Chapter Two: The Lion Roars: Borah and the Early New Deal
By the time of the Great Depression, William Borah had formulated a subtle yet sophisticated public philosophy that was grounded in the civic republican tradition. Through dissolving trusts to curb the threat of monopoly and properly applying federalism to curb the threat of arbitrary power, Borah aimed to preserve both the virtue and autonomy of communities and the average level of citizenship. This delicately balanced civic philosophy would find itself at odds with several of FDR's haphazardly produced New Deal programs.
Although Borah never officially took sides in the 1932 Presidential contest between FDR and Herbert Hoover, his recalcitrance in promoting the latter suggests the direction of his sympathies. Borah was deeply disappointed in Hoover's reaction to the Depression, particularly his apparent unwillingness to admit the depth of the calamity or to offer any relief funds. Believing his party to be in the grip of "reactionary interests," Borah decried the behavior and self-serving social Darwinist rhetoric of his colleagues. Speaking of a starving Tennessee woman who had written him a letter, the Senator scathingly attacked Hoover's conservative coalition in the debate over a 25 million dollar relief bill. "We are told that for the Government to feed this woman and her sick children would destroy her self respect and make a bad citizen of her," Borah said, belittling the impoverished version of civic philosophy held by his opponents. "Does anyone believe it? It is a cowardly imputation on the helpless. I resent it and I repudiate it."1 Borah echoed this view in 1932 when he said that "[some conservatives say] if we keep [the unemployed] from starving we will undermine their character. I denounce that as a libel of American citizenship. Ninety percent of our people would return to work tomorrow. They would scorn your charity. They would refuse your gifts if you would give them the opportunity to get to work."2
Borah was clearly not of the mostly Republican school who wanted to simply ride out the Depression. Indeed, relatively early in the great economic crisis, Borah had settled on his diagnosis of the problem and what needed to be done to alleviate it. "The key to a return to prosperity," declared Borah in a 1934 summation of his thoughts on the Depression, "is the restoration of the purchasing power of the masses; there is no overproduction in a general sense. [The problem] is underconsumption. It is a lack of purchasing power. It is want of distribution of the things produced. It is the inability of the millions to secure their just proportion of that which is produced." This lack of purchasing power, according to the Idahoan, was a result of "our failure to properly divide and distribute the benefits of the machine. The real problem," as he saw it, "is the more equitable distribution of wealth." Citing that "4% of the people of the United States own 80% if its wealth," Borah advocated the lowering of tariffs to promote world trade, inflationary monetary measures such as paying depositors to put their money in circulation and reissuing silver, and, most importantly, the destruction of monopolies, which were "bleeding our people white."3
Even before FDR had come into office, Borah was consistently remarking on the same cause and solutions to the Great Depression. Although he had voiced doubts against deficit spending earlier in his career, Borah felt that the crisis called for government funding on a large scale. "The budget will not, and can not, be balanced except on paper; at a time when underconsumption is a malady which menaces our whole social structure, there can be no justification for aggravating the malady." Rather, he thought, the government should help to "balance the budget of the taxpayers" through "reflation."4 Later that year, Borah declared "the only way in the world to put these people back to work and to protect labor under present prices is to increase the purchasing power of the masses through reasonable, controlled inflation."5 Still later in 1933, Borah condemned the system "where 36,000 families at the top of the economic ladder receive greater income than twelve million families at the foot of the ladder," a system brought about by "the power of monopoly," as "basically, radically, brutally wrong" and suggested its abolishment would restore the nation's economic system.6 Again and again, Borah returned to underconsumption through inequitable distribution of wealth as the prime factor for the Depression, and he consistently advocated inflation and redistribution measures to remedy the crisis.
Embarrassed by the actions of his party during the Hoover years, Borah initially seemed relieved by Roosevelt's ascendance to the Presidency. Indeed, at first, Borah was extremely impressed with FDR, particularly his good humor in weathering his disability. Mary Borah, wife of the Senator, remarked after watching Roosevelt fall at an inaugural function that "Billy couldn't get over it. On the way home I thought for awhile he was going to cry. 'We don't often see courage like that nowadays,' he said."7 Defending the President against Republican critics late in 1933, Borah argued that "he deeply desires to lift [the people] out of their desperate troubles."8 Echoing similar sentiments in 1934, Borah noted that "the President of the United States is rarely gifted with a deep and abiding sense of optimism."9
Yet, Roosevelt's lack of ideological vision soon began to grate on the Senator. Responding to a constituent in early 1934, Borah declared, "We seem doomed to try out everything."10 Moreover, although he supported any reform or recovery measures that accorded with his personal reading of the crisis, such as the guarantee of bank deposits and the creation of the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), Borah soon found the dubious constitutionality and extralegal bureaucracy of several First New Deal measures to be as large a threat to American citizenry as monopoly itself. "You can not exchange the regimentation of government for the regimentation of monopolists," he declared. "Unless we are prepared to uproot and destroy regimentation by private interests, we will as certainly as time goes on to have regimentation by the government."11 Of all the policies of the first Hundred Days, the two which most drew Borah's attention -- and ire -- were the National Recovery Act (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), both of which he thought were an inordinate abuse of power that harmed the ability of citizens to participate in self-government.
The detrimental factor of the NRA, in Borah's eyes, was its suspension of the anti-trust laws: He attempted to restore them during Congressional debate, but his amendment was killed in committee. "Can small business be rescued from ruin -- small business, independent business, which is the real economic strength and backbone of the nation?" Borah asked in the manner of civic republicans during a radio speech on the NIRA. Not, according to the Idahoan, so long as monopolies, "without restraint, without hindrance passing under the euphonious terms of "trade associations" were fixing prices "regardless of humanity or justice."12 He continued to state that, "while the NRA is seeking to restore purchasing power,
monopoly hovers around like a bird of prey upon the citizen, and not only takes all gain from the laborer, from the farmer, from the people generally but, while taking is good, it takes more than the gain assured by the NRA. At the present time it is perfectly clear that monopoly is gathering up everything which the average man and woman might reap in the way of benefit from the present recovery program.13
A perfect outlet for his lifelong crusade against monopoly, Borah's tirade against the NRA took on near-religious proportions and prompted a whole series of quotables from the Senator. "When the time comes that the interests in an industry," deadpanned Borah in debate, "gathered together for the purpose of making a code, do not dominate the situation, but permit the small independent to write the code for the large industry, the millennium will have been here for many years."14 In a 1934 letter to a constituent, Borah wrote, "When you have destroyed small business, you have destroyed our towns and our country life, and you have guaranteed and made permanent the concentration of economic power, [which in turn ensures] the concentration of political power; Monopoly and bureaucracy are twin whelps from the same kennel."
After the death of small business by NRA-safeguarded monopoly, warned Borah, "your merchant becomes your absentee landlord" who will "care little about local government, about schools, or even the condition of the family."15 In response to another constituent, Borah proclaimed, "It is as natural for bureaucracy to crush out small business as it is for a shark to eat babies."16 In sum, Borah believed that "the effect of monopoly is to decrease, if not destroy, purchasing power among the people. Such monopolies," he continued, "are economic Hitlers just as destructive of the civil liberties and rights of the people [as the Nazi]."17 One could no more speak of "good trusts and bad trusts" than one could "good kidnappers and bad kidnappers."18 Throughout the political life of the NRA, the Senator consistently vilified the bill for the monopolistic threat it posed to the political self-determination of communities, the cornerstone of his civic republican philosophy.
Borah's opposition to the NRA was both reflected in and buttressed by an overwhelming number of letters sent to the Senator from his constituents. Indeed, by his own count, Borah received over 14,000 letters decrying the NRA as a pernicious, monopolistic, and un-American doctrine.19 Just a sample of these missives reflect the average small businessman's profound dislike of this New Deal program. The NRA "has resulted in hamstringing the people; silenced authority where questions of monopoly has been raised and starved the children of those who dared to raised question of justice," remarked one newspaper editor to Senator Borah. "This hydra-headed reptile [of monopoly] finds an ingenious incubator in the New Deal. It exceeds the despotism of taxation without representation or slavery, both of which caused WAR."20
Other constituents voiced their opposition in no less uncertain terms. One cigar manufacturer urged Borah to continue his anti-NRA tirade "In the interest of the people running the Government and not the Government running the people."21 A New York printer who through "hard work and self-denial" had built up his small business decried the "persecution and coercion we are enduring at the present time. It is a case of 'Taxation without Representation.'"22 "The 'little fellow', his sturdy existence and his efforts, made us a nation," remarked an Idaho native to the Senator, "And he is far on the way out of the picture; we go back to feudalism soon on the present trend; all is closed to those now in control." In an indictment of the changing face of government, this citizen further added, "The present ambition of the youngsters is to get attached to a governmental tit, and to lay down with it."23
Another constituent prophesied doomsday lurking within the New Deal. "We must not sacrifice our rights as citizens to a dictator," she remarked,
These codes and these dictators will at last head up in an Anti-Christ and all that our forefathers fought for will be destroyed in this menace of communism. Our rights as individuals to own and control our own property has almost been destroyed by this N.R.A. If we do not awaken pretty soon we will be like millions in Russia without homes and without any incentive to work. When the Red Revolution is at our doors it will be too late. It is getting so that no man can buy or sell without the brand of the Blue Eagle. I guess this is the mark of the Beast alright.24
An equally colorful condemnation of the Blue Eagle was sent to Borah by an Oregon carpenter. "A year last August I remember there was a great braying of jackasses, grunting of pork and clucking of buzzards reverberating from the barnyard down near the Potomac," he wrote,
A short time later we heard the peep, peep of myriads of freshly hatched tiny Bluebirds. These tiny birds quickly grew to full-sized vultures, and as such swarmed from the mother coop to the north, south, east, and WEST, throughout our entire land, screeching as they come. Much noise and hullabaloo accompanied their flight. The ha-haw of many a jackass proclaimed their presence among us. When this queer looking bird arrived I grew very suspicious. They called it a "Blue Eagle." I failed to see any resemblance of a true eagle in this critter. It packed lightning in one fist, had a strangle holt [sic] on the wheels of industry in the other clutch, its beak had an uncanny resemblance to a certain democrat's nose, who once 'kept us out of war,' even the feathers on its wretched, gaping wings brought back memories of a severe flailing, I as a small kid, once received from a sassy old gander.25
One missive to Borah on the subject of the NRA deserves special note. Of thousands of letters, a note from the lumberjack president of the Malad City, Idaho Chamber of Commerce was one of a handful which supported the act. "Under this NRA when the government permits us to fix prices we have sat in with the big men several times," noted the president, "[and] I can truthfully say that it is the best Act that was ever passed to help the small independent dealers."26 This missive prompted a heated two page reply from Borah, whose correspondence rarely exceeded one perfunctory paragraph. "My contention is that if we are to have price-fixing, it should be by the government and not by the associations or industries representing the business," declared the Senator. Moreover, Borah drew a distinction between the NRA and the suspension of the antitrust laws, claming that "the monopolies are undermining and destroying the NRA; if you could see some of the thousands of letters I have in my file from people who have been literally ruined by these monopolies, I am sure you would change your view on this all-important question."27 Thus, Borah again iterates his belief in certain strong powers for national government, further belying those who would depict him solely as a provincial Jeffersonian. Indeed, Borah's issue with the NRA was that it did not preserve enough of a role for government in regulating codes and monopolies for the interest of the common man. Only when the government attempted to regulate the behavior of the average citizen did Borah find fault with the use of federal power.
This explains why Borah also held little love for the Agricultural Adjustment Act -- he thought the AAA to be an infringement of governmental power upon self-rule. "I think it is bureaucracy gone mad," proclaimed Borah of the powers granted to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace under the AAA. "I contend that you can help the American farmer to solve the present difficulties without taking away his personal liberty, his judgment, his opinion, his own view as to how he should run his farm."28 Moreover, Borah called the destruction of "overproduced goods" under the AAA to be "contrary to the soundest principles of government and to the inherent instincts of the human race. It is contrary to the fundamental principles of humanity."29 At another time, he declared that "all reason, all sound economics, all humanity, all progress, are against crop reduction. There is not more in the world than the world needs. Our task is not reduction but distribution."30 Rather than regimenting farm life to alleviate agricultural depression, Borah wanted to enact modest inflation and guarantee farmers the cost of production, so as to improve their purchasing power. He voted as such upon an amendment to the AAA supported by fellow Progressives like George Norris and Gerald Nye, but it was killed in committee.31
Borah's view of the AAA was also supported by numerous letters from his constituents. The vegetable producers of Idaho jointly sent Borah a note condemning the "Food Czar bill, which gives Mr. Wallace the complete power of not only destroying all existing machinery now handling farm commodities, but gives him the power to limit production and even more dangerous than this the unlimited power of taxation." They felt such a law would prefigure revolution, as the average Idaho farmers "are ready for a fight as soon as someone proposes one" and "men who produce their commodities are not going to yield to dictatorship." They implored Borah to fight the bill with all his oratorical might. "Surely we haven't reached the point where all individualism in the U.S. should be destroyed, and proceed to make pesants of our farmers [sic], and the balance of the U.S. go onto the Government charity rolls."32
Other letters echoed similar proto-revolutionary sentiments. "Something must be wrong when we live in a land flowing with milk and honey and yet must go hungry," one letter declared.
It seems that our country is being betrayed into the hands of enemies as Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners and as Judas was found to be a traitor so these men are traitors to our Republican form of government. The American people do not need a dictator for we are not ignorant peasants to be told what to buy or sell or what to eat or wear.33
Another missive is even more telling of agriculturists' furor over the AAA. "The farmers are already heaped with indignities and tied up with interminable red tape," declared a Missouri forecaster.
It would be a national crime to reduce them to virtual serfdom by taking them the last fragment of independence they have Ã± the right to operate their farms undisturbed. The great agricultural west owns its farms, its homes, the business institutions of its innumerable scattered cities and the people will not submit to the surrender of their rights. They will revolt first. They will defy the government to take from them the rights given them by the constitution. The tenemented East with its "workers" who have no property, pay no taxes, but vote Marxism with readiness, may wish for regimentation, since it has little effect upon them, but the West will defy intrusion upon its ownership rights.34
Borah's primary complaint with the AAA, that it removed power from the hands of citizens and located it in the executive branch of the federal government, would be continually reenacted during the Roosevelt years. At first, Borah allowed FDR the chance to respond to the Great Depression as he saw fit. "I am perfectly willing to grant the President of the United States in this emergency all the power that can be granted to him within the Constitution of the United States," he declared in debate.35
Yet, Borah would increasingly find himself at odds with the administration on this question of appropriate power. Based on his civic republican concern with preserving self-rule and the constitution as the nation's civic bond of union, Borah became increasingly annoyed by FDR's extra-constitutional reform agenda and centralizing tendencies, eventually declaring in 1937 that the Roosevelt administration would "destroy our form of government."36 Although the strain between the two men was not so evident in 1934, when FDR attempted to confer to himself the power of treaty-making in the name of a foreign trade emergency, Borah's aggravation began to show. The senator responded, "There has been a supposition undoubtedly entertained by many people that an emergency, somewhat like the midnight hags upon the blasted heath tormenting the soul of Macbeth, can call up power from the unknown deep of the Constitution that is desired for any particular occasion. Emergency does not create power," he continued, "Emergency does not increase power or remove or diminish the restrictions imposed upon power granted or reserved."37
It was hardly because Borah was a provincial Jeffersonian that he and Roosevelt clashed. Borah envisioned a major role for the federal government in controlling monopoly through anti-trust regulation and redistributing wealth through progressive taxation. Indeed, he also supported such federal social service measures as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and Rural Electrification Commission (REC) during the First Hundred Days.38 Rather, the two liberals differed in their commitment to preserving self-rule and the American constitutional system -- While Roosevelt's brand of bold experimentalism increasingly involved centralizing power in the executive branch, Borah aimed to preserve the Madisonian principle of checks and balances in his attempts to aid the common man.
Yet, Borah's constitutionalism was not as rabid as many historians have indicated. Indeed, even he seemed to occasionally recognize the priority of executive action over constitutional deliberation. As the Senator put it in 1934, after his party had been devastated in the midterm elections, "There was a vast amount of reaction against the New Deal, but what were the people offered in its stead? They can't eat the Constitution."39
Moreover, Borah's criticism of Roosevelt's use of executive authority diminished when the Senator and the President shared goals. In the debate over financing public works, a measure Borah thought to be both inflationary and necessary, the Senator argued, "I notice that some of the great editorial writers who were in favor of granting extraordinary power, as it seemed to me unconstitutional power, to deal with the bank situation, and to deal with the economic situation, become fearfully alarmed when it comes to considering [this issue]...It makes a great difference where the extraordinary powers are operating."40
Similarly, although Borah had earlier declared Roosevelt's Bank Holiday to be unconstitutional, he soon thereafter remarked to the press, "I hope the President will now exercise his so called war powers for the protection of the public...on the New York Stock Exchange," an institution he deemed "one of the most facile and remorseless instruments for...shameless depredations." In order to prevent another "orgy of speculation" and to "force this money back into legitimate channels and keep it out among the people as much as possible," Borah sidestepped his usual dogmatism and encouraged the President to wield power he had previously deemed unconstitutional.41
Indeed, during the mid-1930s, the time often referred to as the "Second New Deal," Borah and the President found more common ground than in the early days, and as such Borah's criticisms of excessive executive power were few and far between. When Roosevelt took rhetorical aim at the "Tories of Industry," exercised federal power to outlaw holding companies, and initiated, at Progressive behest, a "soak the rich" tax plan in 1935-36 in order "to prevent an unjust concentration of wealth and economic power," Borah and Roosevelt remained on remarkably good terms.42 Indeed, Roosevelt invited Borah to lunch at the White House for the first time in March of 1935 and declared the Senator had "an extremely interesting mind."43 Finally, it seemed to the Senator, the president was committed to the causes of redistribution and antimonopolism.
During this time, Borah also made inroads with the rising populist leaders whose pressure for redistribution would come to shape Roosevelt's "Second New Deal." The Lion of Idaho had already befriended the Louisiana Kingfisher -- Huey Long and Borah voted together 74% of the time in 1934-35, and the former thought the Idahoan "the greatest lawyer since Daniel Webster."44 Moreover, Borah also publicly praised Father Charles Coughlin for his commitment to inflation and the common man.45 It was the old-age pension scheme of Dr. Frances Townsend, however, that seemed to most intrigue the seventy-year-old senator Â¾ Borah called Townsendism "the most extraordinary social and political movement in recent years and perhaps in our entire history."46 In the end, however, Borah thought the Townsend plan too ambitious. "I do not think it is practicable," he declared in 1936, "but I do think that we must provide an old-age pension of fifty or sixty dollars a month...beyond that I am not prepared to go."47 In fact, Borah submitted an amendment to the Social Security Act increasing monthly old-age pensions to $60, a move which won him the political support of Townsend and, by extension, his followers.48
With both the President and the Populists converging on Borah's ideological territory of antimonopolism and redistribution, the Senator from Idaho must have felt it was his time. As such, he began to entertain the idea of becoming the President from Idaho in 1936. His party still in shambles from the 1934 Congressional rout -- only twenty-five Republican senators remained in the Senate -- Borah embarked on a quest to liberalize the party of Lincoln through a Presidential bid.
As a wake-up call to his party, Borah first warned the Republicans that their institution may die "of sheer political cowardice," as "there is no room in this country for an old conservative party." Rather, the Senator noted, "the driving power in politics in this country for years to come will come from labor, the producer, from small business, and from millions who have, through no fault of their own, been stripped of their life's savings and life's opportunities."49 Elsewhere, he stated similarly, "The Republican Party is shot to pieces, demoralized, and without influence in national affairs. I am good enough a Republican to fight as long as I have power against the men who brought the party to its present condition."50
Then, the aged Senator hit the campaign trail. His platform consisted primarily of his ancient crusade, antimonopolism, which he still cast as a fight to preserve the autonomy of the common man. Why isn't the Depression over?, he asked an Illinois crowd on April 9, 1936.
Because monopoly fixes the price of 80 percent of the things you must have to live, and because monopoly during the boom days destroyed the purchasing power of 70 percent of all American citizens. You'll likely hear that I am a radical. That is because I say the greatest question before us is how to save the independent small businessman, and the only way to do it is to destroy monopoly.51
Throughout the primaries, Borah continually praised Roosevelt for his commitment to activism, yet expressed his distaste for Roosevelt's agricultural policy and his unease at the President's extra-constitutional behavior. Moreover, most of Borah's campaign salvos were directed at his own party interests -- Big Business and Old Money. "One of the Du Ponts," remarked Borah, "said the other day that I am a dangerous man. He said he'd take anybody but me for President. Thank God I haven't lived in vain."52 On another occasion, he declared, "The high place in the counsels of the party which corporate and monopolistic interests have long occupied is known to all the world...Can, and will, the party drive these forces from its councils, disregard their satellites and break their grip upon its policies?"53 Later still, he deadpanned, "If those now in control would wake up some morning and find I had been nominated for President of the Republican Party, they would groan, roll over and die."54
This behavior infuriated Republicans searching for a united conservative front. Party machinery soon turned against the Lion of Idaho, throwing up "favorite son" candidates in the primaries in order to siphon delegates from Borah. Moreover, the Senator's political enemies made popular such ditties as "Senator Borah leaves us cold; he's a bonus man and he's pretty old."55 Only in Wisconsin, where Borah benefited from the former political operatives of Robert La Follette, did the Senator receive a majority of delegates.56 "Senator Borah's victory in Wisconsin," one party paper caustically remarked, "will be as much help in winning the Republican nomination as Hitler's endorsement would be to a candidate in the Bronx."57
Borah's campaign was also hindered by his lack of funds. Rather than accept contributions from the usual interests, Borah relied heavily on $5 and $10 donations from average citizens.58 At high mark, his campaign coffers totaled only $3000, a far cry from the Republicans with the backing of Eastern business. Soon enough, Borah had been soundly beaten in the primaries, and the Republican convention in Cleveland, after allowing Borah anti-monopoly and isolationist planks in the party platform, readily elected Alfred Landon, a standard-issue conservative oil man from Kansas.59 Tears welled in the eyes of the seventy-two year old Senator as he thanked his Idaho delegation for their support and retired to his chambers, rejected by the party he had worked so hard to transform.60
For the rest of the 1936 election, a morose Borah sat on the sidelines. Although his aides hinted that the Senator "entertains a very high regard and warm friendliness for the President" and even Borah declared he might "blast...[his party] with a pro-Roosevelt pronouncement," the Idahoan eventually decided to stay neutral.61 "I shall confine myself entirely to the issues," remarked Borah, "and I shall not make a speech for any candidate."62 Borah's neutrality came as no surprise to those who knew him well. The Lion of Idaho repeated his behavior of "the past thirty years," remarked Senator Hiram Johnson of California, "growling each four years and yet before the end of the campaign being a most enthusiastic supporter of those at whom he growled."63
Even Roosevelt, although hoping otherwise, had pegged the Senator. "I should have asked a hundred to one odds from you when last May I bet you one dollar that Borah would come out for me," wrote the President to James Farley.
I made the dollar bet on even terms on the doctrine of chances -- that Borah, for the last twenty-five years or more, had threatened regularly during each three and a half years following the election to bolt his party nominee -- only to backslide to said nominee during the few months before the national election. I was wrong. He ran true to form.64
Spurned by the Republicans and lampooned by the President, Borah came out of the 1936 election a sure-fire loser. And yet, in 1936, Borah still commanded the attention of his party and his people. Although he had failed to assume the Presidency, his political ideology had been approximated by Roosevelt and the Republicans since the elections of 1934. The 1936 election, in which Roosevelt cruised to victory over Landon, represented a plebiscite not only upon the New Deal but upon the political philosophy of Borah, which Roosevelt embraced during his Second New Deal. Unfortunately, the President assumed only the former from his landslide, and was thus encouraged to continue and expand the New Deal on his terms. As a result of this hubris and of hard times to come, Roosevelt and Borah would find themselves at loggerheads through much of FDR's second term. Never again would Borah's civic republicanism fall on so many ears -- the Lion of Idaho would live just long enough to see his political philosophy eclipsed by the New Deal liberal consensus.