Know Your History: FDR’s Big Mistake

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was well-liked in many circles, revered in others, and generally looked upon in a favorable manner by historians. Of course, there are those on the right who criticize his big government model of the 1930s, which greatly expanded government power and reach – something we can all agree hasn’t been diminished since. The merits and problems of his New Deal approach to bring America out of the Great Depression have been greatly debated. Who can blame FDR for wanting to do something drastic? Americans were hungry. They wanted leadership, they wanted decisiveness, they wanted bread. But Roosevelt’s long reach didn’t come without a cost, and the weariness of his decision-making powers showed clearly in 1937 when he took on the Supreme Court and ended up looking slightly tyrannical.

FDR’s big mistake had its roots in the stalled progress of his New Deal programs. After getting essentially a blank check from Congress during his first year in office, FDR signed into law many far-reaching government agencies which were meant to manage the crisis of the Great Depression and put people back to work. However, by 1935, some of the luster began to wane, and the Supreme Court stepped in and started ruling programs unconstitutional – NiRA, Agricultural Adjustment Act … The reasons for the rulings dealt with issues like states’ rights, separation of powers, and over-reaching federal government authority. FDR did not like his programs to be cast aside, and he was determined to do something about it.

That became his unfortunate mistake. FDR, in a rather bizarre grab of presidential power, announced his idea to expand the Supreme Court by six justices, increasing its number from nine to fifteen. The idea behind the plan stemmed from the fact that their were too many conservative justices on the court for his liking, and if he could increase the number, he would be able to choose the six new ones who would, of course, be more favorably inclined to sustain his programs. This incident became known as FDR’s “court-packing” plan – a failed idea if ever there was one. It was immediately criticized from all corners, making FDR look desperate and power-hungry.

But a few short years later, all would be forgiven as he stepped forward with clearer thinking and decision-making abilities as he guided the United States into World War II.

We all make bad decisions, but the great leaders are able to move on and learn from their mistakes. It’s safe to say that Roosevelt was able to do this.

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