Taking on FDR: Senator Josiah Bailey and the 1937 Conservative Manifesto

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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).

But conservatism's 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).

Bailey spoke 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).

The events 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, 149–50).

Admittedly, 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).

But Bailey 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 Bailey, 147–48).

The moment 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."

Fearing the 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 Bailey, 151).

The Conservative 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 York Times:

  1. Immediate revision of taxes on capital gains and undistributed profits in order to free investment funds.
  2. Reduced expenditures to achieve a balanced budget, and thus, to still fears deterring business expansion.
  3. An end to coercion and violence in relations between capital and labor.
  4. Opposition to "unnecessary" government competition with private enterprise.
  5. Recognition that private investment and enterprise require a reasonable profit.
  6. Safeguarding the collateral upon which credit rests.
  7. Reduction of taxes, or if this proved impossible at the moment, firm assurance of no further increases.
  8. Maintenance of state rights, home rule, and local self-government, except where proved definitely inadequate.
  9. Economical and non-political relief to unemployed with maximum local responsibility.
  10. Reliance upon the American form of government and the American system of enterprise.

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).

Shortly after 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).

Although Bailey's 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 Carolinahistory.org).

Little seemed 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, 159–76).

Whatever Bailey's 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Douglas Carl Abrams, "The Limits of Liberalism" North Carolinahistory.org: An Online Encyclopedia, (accessed 1 Nov. 2006).
  2. Josiah William Bailey Papers, Duke University Library, Durham, North Carolina.
  3. Charlotte Observer.
  4. Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 2nd Session, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office).
  5. Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, 3 vol. (New York, Simon and Schuster), 1953–54.
  6. David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  7. John Robert Moore, Senator Josiah William Bailey: A Political Biography (Durham: Duke University Press, 1968).
  8. New York Times.
  9. Ramesh Ponnuru, "Conservatives on the Couch" National Review, 20 Nov. 2006.
  10. 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).

December 13, 2006