The 1932 Presidential election took place during the height of the Great Depression. While a number of candidates ran on third party tickets, the main fight for the White House featured the incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover against Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and none of the other candidates garnered more than 2% of the popular vote. Hoover had won the presidential election in 1928 on a pro-business platform promising continued prosperity. Nine months into Hoover’s term, on October 24, 1929, the stock market crashed, beginning the period that would become known as the Great Depression. The challenges created by the downward economic spiral consumed Hoover’s term and were a main focus of the 1932 presidential election.
Hoover was one of the inaugural students at Stanford University in 1891, where he graduated with a degree in geology. Hoover became a miner and engineer who worked in Australia and China for large mining companies, eventually becoming a sole proprietor. Hoover would make a fortune in his career. He was a strong proponent of the “Efficiency Movement.” The Movement’s followers believed that the government and economy were both inefficient and could be improved by private experts. In April 1917, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to be the head of the U.S. Food Administration.
In 1920, the Democratic Party approached Hoover to be the party’s nominee for President. Hoover rebuffed the overture, as he had registered as a Republican before World War I in spite of his support of Teddy Roosevelt and the “Bull Moose” Progressive Party in the 1912 election. Hoover ran in the 1920 California presidential primary as a Republican and lost to Hiram Johnson. Afterward, Hoover publicly supported Warren G. Harding in the 1920 presidential general election. When Harding won the election, Harding rewarded Hoover’s loyalty by offering Hoover the choice of two Cabinet positions. Hoover chose Secretary of Commerce. For the next seven years, Hoover served in that role, until he became the Republican nominee for President in 1928.
Going into the 1932 presidential election, Republicans believed Hoover’s fiscal policies and protectionism were the right formula to help the United States put the Great Depression behind it. At the Chicago nominating convention, Hoover won the nomination in overwhelming fashion, taking 98% of the delegate votes.
Roosevelt was the Governor of New York, the most populous state at the time. When the Democratic Party met in Chicago in June 1932 a few weeks after the Republican nominating convention, Roosevelt was considered the strong frontrunner for the presidential nomination. The Democrats’ nominating rules provided that a candidate had to receive the votes of two-thirds of the convention delegates to win the nomination, a high threshold that Roosevelt did not meet on the first three ballots. After Roosevelt’s team made a deal with House Speaker John Nance Garner to make him Roosevelt’s Vice President, Roosevelt obtained the necessary delegate votes on the next ballot. Roosevelt promised the convention delegates, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” At the time of his pledge, Roosevelt had not given serious thought to what the “New Deal” would mean, but would flesh it out when he was elected President.
The Election of 1932
Roosevelt conveyed a sense of optimism and change to the nation during the 1932 election campaign. His campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” was part of that overall messaging. The 1932 election was primarily focused on the state of affairs in the country resulting from the Great Depression. Many blamed Hoover for the country’s economic woes, citing his restrictions on trade and his raising of taxes on the wealthy. At the same time, characterizations of Hoover’s reaction to the economic crisis as “laissez faire” have been assessed by historians as unfair. Hoover initiated a number of public works programs that were unprecedented and intended to end the Great Depression, and some historians have credited Hoover with implementing the first stages of what would become the New Deal.
The two main candidates campaigned hard for the presidency. Roosevelt won the popular vote and Electoral College by landslides, and captured what at the time was the largest percentage of the popular vote of any Democrat in presidential election history. Roosevelt won 57.4% of the popular vote and 472 out of 531 electoral votes. He was the first Democrat elected to the Presidency since 1916.
The Great Depression and the Threat to Constitutionalism
As noted, Hoover implemented a number of public works programs to address the Great Depression, but the unemployment rate rose to almost 25%, the stock market had collapsed, and the American people were not happy with the state of affairs. Roosevelt had great political capital coming into office based on his promises and the results of the election. Roosevelt unveiled a wide variety of programs to stimulate and fix the United States economy in his first hundred days as President as the “New Deal” that he had first proclaimed at the Democratic nominating convention in Chicago. Early initiatives included the creation of the National Recovery Administration and the Emergency Banking Act.
Critics of Roosevelt asserted that the New Deal was an encroachment on private property rights and greatly expanded the welfare state. Even strong initial supporters of Roosevelt, including Father Charles E. Coughlin, began to attack Roosevelt’s initiatives. Americans feared that many of the New Deal initiatives would be found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court at the beginning of Roosevelt’s first term included a four person voting bloc nicknamed “The Four Horsemen”- Justices Pierce Butler, James McReynolds, George Sutherland and Willis Van Devanter-who believed that Roosevelt’s New Deal programs violated constitutional limitations. In the spring of 1935, Justice Owen Roberts began to vote with the Four Horsemen, making the fears that the Court would invalidate Roosevelt’s programs a reality. The strong initiatives implemented by the Roosevelt administration to address the impact of the Great Depression were in jeopardy, pitting the Executive Branch against the Judicial Branch. Over the next few years, until Roberts changed his positions (the “Switch in Time that Saved Nine”), the Supreme Court would strike down more major acts of Congress than at any other period in the Court’s history.
The Great Depression left the United States in a terrible position requiring resourcefulness and programs that would help jumpstart the economy. Hoover and Roosevelt responded to that need by implementing a variety of public works projects and government programs that would challenge constitutionalism and pit the President and Congress against the Supreme Court. Eventually the battle between the branches would be won by the President and Congress, but that outcome was not without uncertainty along the way.
Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.