Schechter Poultry

“ We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937.

There is a real human story behind the 1935 case of A. L. A. Schechter Poultry v. United States. The United States was in the grips of the Great Depression that despite, and perhaps because of, the active efforts of government refused to yield its grip. The story of the Schechter family is one symbolic part of a re-examination of the history of the Great Depression as told in The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. Her thesis is that despite some salutary economic changes, the Depression lasted far longer than it needed to. Indeed, the Great Depression did not end until the economic stimulus of World War II. Human suffering of these “forgotten men” was the price paid for by the well-intentioned arrogance of those who believed they could manage the economy better from Washington.

The National Recovery Administration was a Depression Era agency that grew out of a conviction that the free markets were the cause of, or at least could not relieve the Great Depression. The NRA set prices and rules that dictated the detailed functioning of the economy. There was an earnest belief that private decisions had caused the Depression and it would require the economic supervision of wise men in the government to reverse it. Nothing empowers low-level administrative functionaries inclined to bullying more than self-righteousness and Schechter family was the unfortunate target.

Three Schechter brothers ran a kosher butcher shop counter to NRA regulations. Historically, the quality of poultry in many kosher butcher shops was ensured by the fact that customers could choose the chickens they wanted slaughtered, and customers invariably tried to select the healthiest and most robust chickens. The NRA wanted to end this practice to create greater uniformity in the poultry industry. However, without this and other more personal services, the Schechters could not compete against larger butcher shops.

The refusal of the Schechter brothers to conform brought the legal weight of the Federal government on the Brooklyn residents and the Schechters took their case to the courts. The case threatened to undermine the Constitutionality of a key symbol of government economic supervision and was taken seriously. The case quickly gained notoriety and the journalistic guns of the New Deal did not hesitate to train their formidable fire on the Schechters. Drew Pearson and Robert Allen were not above exploiting anti-Semitism in criticizing “Joseph [Schechter] and his Brethren” for the refusal to modify their traditional practices to conform to the NRA.

In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the government. In the Court’s view the legislature had unconstitutionality ceded its power to the executive branch. Further, the regulation of poultry practices in Brooklyn did not amount to the regulation of interstate commerce and was therefore not part of the enumerated powers granted the Federak government. Rulings like this were part of the reason that Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to circumvent the Supreme Court by expanding its membership to allow him to select more justices.

It would be convenient if the message of the case is that the small guy can triumph in the courts even against the Federal government. This message is lost in a dangerous irony. Even after defeating the Roosevelt Administration and his intrusive minions who had attempted to regulate the Schechters out of business, the Schechter brothers continued to faithfully vote for Roosevelt. The Schechters did not link the actions of the NRA to Roosevelt himself. It seems that the sympathy engendered by Roosevelt’s fireside chats trumped even their family’s interest. Roosevelt successfully continued to blame private wealthy individuals for his failure to reverse the country’s economic fortunes.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.