The Inevitable Backlash
A Review of George Wolfskill’s The Revolt of the Conservatives: History of the American Liberty League
George Wolfskill was a renowned professor at the University of Texas, Arlington. He has written several other books and reviews dealing with the New Deal. A teacher and a scholar until the remainder of his life. He began his career, at the University of Texas, Arlington in 1955 and died in 1987. Wolfskill also served time in the United States Marine Corps.
BY ZECHARIAH MORTIZ
Discarding their political background, men with reasons to oppose the New Deal united towards the formation of a unique organization, the American Liberty League. The union of politicians from both political extremes was so strange that Time Magazine had described it as a “a strange political nosegay.”1 With unparalleled legislation passed during this era, opposition to change was inevitable. The American Liberty League became a synonym for the Anti-New Deal movement. Although there were multiple groups opposed to Franklin Roosevelt’s actions, the League, was one of the major political influences in America.
Heading this league was “a many-talented man,”2 Jouett Shouse, who was a force to be reckoned with. A lawyer with overbearing credentials, he was “president of the [Association Against the Prohibition Amendment],”2 “former chairman of the executive committee of the Democratic Party,”2 and “Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during… the Wilson Administration.”2 Shouse announced the league’s formation during the summer of August 22, 1934. Initially, the League claimed to be purely non-partisan in shape and form. This new league was in many ways like its predecessor, the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. Shouse had organized the AAPA, and shared many of the same contributors. The league would have a strong backbone, for “during its six-year history the Liberty League collected and disbursed nearly $1,200,000.”3 The league’s chief contributor, the du Ponts, donated “nearly 30 percent of the all the League funds”3 in 1935. With its unlimited amount of resources, the league had no problem providing pamphlets for propaganda. The Liberty League itself had been divided into multiple committees, the Executive Committee, the National Advisory Council, and the National Lawyer’s Committee. The league received its first bit of criticism when the Lawyers’ Committee released its first report. It had claimed “when a lawyer tells a client that a law is unconstitutional… it is then nullity and he need no longer obey that law.”4 Nation had publicized the issue with a very criticizing and condemning tone; even the American Bar Association in Ohio “[considered] possible disciplinary action.”5 The Liberty League had its first taste of public disapproval and throughout its six-year span, the league would encounter much more.
The league encountered another setback to its public image during a scandal only slightly connected to the league. A highly decorated officer, Smedley Darlington Butler, claimed that a Fascist group aiming to topple the government attempted to recruit him. Financing apparently came from two high-ranking officials in the League, John W. Davis and W.R. Perkins. The plot seemed so far-fetched that the media to the public disregarded the incident and considered it false. Although no visible scratch had been done to the league, the league was now associated with radicals and were “now more vulnerable to future attacks.”6 After the incident, the League had decided to initiate its largest campaign “to propagate conservative political and economic thought.”7 The League’s verbal assaults on Franklin Roosevelt were endless. Some said Roosevelt was Fascist; others claimed a Socialist with ties to the Bolshevik Red. But all in all, he was a dictator wanting more power. The criticism was relentless; all pamphlets had the underlying theme of Roosevelt’s power. The Leaguers believed the New Deal was just another way to extend his grasp on the nation. They believed themselves to be protectorates, vanguards of the Constitution. The Constitution was their purpose. Captain Stayton once stated the importance of “a moral or emotional purpose.8 The League regularly claimed that the New Deal changed the system, it was too centralized, and too much power given to one man. Although the league’s protests were legitimate, the public deemed the protests too serious, “pompous, righteous, [and] pharisaical.”9 The fact that most of its members had great wealth did not brighten public opinion. Since depressions were widely believed as natural, the leaguers questioned the validity of the multiple New Deal programs. Too expensive and too big, were frequent complaints heard from the Leaguers. And by 1935, “not only had New Deal measures failed to bring recovery, insisted the League, but in most instances… [it was quickly becoming] a detriment to recovery.” The Liberty League expressed no opposition to the relief programs, but acknowledged its necessity. However, they criticized the programs’ waste and extravagance. These programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, Works Progress Administration were enacted to improve American lives and relieve unemployment. By openly criticizing such establishments, the League laid the foundation of mistrust and contempt from the majority. Even with all the Liberty League’s goals, the American Liberty League was the “representative of conservative thought of the country.”10
By 1936, the League would hit its peak. It was election year, and a turning point for the organization. In preparation for the elections, the League scheduled a dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Scheduled to speak was the renowned Al Smith. His speech caused much drama in the Washington circle. Those who could not attend had the opportunity to listen on radio. Though not many prominent members of the administration attended, “from the ranks of business, finance, management, and law were assembled many of the most prominent names in America.”11 Al Smith condemned the New Deal as being too Communist. The fact that a prominent Democrat would trash and criticize his own party is what “created the storm.”11 The day after the speech, “the League was a sensation.”12 Opposition to the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt was revitalized. With a split Democrat party, the League did everything to prevent Roosevelt from winning the convention. “With the two-thirds rule still in effect,”13 the League hoped to “produce a deadlock and then swing the convention to a conservative compromise candidate.”13 Enhanced by prominent Democrat leaders, and burgeoning with many possible candidates, beating Roosevelt was within their grasp. Possible candidates included Huey Long, Eugene Talmadge, and Henry Brekinridge. Yet the League’s triumph was the beginning of its end. The opposing candidates had either withdrawn or been assassinated and “by early spring the League had given up.”14 Roosevelt’s won the nomination without a great deal of struggle. The League tried many ways to rebuild itself. Although there was gossip for a third-party, the League’s only hope to defeat Roosevelt came from the Republican Party. Unfortunately, the League promised to be non-partisan. During the pre-elections, both the League and the Republican Party vehemently denied any association with each other. The fact that the party needed and received support from the League’s wealthy members was conspicuous, and both organizations were discredited.
It was painfully obvious, that “it was over, all over. Landon, Knox, the Republican Party had failed.”14 The elections all tipped overwhelmingly in Roosevelt’s favor. “Roosevelt had overwhelmed Landon by 523 to 8.”14 After the election, the League’s influence diminished, and it went downhill from there. Some investigations dealing with radicals often were traced back to the League. Its staff was “trimmed to a minimum,”15 Shouse’s salary was cut down, and “eventually the files were… burned.”15
For two years the League was a sensation. The League was a regular issue in magazines and newspapers. Its members were notorious in the business and political spectrum. During those two years, it was a force to be reckoned with, and “potentially one of the most powerful pressure groups ever to appear in American history.”15 The League persistently maintained their claim of being nonpartisan. But the league’s endless resources laid them vulnerable to charges of corruption. By 1940, the Du Ponts were basically the only donors; and by this time, Shouse was devoting his efforts with no salary. With no financial support to influence the 1940 elections, the members thought it best to terminate the League.
From the beginning, the author’s tone of writing was one of pity towards the misfortune of the American Liberty League. Wolfskill understood that the League was doomed from the start. The Liberty League expected a revolt from the people. They expected the same results from the movement against Prohibtion. During the depression, the American people as a whole desperately needed a savior. Ultimately, someone was going to voice opinions against the New Deal and its legislations. But it truly was “the wrong philosophy at the wrong time.”16 So harsh was their impact, Wolfskill believes that the “Liberty League probably did the cause of conservatism a disservice.”16 The impact of the Depression is difficult to understand, but it was surely the cause of the League’s failures. Americans weren’t ready to topple a man who represented the symbol of hope.. Roosevelt provided the relief, the action, when it was most and desperately needed.
Frank Friedel is a distinguished historian. He has written over a dozen books, and is a former Harvard professor. He highlights upon the Jeffersonian Democrat, the defenders of states’ rights and personal liberties. Friedel explains that they were a group who fought vigorously for the repeal of Prohibition and eventually joined forces to create the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. The wealthy Jeffersonians that opposed the Prohibition would eventually oppose Roosevelt’s new principles because it went too far. “Appalled [by] the heavy deficit spending,”17 they retaliated by establishing the American Liberty League. But Friedel points out, the organizers of the League, like Shouse and Raskob, expected the same successful outcome from the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. He provides information of the identical ties between the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the American Liberty League.
Norman A. Graebner is another respected historian and former professor at the University of Virginia. He begins by praising such a well-written piece and understands that the opposition was bound to happen. Most likely coming from the business spectrum. Frustration towards the government eventually lead to the establishment of the American Liberty League. Surprisingly, the most critical comments and advice came from politicians in the Democratic Party. Jouete Shouse, established the Liberty League, and was an influential political leader in the Democratic Party, who actually helped rebuild the ruined party during Hoover’s term in office. The leaders of the League feared most was Roosevelts heavy lean towards the left in the political spectrum. Sharing the same goals and enemies, the Republicans and the Liberty League worked hand-in-hand. The fight against both Prohibition and the New Deal, basically was for personal gain. It was “a fight to avoid paying taxes.”18 Graebner explains that the League could easily be discredited. The fact that businessmen were proclaiming themselves guards of the Constitution was very hypocritical. Opposition to the New Deal was much more for personal gain, and in the end it brought about their demise.
The Revolt of the Conservatives is a neatly and diligently written book by George Wolfskill. The way it is organized is superb, and its very background of the topic was carefully researched. The book’s factual information is continual, while the author provides well thought commentary. It is very well written and provides much needed insight to a topic, very much shamed. Although the true heart of characters weren’t explained in depth, one can get a feel of their values. While providing factual and interesting information, the book suggests rare and exceptional interpretations of the past. Although his biases are unclear, the writer acknowledges the failures of the League. Wolfskill explains that they were “the most articulate spokesman…. [of] political conservatism”during that time period.16
Today, one can say we are experiencing the same downturns in economy. But with experience learned from that era and the development of newer technologies, our nation is coping and will eventually pull through. Some legislation created during that era is still in use, and it has definitely improved the daily life of normal Americans. From the New Deal came many new programs aimed at regulating business. The economy has become much more stable than it was before. With Social Security and better working conditions, workers and grandparents can relax knowing they have a pension during inability to work.
Although the American Liberty League had failed to complete its goals, the League itself provided ideas in decreasing the size of government. Their ideals are a stepping-stone for future Conservative thought. In perspective, the League did have contributions in maintaining proper checks and balances within the United States government. The ideas the Liberty League conveyed definitely have an impact on government today.
1: Wolfskill, George. The Revolt of the Conservatives: A History of the American Civil Liberties Union. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962. 20.
Zechariah is currently a junior at Irvine High School, Like every kid, he enjoys sports, music, and friends. He plans on becoming an accountant. He has two younger sisters by the name of Keziah and Keren. Hopefully, he’ll be able to fulfill his dream in attending a UC.
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