The American Liberty League: A False Start for a Conservative Revival

President Obama’s presidency was haunted by his foil, the Tea Party, which helped gin up enthusiasm for the GOP’s blockbuster results in the House. JFK’s and to a lesser extent LBJ’s presidency was haunted by the John Birch Society, which proved an uncomfortable group for the Republicans to navigate given the support of many base conservatives for it in the early 1960s and the propensity of its leader, Robert W. Welch, to indulge in conspiracy theories. There were a number of groups that formed to oppose FDR and his New Deal, and one of the earliest and best funded was the American Liberty League.

This organization was established in 1934 as unions became bolder with strikes. This was a combination of Democrats and Republicans dissatisfied with the New Deal, with its president being Jouett Shouse, who had served in Congress as a Democrat from Kansas from 1915 to 1919. The organization got a lot of funding from the Du Pont family (30% of its funding) and a number of corporate figures. Perhaps the most compelling fact about the organization was that FDR’s two Democratic predecessor nominees for president were on its National Executive Committee: John W. Davis and Al Smith. Also on the committee were Senator David A. Reed (R-Penn.) and Congressmen Robert Luce (R-Mass.) and James W. Wadsworth (R-N.Y.). They crafted a ten-point philosophy, much of which was directly counter to the New Deal. Some of the figures (such as Shouse) had previous records as progressives but found the New Deal to be going too far. The platform read,

“1. To preserve American institutions which safeguard, to citizens in all walks of life, the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore to uphold American principles which oppose the tendency shown in many countries to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious liberty, the right to peaceable assembly and the right to petition the government; and to combat the growth of bureaucracy, the spread of monopoly, the socialization of industry and the regimentation of American life.

  1. To maintain the right of an equal opportunity for all to work, earn, save and acquire property in order that every man may enjoy the fruit of his own ability and labor, and thus have, in his declining years, the peace of mind that comes from a sense of security for himself and for his wife and children who may survive him.
  2. To uphold the principle that the levying of taxes, the appropriation of public funds and the designation of the purposes for which they are to be expended are exclusively the functions of the Congress and should not be exercised by administrative officials.
  3. To advocate economy in government by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus and eliminating extravagance; to advocate a sound fiscal policy and the maintenance of a sound and stable currency to be preserved at all hazards.
  4. To further the restoration of employment and the rehabilitation of agriculture, business and industry, and to oppose all unnecessary interference and competition by government with legitimate industry.
  5. To oppose all measures that may threaten the security of the invested savings of the millions of savings bank depositors, holders of insurance policies and other investors. Also to support governmental policies that will protect invested funds that go to the maintenance of churches, colleges, hospitals and all institutions that care for the aged, the poor, the orphans and the afflicted.
  6. To support government in the obligation to provide for those who, because of involuntary unemployment or disability, cannot provide for themselves.
  7. To uphold the American principle that laws to be made only by the direct representatives of the people in the Congress, and that the laws be interpreted only by the Courts, and to oppose the delegation of either of these functions to executive departments, commissions or bureau heads.
  8. To provide for the rank and file of the American people, who are unorganized and too often have no voice in legislation that affects their welfare, an opportunity, through united effort and a service of public information, to offset the influence of any and all groups working for selfish purposes.
  9. Finally, to preserve for the succeeding generations the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the safeguards of personal liberty and the opportunity for initiative and enterprise provided under the Constitution. These are the foundation stones upon which America has built the most successful governmental structure thus far devised.” (American Liberty League)

    There are some curious figures who served on the National Advisory Council, perhaps the oddest being Chase G. Woodhouse. The reason is that Woodhouse would be elected to Congress as a Democrat from Connecticut in 1944 and 1948, and both her terms she was a staunch liberal. It appears that her politics changed considerably during the 1930s, as she won her first statewide election as a Democrat in 1940. Part of the National Executive Committee was Pauline Sabin, who had been a key figure in bringing about the end of Prohibition. Indeed, a number of figures who had pushed for the end of Prohibition were in this organization. Yet another was Hal Roach, the Hollywood director-producer of Laurel and Hardy shorts and films and Our Gang (“Little Rascals”) shorts. Even a Roosevelt was on the committee, George E. Roosevelt, a first cousin once-removed of President Theodore Roosevelt. Along with Woodhouse, future members of Congress Rene F. Coudert (R-N.Y.) and Thurmond Chatham (D-N.C.) were members. Past legislators included Senator Elihu Root (R-N.Y.) (who had also served as a Secretary of War and Secretary of State) and Representatives Richmond P. Hobson (D-Ala.) (also a naval hero) and Thomas W. Phillips Jr. (R-Penn.). There were also two former governors in Joseph B. Ely (D-Mass.) and Nathan Miller (R-N.Y.). Yet another figure of interest was William Howard Taft’s Attorney General George W. Wickersham, who was known as a staunch trust buster. One figure on the National Advisory Council was Rep. James M. Beck (R-Penn.), who would fight the New Deal in court until his death in 1936.

    The League’s Positions and Criticisms

    The American Liberty League opposed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bankhead Cotton Control Act, opposed the National Industrial Recovery Act in the form it was passed, the “death sentence clause” of the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, Social Security, the Townsend Plan, and the Patman Bonus Bill. On the latter two, they were in agreement with the Roosevelt Administration. They also defended the Supreme Court for its rulings against the Administration. Perhaps the most effective activity the group engaged in was publishing 135 educational pamphlets from August 1934 to September 1936, in which their conservative philosophy on numerous topics was effectively described and their cases made (Pietrusza).

    Also of interest was the presence of numerous industrialists on the committee and the council, including J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil, John J. Raskob of Du Pont and General Motors (also chair of the DNC from 1928 to 1932), Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors, and Irenee du Pont of the Du Pont company, who had previously been a Republican but supported Al Smith in 1928 and FDR in 1932. The presence of these industrialists as well as a number of other wealthy figures was effectively capitalized (in a manner of speaking) by FDR and his supporters. Roosevelt and his campaign were highly effective in campaigning against the American Liberty League as representing the interests of the wealthy only, and he asserted that they were founded “to uphold two of the Ten Commandments” on property, that they dismissed “Love they neighbor as thyself”, that they were an “ally of the Republican National Committee”, and that they would “squeeze the worker dry in his old age and cast him like an orange rind into the refuse pail” (PotusGeeks). One of his allies, who would later get a retroactive reputation as a conservative due to some of his domestic stances from 1937 to 1941, Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi, also had his criticisms. He said of them that they were “a group of griping and disgruntled politicians…masquerading as patriots but who are in reality apostles of greed” (Pietrusza). Such criticisms had their effect on those who during the Great Depression were facing hard times.

    Link to the “Business Plot”

    In 1933, retired General Smedley Butler was approached by Gerald C. MacGuire, a Wall Street bond salesman, who initially offered him a good deal more money than he thought veterans’ organizations could raise to go to Chicago and deliver a speech in support of “sound money” and thus against Roosevelt’s policies on gold. Then MacGuire offered to bankroll him running to be the National Commander of the American Legion, after which Butler was to use the 500,000 veterans of the American Legion to stage a fascist coup. The veterans were to march on Washington in a show of support for Butler with FDR ultimately relegated to the role of the King as he stood in Italy (a figurehead) while Butler would be Mussolini.

    MacGuire’s connection to the American Liberty League is that he told Butler that an organization would be forming to oppose Roosevelt in the coming months that would push liberty, and he could have known about talks of something like that as he worked for Grayson M.P. Murphy’s company. Murphy was a Wall Street banker who had had military service and was made Treasurer of the American Liberty League. The degree of connection between MacGuire, this plot, and those who were in the ALL is unclear as there has been a lack of documented evidence. Indeed, Butler never did meet with anyone from the American Liberty League and was only told about the connection by MacGuire. What does appear to be the case is that MacGuire had some contact with fellow veterans on Wall Street, including businessman Robert Sterling Clark and his employer Liberty Leaguer Murphy. This matter alone in truth is a separate topic, and I plan on covering it in much greater depth in a future post.

    The Results

    The American Liberty League itself proved ineffective at changing the course of the United States, with Roosevelt winning every state except Maine and Vermont. One publicized event that had highlighted their incongruence with the times was in 1936 when the organization had Al Smith deliver an anti-New Deal speech which was broadcast over the radio at the Mayflower Hotel with an audience that consisted mostly of conservative Republicans…at a fancy dinner party. Although the RNC kept a distance from the American Liberty League during the 1936 election, many individual members made sizeable donations to the Landon campaign, and RNC chairman John D.M. Hamilton later admitted, “Without Liberty League money, we wouldn’t have had a national headquarters” (Pietrusza). The American Liberty League both kept the Republican Party alive as a force with money but was also an unpopular partner. The Roosevelt campaign and his allies had ultimately successfully pursued a strategy that was described by George Wolfskill and John A. Hudson in All But the People: Franklin D. Roosevelt and His Critics, 1933-1939 as, “Make the Liberty League synonymous with social and economic privilege, associate it closely with the Republican Party, then attack the Republicans by attacking the League. Once synonymity between the Liberty League and predatory wealth was established, the League could be attacked both directly by name and indirectly by attacking ‘economic royalists'” (Pietrusza).

    Although the American Liberty League was effectively attacked by Roosevelt in the 1936 election and their activities were substantially lessened after until its final demise in September 1940 as it was seen as an anchor for the opposition to the New Deal, it constituted the start of the pushback from the right against FDR and New Deal. In 1937, a bipartisan group of senators led by Josiah Bailey (D-N.C.) and Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) would craft the Conservative Manifesto, which had similar themes to the American Liberty League. What’s more, after the 1938 midterms the goal would be realized for a bipartisan Conservative Coalition to exist on domestic issues. This was in good part thanks to the adept leadership of House Republican leader Joe Martin of Massachusetts and Democrat Gene Cox of Georgia, and they successfully stopped further New Deal measures and limited and even repealed some in place. The Conservative Coalition would last as an informal entity until the 1994 midterms. The American Liberty League, to make a bit of an unflattering comparison, reminds me of the Lincoln Project in this sense: it had a number of figures in the Democratic Party who were has-beens to oppose the agenda of the present Democratic Party, much like the Lincoln Project has a collection of Republican has-beens (although not nearly as impressive as two past party nominees) out to oppose the current Republican Party. The Lincoln Project likely swayed few if any Republicans given its messaging oriented to attracting left-wing donors and the American Liberty League likewise proved a failure at persuasion, especially in a time in which the American public was by and large not particularly interested in hearing what major business interests had to say on the politics of the day.


    American Liberty League.

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    Pietrusza, D. (1978, January 1). New Deal Nemesis. Reason Magazine.

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    Platform and Organization of the American Liberty League. American Liberty League.

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    Rudolph, F. (1950). The American Liberty League, 1934-1940. The American Historical Review, 56(1), 19-33.

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    The American Liberty League. PotusGeeks.

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