Taking on FDR: Senator Josiah Bailey and the 1937 Conservative Manifesto
by Troy Kickler
With the aftermath
of the 2006 mid-term elections, "conservatism," as Ramesh
Ponnuru in National Review puts it, "is in crisis."
There are social conservatives and religious conservatives. There
are economic, free-market conservatives. There are nationalistic,
war hawks. There are compassionate conservatives. And let’s not
forget the so-called big government conservatives (Ponnuru, "Conservatives,"
20 Nov. 2006).
crisis will not end with Republican victories; associating conservative
philosophy with the Republican Party, in fact, has in many ways
led to the current crisis. Arguably since the Great Depression and
certainly since the 1960s, neither major political party has assumed
the task of reducing the size and scope of national government.
And since then, a partisan, much less a bi-partisan, coalition to
stop such encroachment has seemed virtually impossible. Nearly seventy
years ago, however, standing in the Senate chamber and evincing
once again his Southern Baptist-inspired oratorical flair, author
of the bi-partisan "Conservative Manifesto" and North
Carolinian Josiah William Bailey admonished his colleagues: "Do
not do nothing while America drifts down the inevitable gulf of
collectivization . . . . Give enterprise a chance, and I will give
you the guarantees of a happy and prosperous America." The
month and day were December 16, and the year, 1937 (Congressional
Record, 75th Congress, 2nd Session, 1940).
these words near the end of a year in which President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt had tried to pack the U.S. Supreme Court with fifteen
justices, a year in which the President’s business regulations had
created another economic recession (the "Roosevelt Recession"),
and a year in which FDR had purportedly courted John L. Lewis’s
political support in hopes of forming a new political party, or
at least to redefine the Democratic Party. Steel production also
dropped in 1937 from eighty percent to under twenty percent, and
government deficits still skyrocketed – even when taxes were at
an all-time high. That year, Americans had witnessed "the cumulative
effects of the minimum wage law, the Wagner Act, high taxation,
and Keynesian inflationist policies" combining with what Bailey
considered "unchecked power in FDR’s hands." FDR, however,
alleged that big business had manufactured the recession to discredit
him and arrogantly said that Congress should be let alone to "find
out whether or not it could run the Government without his help"
(Schweikart and Allen, A
Patriot’s History of the United States, 573–74; Ickes, The
Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, 2: 223–24, 260).
of 1937 and the actions and words of FDR particularly troubled Senator
Bailey. A staunch Democrat, Bailey wrote former North Carolina Governor
O. Max Gardner and expressed his apprehension concerning how the
President and his New Deal had distorted language and undermined
Democratic principles: "I am a great liberal when it comes
to the fundamental meaning of the word, but I am not a liberal when
they interpret liberalism in terms of a return to the old reactionary
system of centralized power and control of the individual with a
view to limiting his activities." In an October 19, 1937 letter
to Democratic Senator Peter Gerry (RI), Bailey lamented that the
national government had become "a gift enterprise and the gifts
are at the expense of those who work and earn and save." He
further denounced the unprincipled FDR – who once said the only
thing Americans had to fear was fear itself – for ironically instilling
economic worries among Americans so that they might reelect him
to the presidency. Such a redefinition of terms and abuse of power
prompted Bailey to take action (Josiah Bailey to O. Max Gardner,
2 Aug. 1937, Josiah Bailey Papers; Moore, Josiah
Bailey was not opposed entirely to government intervention in the
economy, but the "reluctant New Dealer" believed government
growth should have limitations and considered much of the New Deal
intervention to be temporary. In particular, when FDR placed the
responsibility for pulling the nation out of economic recession
on the shoulders of businesses yet failed to offer an economic recovery
plan or lift restrictions on businesses, Bailey and many other Southern
Democrats had had enough. They allied with frustrated Republicans
and Democrats, such as Burton K. Wheeler (MT) and Arthur H. Vandenberg
(MI), to form a bi-partisan coalition and remind FDR that opposition
to his socialist machinations was possible (See Moore’s Josiah
Bailey for a detailed explanation).
had not always been so bold. Bailey had defeated Furnifold Simmons
in the 1930 senatorial election by censuring the longtime Democratic
Senator from North Carolina for party disloyalty. No doubt as FDR
increased the size of government from 1930 to 1936 and changed the
definition of liberalism, the freshman senator remembered his campaign
promises as well as feared FDR’s heavy-handed (often labeled "dictatorial")
party leadership. Moreover, Bailey knew how popular FDR was among
many North Carolinians. But to his credit, Bailey’s seemingly spineless
inaction was actually determined political calculation. He had weakly
opposed FDR, he claimed, so that he might be able to be reelected
and one day "seize the element of timeliness" to "fight
a good and last fight" against what he described as FDR’s "dictatorship"
and the President’s upcoming "revolution" (Josiah Bailey
to Harry F. Byrd, 25 Sept. 1937, Bailey Papers; Moore, Josiah
came in late 1937. FDR had frequently equivocated between pro-and-anti-business
rhetoric and had publicly placed the burden of pulling the nation
out of recession squarely on the shoulders of business while maintaining
anti-business regulations that had caused the "Roosevelt Recession."
Fearing backlash for party disloyalty, conservative and traditionalist
Democrats and Republicans secretly drafted an economic recovery
plan originally called "An Address to the People of the United
States," but later known as the "Conservative Manifesto."
non-partisan manifesto might hurt Republicans’ opportunities to
persuade disgruntled Democratic Americans to vote for GOP candidates,
Charles L. McNary (OR) leaked word of the bi-partisan effort. Shortly
afterward on December 19, the New York Times published stories
describing the document, and its Republican and Democratic authors
quickly denied any involvement in its drafting – all except one,
the progenitor of the manifesto and its final editor: Josiah Bailey
(New York Times, 19 Dec. 1937; Charlotte Observer,
17 Dec. 1937; Moore, Josiah
Manifesto never attacked the President (in fact its authors gingerly
discussed the President’s past actions), but the tone was nevertheless
anti-New Deal. In the introduction, for instance, the authors remarked,
"Without criticism of the public spending policy attendant
upon the former emergency, we recognize that a repetition of that
policy would not serve again, and, moreover, is out of the question.
It ought to be borne in mind that private enterprise, properly fostered,
carries the indispensable element of vigor." The document and
Bailey’s stubbornness definitely upset New York Times editors,
who condescendingly criticized the "guarantors of liberty"
for making the passage of progressive legislation as difficult as
"pulling hippopotamus teeth" (New York Times, 19
Dec. 1937; Congressional Record, 1937).
Yet the document
cannot be labeled entirely anti-New Deal. The following are the
ten points of the Conservative Manifesto, as stated in the New
revision of taxes on capital gains and undistributed profits in
order to free investment funds.
expenditures to achieve a balanced budget, and thus, to still
fears deterring business expansion.
- An end to
coercion and violence in relations between capital and labor.
to "unnecessary" government competition with private
that private investment and enterprise require a reasonable profit.
the collateral upon which credit rests.
of taxes, or if this proved impossible at the moment, firm assurance
of no further increases.
of state rights, home rule, and local self-government, except
where proved definitely inadequate.
and non-political relief to unemployed with maximum local responsibility.
upon the American form of government and the American system of
What the senators
hoped to do, it seems, was to seek some agreeable and paradoxical
balance between free enterprise and government intervention. At
least free enterprise weighed more on the scales of Bailey’s Conservative
Manifesto, and the document at least attempted to steer the country
away from heading full-steam down a leftist path toward collectivism
(New York Times, 19 Dec. 1937).
the Times report, Business Week editors and local
chambers of commerce endorsed the Manifesto and business associations
reprinted it – some distributed approximately 100,000 copies. As
a result, an overconfident Bailey sincerely believed that bi-partisan
opposition to collectivization might force the President to turn
politically to the right. Meanwhile FDR met with his New Deal allies,
including George W. Norris (NE), Robert F. Wagner (NY), and Claude
Pepper (FL), to figure out a way to prevent "any inroads of
the proposed conservative coalition upon the general plans of the
New Deal" (Moore, Josiah
Bailey, 157–58; New York Times, 22 Dec. 1937).
opposition to the New Deal reflected the anti-spending sentiments
of many Senators and many businessmen, the short-term and long-term
effect of the Conservative Manifesto are debatable, for since the
1930s national government has increasingly intervened in economic
affairs and eroded individual liberty. Historian John Robert Moore,
however, argues that Bailey’s Conservative Manifesto gave conservatives
ammunition in their attempts to "restrain and later to dismantle
many New Deal programs," and historian David M. Kennedy writes
that the manifesto crystallized a "new conservative ideology"
that was "one of the enduring legacies of the 1930s."
At the North Carolina and regional level, according to historian
Douglas Carl Abrams, Bailey and his political allies contributed
to the formation of a viable two-party system in the South that
could be seen in the electoral support later given to Senator Jesse
Helms of North Carolina (Moore, Josiah
Bailey, 159–76; Kennedy, Freedom
From Fear, 340–41; Abrams, "The
Limits of Liberalism" North
to have changed in 1938, however. Bailey continued battling those
who extinguished "private investment and initiative";
he cast the only vote, to name one example, against the expansion
of the Relief Appropriations Bill that provided an extra $250 million
for the Works Progress Administration (Moore, Josiah Bailey,
effect on American politics, the North Carolina Senator and his
bi-partisan Conservative Manifesto serve as a reminder to modern-day
Americans that principle should outweigh and can trump partisan
politics. Too bad Bailey as a timid, freshman Senator hesitated
to check economic intervention. Modern Conservatism might not be
in crisis, and government intervention and regulation might not
have become an evolving juggernaut.
Carl Abrams, "The
Limits of Liberalism" North
Carolinahistory.org: An Online Encyclopedia, (accessed
1 Nov. 2006).
William Bailey Papers, Duke University Library, Durham, North
Record, 75th Congress, 2nd Session,
(Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office).
L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, 3 vol. (New
York, Simon and Schuster), 1953–54.
- David M.
From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- John Robert
Josiah William Bailey: A Political Biography (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1968).
on the Couch" National Review, 20 Nov. 2006.
- Larry Schweikart
and Michael Allen, A
Patriot’s History of the United States: From Colombus’s Great
Discovery to the War on Terror (New York: Sentinel, 2004).
Kickler, Ph.D. [send
him mail], is Director of the North
Carolina History Project, a special project of the John
Locke Foundation, and editor of northcarolinahistory.org.
© 2006 LewRockwell.com