James M. Beck: A Legal Scholar and the New Deal

People on Time Magazine Covers 1923-1929

On September 13, 1934, a Republican representative has finally had enough of how Congress is run under Speaker Henry T. Rainey (D-Ill.). Rainey as speaker opted to surrender legislative prerogatives to FDR. In his resignation letter, James M. Beck (1861-1936) of Pennsylvania denounced Congress as “merely a rubber stamp for the Executive” (The New York Times, 1934). Beck resigned at the end of the session, September 30th, believing he would be more effective in litigating against the New Deal. This act solidified further his position as one the staunchest New Deal foes.

An attorney by profession, Beck had a long history serving in leading legal positions. From 1888 to 1892, he was U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Philadelphia, and from 1896 to 1900 he was U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. In 1898, he lost a bid for D.A. of Philadelphia against Republican P. Frederick Rothermel. Although he was initially a Bourbon Democrat, the Democratic Party’s turn from Grover Cleveland to William Jennings Bryan had increasingly soured him on Democrats and by 1900 he was a Republican. This was a politically profitable switch in the at the time staunchly Republican Philadelphia and he was rewarded by President William McKinley with an appointment as assistant to the Attorney General, a post he served in until resigning in 1903, having been keen on representing the interests of business.

Beck returned to the private sector for law and his career flourished at Shearman & Sterling in New York City until 1917, after which he became senior partner at Beck, Crawford, & Harris until 1927. He stood out as a critic of Germany’s conduct during World War I, writing several books against Germany, The Evidence in the Case (1914) and War and Humanity (1916) (Collier’s New Encyclopedia). In 1914 he was, given his sterling reputation, elected a bencher at Gray’s Inn, the first non-Brit in over 600 years to be elected to such a post. In 1922, Beck would be permitted to practice law in Britain.

In 1916, he stated in his speech to a meeting of the Pilgrims of Great Britain, “England and the United States are both conservative nations, certainly the two most conservative democracies of the world. We love settled institutions. We cling to the old; we dread the new. We believe that that which has in the past been tried, has a violent presumption in its favour” (Beck, 13). Once again, like in my post about The Searchlight’s use of the term “liberalism” in 1922, this brings into question the idea that the term “liberal” switched to the left with the New Deal and that conservatism meant something different given Beck’s subsequent legislative record. He also wrote presciently in America and the War that although America had to enter World War I, the outcome was causing “a heritage of hatred among nations” and that down the road Germany and Japan may join forces to fight the United States and its allies (Armstrong, 2016).

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Beck Solicitor General of the United States, a post he served in from 1921 to 1925. In this position, Beck won over 100 cases before the Supreme Court. In 1922, he successfully argued in Ozawa v. United States (1922) that people of Japanese descent were not “free white persons” and thus ineligible for naturalization under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which only permitted “free white persons” and “persons of African nativity or persons of African descent” to be naturalized. In 1924, Beck wrote “The Constitution of the United States”, a book containing his conservative interpretations of the Constitution that contained a foreword by President Calvin Coolidge and proved a best-seller.

After his time representing the U.S. government, he went back to private practice but was not long out of the public sphere; in 1926 he denounced the effort to deny William S. Vare his Senate seat on complaints of election irregularities and considered such efforts to be eroding state’s rights, writing the book The Vanishing Rights of States in his defense. He was also a staunch foe of Prohibition and pushed for the repeal of the 18th Amendment, considering it to be a Constitutional aberration. The following year, Beck was elected to Congress, representing Pennsylvania’s 1st district based in Philadelphia. On the Great Depression, he supported spending cuts and limited relief efforts, standing with President Herbert Hoover in his insistence that direct relief was the purview of states and localities, not the federal government.

After the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Beck, already wary of the use of federal power, voted against his 100 Days agenda, including direct federal relief, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. His vote for the Cullen-Harrison Act, formally legalizing the sale of beer and wine, would be one of the few times he voted in accord with Roosevelt. In 1934, Beck publicly opposed the Jim Crow policies of the House restaurant, backing Rep. Oscar De Priest’s (R-Ill.) unsuccessful efforts to end said policies. His MC-Index score was a 96%, indicating that he was an ultra-conservative. Beck’s DW-Nominate score was a 0.755, meaning he was the most conservative legislator in the 100 Days Congress by this standard and was more conservative than most Republicans historically. After his resignation, he proceeded to argue cases before the Supreme Court against New Deal laws. In 1935, Beck argued before the Supreme Court in Ashwander et al. v. Tennessee Valley Authority that the Tennessee Valley Authority was unconstitutional and socialistic, but it was upheld 8-1 the following year as constitutional under the Commerce Clause. Beck died of coronary thrombosis on April 12, 1936, while representing an oil stock dealer charged with violating the Securities Act of 1933.


Armstrong, A.C. (2016, February 10). Majority of James M. Beck Papers Now Available Online. Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

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Majority of James M. Beck Papers Now Available Online

Beck, J.M. (1916, July 5). America and the Allies. Pilgrim’s Club.

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Beck to Give Up Seat in Congress; Says That Being 1/400 Part of Rubber Stamp No Longer Appeals to Him. (1934, September 14). The New York Times.

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James M. Beck, 74, New Deal Foe, Dies. (1936, April 13). The New York Times.

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Reagan, P.D. (2017, October 8). Ashwander et al. v. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Tennessee Encyclopedia.

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Reynolds, F.J., ed. (1921). Beck, James Montgomery. Collier’s New Encyclopedia. New York, NY: P.F. Collier & Son Co.

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Solicitor General: James M. Beck. The United States Department of Justice.

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