelt needed their support to begin rearmament in the days leading to World War II.


In the coming days, the House Republican Conference will determine whether Cheney retains her leadership position. Trump loathes her, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California has had enough of her apostasy, and Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking House Republican, is leading the effort to insert Representative Elise Stefanik of New York into the position Cheney holds.

This movement is a direct attack on Cheney, to be sure, but it also is an assault on the “big tent” party principle Ronald Reagan articulated when he was governor of California and breathed new life into when he was president. “Unity does not require unanimity of thought,” he told an assembly of Republican leaders in Long Beach, Calif., in 1967, adding, “There is room in our tent for many views; indeed, the divergence of views is one of our strengths.”

The Cheney vote pits the loyalty notion of Trump, who served one term as president, against the tolerance notion of Reagan, who served two terms as governor and two as president and catapulted the Republican Party into a new period of power. “We Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles,” Cheney wrote in The Washington Post, “and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”


Historians never fully embraced George Santayana’s nostrum that history has the capacity to repeat itself, nor the notion, often attributed to Mark Twain, that history doesn’t even rhyme. Instead, history offers perspective and isn’t always, or even often, proscriptive. It doesn’t necessarily offer a way forward. But it can offer caution lights along the road. For both Democrats and Republicans, the yellow lights are blinking this spring.

David M. Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.