1937 September 17

FDR’s Constitution Day Speech: Extraordinary Claims of Presidential Power


President Franklin Roosevelt marked the 150th anniversary of the Constitution with a speech on this day that set forth extraordinary views of presidential power. His views were shaped by the immediate political and economic context of the speech. The Supreme Court had struck down the major New Deal reforms during Roosevelt’s first term as president, and many people, including FDR, felt the nation had reached a constitutional crisis. In his speech, Roosevelt argued that the Constitution was a “people’s” document and not a lawyer’s one, and a document that gave the president the power to act unilaterally in national emergencies. Roosevelt never fully acted on this idea, however.

By the time of this speech, the Supreme Court had already changed course, and began upholding New Deal economic measures and broadening constitutional protection for civil liberties. (See the important and pivotal Footnote Four in U.S. v. Carolene Products on April 25, 1938.) Additionally, the oldest judges on the Court had started to retiring, and Roosevelt’s appointments soon gave him a solid majority on the Court. The so-called Roosevelt Court (1937–1945) established the first significant body of civil liberties law in the history of the Court, and laid the foundation for the more famous Warren Court (1953–1969).

Read the speech: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=15459

Learn more about the speech and FDR’s views and actions on presidential power: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama (2012)

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