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Decoding Political Cartoons
Political Cartoons of President RooseveltĄ¯s Court-packing Plan in 1937

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Park, Hee Won
Term Paper, History of Historiography Class, July 2009

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. The Court-packing Plan
III. Decoding Political Cartoons
III.1 Straightforward
III.2 Metaphor and Allusion
IV. Viewer Reactions
V Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Political cartoons, also known as editorial cartoons, are illustrations through which cartoonists expresses their political or social message. Using the medium of illustrated public figures, they are in a sense visual editorials that deal with current events. The readers, however, often simply do not "get" the hidden words out of the original context due to a variety of degrees to which cartoonists reveal their voice. Some illustrators express their thoughts in outright manner while others resort to implications. Therefore, this essay will examine methods to decode political cartoons, focusing on one historical event: President Roosevelt's court-packing plan.

II. The Court-packing Plan
            In the presidential election of 1936, Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt singlehandedly won the votes with nearly 61% of the popular vote and by 523-8 in the electoral college. Roosevelt then interpreted his overwhelming victory as a ground on which he could promote his New Deal programs further. Despite his hopes, the Supreme Court declared two of his key economic policies, the National Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act as unconstitutional. The president indirectly expressed his complaints on January 6, 1937 in his annual State of the Union address before a joint session of congress. Roosevelt descried the need for closer harmony between legislative and judicial action. Simply put, he claimed that by declaring key part of the New Deal unconstitutional, the Supreme Court was out of harmony with the will of the people as expressed in Congress.
            Then on the night of February 5th in 1937, President Roosevelt passed the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 that allowed President to appoint an additional justice to the Supreme Court for each sitting justice over the age of seventy who had not yet retired. Since six of the sitting justices were then over seventy, the bill enabled Roosevelt to add six more justices of his choice and therefore expand the Court from nine to fifteen justices. He explained the rational behind the bill that the current justices were too old to make any modern and new decisions in accordance with his New Deal program. The legislation was later dubbed "court-packing plan" as President Roosevelt won the authority to expand the number of justices to include conservative justices who are likely to favor his political agenda.

III Decoding Political Cartoons
            American cartoonists in 1937 have dealt with the court-packing fiasco with much enthusiasm. Popular newspapers featured this debatable political action everyday and displayed a series of editorial cartoons regarding the topic. They can be categorized into two distinguishable groups: political cartoons without connotations and those with metaphors and allusions

III.1 Straightforward
            Cartoons have several different levels and degrees of meaning. One of them includes straightforwardness where cartoonists did not burden themselves to implement literary techniques into their works. Such works are characterized by clearly name-labeled figures and objective report of the historical event. Because of their simple meaning, they were well-read by the illiterates and immigrants in particular. Straightforward political cartoons stayed as popular forms of political cartoon in newspapers until the mid-twentieth century.

Figure 1 :To Six of the Nine
Figure 2 : The Hands of Dictatorship

            The artist does not overtly express his opinion through "To Six of the Nine" and yet the characters can be judge by their robes and appearances and cartoons have direct quote as "U.S. Supreme Court" or "A Free and Independent Judiciary". This kind of cartoon captures the event but does not include the idea of particular performances. In other words, the author does not intentionally attempt to deliver either a positive or negative message
            In "The Hands of Dictatorship !", three branches of United States government are labeled. The Chief executive, President Roosevelt, has already made a hold of the legislative branch. The Congress is depicted as a feeble old man who is of minute size compared to the chief executive. While the legislative branch remains helpless, the President is going after another "grasp", now toward the judicial branch. With clearly labeled names and indications, this cartoon delivers a negative message regarding RooseveltĄ¯s court-packing plan. By not directly showing President Roosevelt in person, the executive branch is shown more ominous and more threatening. The obviously negative title also adds to the author's intended criticism.

III.2 Metaphor and Allusion
            What seems like a cartoon with simple message often turns out to include hidden metaphors and allusions. Metaphors can define and interpret key actors or events and even contribute to political figures' image-making. It is also thought that the visual depictions presented by political cartoons give metaphorical definitions a concreteness that affirms the 'reality' of their meaning. Bostdoff explains how metaphor works as follows :

            By labeling something that which it is not, metaphor makes use of perspective by incongruity; our perception of the object or person is altered by its incongruous pairing with some other name. In this way, metaphor provides insight. (Bostdorff, 48)

Figure 3 : He Just Ain't Fast Enough
Figure 4 : Trying to Change the Umpiring

            Both cartoons incorporate a usage of baseball metaphor. "He Just AinĄ¯t Fast Enough" captures the situation by the metaphor but does not overtly agree or disagree with the presidential policy. It does not, however, either agree or disagree that the nine justices of the Supreme Court are in fact too old to reach a rational decision. On the other hand, cartoon on the right shows how President Roosevelt is engaged in unsportmanlike conduct just as he is in an "unpresidentlike" behavior; just because he does not like how his New Deal programs have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Figure 5 : Oh, So That's the Kind of Sailor He Is!
Figure 6 : The Best He Can Hope for Now

            In figures 5 and 6, cartoonists used topical information to enhance their message. A presidential boating or fishing trip became a popular and common metaphor for the court-packing crisis at the time. President Roosevelt may be portrayed as a steersman or a fisherman going on about "the big one that got away". Other works included motifs such as Roosevelt returning from vacation to find that Congress had been acting up in his absence.

Figure 7 : LetĄ¯s Harmonize!

            In his State of the Union Address, President Roosevelt asserted that the Supreme Court was "out of harmony" with other branches of the government and the will of the people of the United States. The title of this cartoon, "LetĄ¯s Harmonize !" therefore alludes to President Roosevelt's speech. The cartoonist implies that the only reason for the legislative branch to be in harmony with the executive is because the President has a stranglehold of the Congress.

IV. Reactions
            At first, elected officials interviewed by the press showed their astonishment by the presidentĄ¯s court-packing plan but guarded in their reactions. The initial reaction by the public was also difficult to measure since the people had no adequate means through which they could evaluate the president's plan. The cartoon editorialists soon led the public opinion by focusing on the presidentĄ¯s chief complaint ? the fact that so many of the judges were old. A number of cartoons, as shown as above, dealt with the presidentĄ¯s frustration toward rejection of his New Deal program and therefore emphasized his immature political action.
            The judicial reorganization plan soon sparked intense opposition and garnered up conservative New Deal foes. It is easy to tell by the cartoons that the court-packing plan was not well received by most. The media nor the American public stayed silent long and thus used editorials, letters and other means to Congress to show their complaints. An editorial response in Chicago Tribune delivered a quote, "Shall the Supreme Court be turned into the personal organ of the President ? If Congress answers yes, the principle of an impartial and independent judiciary will be lost in this country."
            Senate Democrats supported this cause when the Congress passed so many of New Deal laws, leading to a split in the legislative branch. But just as the opposition was at its peak, some unexpected events changed the course of this situation. In March, the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional both the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act (two New Deal programs), and in May Justice Van Devanter, one of those who had opposed Roosevelt, announced his retirement. The appearance of Court support for his policies and an opportunity for a Supreme Court appointment made Roosevelt's court packing plan suddenly seem unnecessary.

V. Conclusion
            While words help to convey the message, political cartooning is a visual art and the cartoonist strives to present often complex situations in a visual form. In a socio-cultural level, political cartoons reveal assumptions and prejudices of the general public. They then knock into the previously concealed collective consciousness and reaffirm cultural values of the people. Political cartoons therefore "maintain[ing] a sense of self, others, and society" (DeSousa & Medhurst, 90).
            More specifically in politics and history, such cartoons can aid in defining the significant issues that are currently the topics of political discussions. In the meantime, they can also leave a record of that discourse as a snapshot of the political climate at one particular period. Since political cartoons both "promote the symbols of the existing national consensus and reflect dominant images in the American imagination" (Edwards, 73), these images can function as historical and sociological artifacts. Edwards claims that:
            "Cartoons reflect a record of events, visible through the imaginative weave of the cartoonistĄ¯s viewpointĄĻ political cartoons historicize the present and form a collective record of the social imagination regarding the events in political life (Edwards, 8)
            While they may not significantly affect the power relationships in a given political culture, political cartoons do pay a crucial symbolic role in depicting and maintaining them. Medhurst asserts that:
            As a tool of quick and convenient expression, political cartoons have been a cornerstone of American democracy. By means of metaphors, symbols, allegories, allusions, and many other stylistic techniques, political cartoons during the Roosevelt administration met its peak and its coming of age. By various methods, President Roosevelt was captured as a "dictator" in the inkwells of cartoonists.
            Since political cartoons can be used as a means through which editorialists illustrate the political social reality of the time and people can view and interpret political history, the decoding process within social and historical context is crucial and even mandatory. From the review and interpretation of political cartoons dealing with court-packing plan, readers can appreciate the importance of properly decoding such illustrations.

Note : websites quoted below were visited in July 2009.
(1)      Bostdorff, D. M. "Making light of James Watt: A Burkean approach to the form and attitude of political cartoons." Quarterly Journal of Speech (1987): 48
(2)      Edwards, J. L. Political cartoons in the 1988 presidential campaign: Image, metaphor, and narrative. New York: Garland, 1997
(3)      Hou, Carles and Cynthia Hou. The Art of Decoding Political Cartoons: A Teacher's Guide. Vancouver: Moody's Lookout Press, 1998.
(4)      Leuchtenburg, William. "Franklin D. Roosevelt's Supreme Court 'Packing' Plan." Essays on the New Deal (1969): 69?115
(5)      Leuchtenburg, William. "The Origins of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'Court-Packing' Plan." The Supreme Court Review (1966): 347?400
(6)      Medhurst, M. J., & DeSousa, M. A. Political cartoons as rhetorical form: A taxonomy of graphic discourse. Communication Monographs (1981): 85, 197-236.
(7)      Website Abstraction. "Cartoons: FDR and the Supreme Court ." New Deal Network. 5 July 2009 .

List of Images
(1)      The Hands of Dictatorship ! Los Angeles Times 6 Feb. 1937. (figure 2)
(2)      The Authentic History Center." The Authentic History Center. 5 July 2009 . (figure 1, 7)
(3)      He Just Aint Fast Enough. The New Deal Network 9 Feb. 1937. (figure 3)
(4)      Trying to Change the Umpiring. Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch 10 Feb 1937. (figure 4)
(5)      Oh, So That's the Kind of Sailor He Is ! New York Herald-Tribune 22 March 1937. (figure 5)
(6)      The Best He Can Hope For Now Chicago News 10 April 1937. (figure 6)

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