Perhaps the most famous “manifesto” to come out of the Senate was the Southern Manifesto, which was an expression of opposition to desegregation, Brown v. Board of Education, and proposed federal civil rights legislation. This proposal gained the signatures of most Southern Democrats in both chambers, with two Virginia House Republicans joining in. Although important for the South during the civil rights era, I argue that another manifesto was more influential in the long run. This was drafted in response to the New Deal in 1937, called the Conservative Manifesto.
At the time, the economy was undergoing the “Roosevelt Recession”, the first major downturn since 1933. Additionally, FDR had blundered in promoting his “court packing plan” and sit-down strikes evoked public ire. Conservatives of both parties in the Senate saw these events as their chance to offer alternatives to the New Deal. The Conservative Manifesto was primarily drafted by Senators Josiah Bailey (D-N.C.) and Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), with contributions from Millard Tydings (D-Md.), Harry Byrd (D-Va.), Royal Copeland (D-N.Y.), Edward Burke (D-Neb.), and Warren Austin (R-Vt.). This document consisted of a ten-point program that ran counter to the direction the New Deal was taking:
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.
Among the people who had been let in on the document was Minority Leader Charles McNary (R-Ore.). A moderate, he wanted to craft a GOP response to the New Deal and feared that any Republicans who signed on to this document would be labeled a “Liberty Leaguer”. This fear was in reference to the Liberty League, the conservative organization that primarily consisted of businessmen and whose efforts at foiling Roosevelt were unsuccessful to say the least. McNary thus leaked the document to the press, not wanting competition with his proposals (Moore, 32). This leak resulted in many senators distancing themselves from the document as FDR was very popular, but Bailey assumed public responsibility for drafting it. These ideas formed a basis for the modern conservative movement and were influential for the policies promoted by the Conservative Coalition, formed after the 1938 midterms. This alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats would frequently foil or outright block from consideration liberal domestic legislation from 1939 to 1959 and would retain influence up until conservatism became identified almost entirely with the GOP. The ideas behind the document, although their popularity would ebb and flow, have fully become bedrock ideas of the Republican Party and have gained in public perception. While race has greater salience in the general public consciousness than ideological squabbles, hence the more attention historians give the Southern Manifesto, the Conservative Manifesto had a greater influence on the future trajectory of American politics.
Kickler, T.L. The Conservative Manifesto. North Carolina History Project.
Moore, J.R. (1965). Josiah W. Bailey and the “Conservative Manifesto” of 1937. The Journal of Southern History, 31(1), 21-39.