June 16, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952)

4 min read

After decades of the President of the United States usurping powers well outside the realm of those enumerated power vested in the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court finally pushed back in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). Even though most of the Supreme Court justices sat by and allowed the Executive branch to grow exponentially through legislation and Executive Orders issued during World War II, the New Deal, and the Fair Deal, these same justices saw an opportunity to suppress, what Justice Robert H. Jackson compared to, the “unlimited executive power…[that which was] exercised by [King] George III.”


On April 8, 1952, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 10340: Directing the Secretary of Commerce to Take Possession of and Operate the Plants and Facilities of Certain Steel Companies. This presidential order granted the Secretary of Commerce the power to take possession of certain steel companies—specifically those that were about to start union strikes. President Truman believed that, in the interest of the public, he could seize any private property that he deemed necessary to support war efforts in Korea. Although there were legislative solutions in place to prevent issues such as the ensuing United Steel Workers Union strike, President Truman sidestepped these solutions—as they were slower—and took unconstitutional powers to continue the manufacturing of steel.

Ironically, the strike was caused because President Truman did not impose price control as the government had previously done during World War II; instead, he created the Federal Wage Stabilization Board on December 22, 1951. Its priority was to work with unions to keep labor disputes at bay, leaving both management and the unions happy. Logically, this would achieve the president’s goal of keeping consumer prices down during the crisis abroad. As the Federal Wage Stabilization Board was unable to mediate in the case of the United Steel Workers Union, President Truman seized the production facilities to keep them open. President Truman believed that the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed to restrict the activities and powers of labor unions, and Section 18 of the Selective Service Act of 1948, which under article H specifically gave the president the authority to “take immediate possession of the plant…to insure compliance…” of steel manufacturing facilities, were both too risky as they were dependent upon cooperation from Congress. Truman saw this as an avenue which he was unwilling to go down.


On April 4, 1952, the steel Union announced that effective April 9th, at 12:01 a.m., a nation-wide strike would commence. Before the strike could even begin, however, Truman issued Executive Order 10340 and seized the steel plants. The steel plant operators were not happy with this order from the president; however, they complied. To quote Justice Hugo Black’s opinion of the Court, the complaint from the operators of the seized steel factories was that “the seizure was not authorized by an act of Congress or by any constitutional provision.” It was argued by the government that historical precedent and the emergency situation in Korea gave the president the powers to seize the steel plants. The government listed the following seizures, all of which were—at the time—necessary for public safety: the seizure of Smith & Wesson during World War I and the seizure of Montgomery Ward in World War II.

Justice William O. Douglas delivered an excellent concurring opinion which highlighted the reasons as to why Truman’s seizure of the steel manufacturing plants was unconstitutional. Justice Douglas started out in agreement with Truman, that there was indeed an “emergency;” however, “the emergency did not create power; it merely marked an occasion when power should be exercised. And the fact that it was necessary that measures be taken to keep steel in production does not mean that the President, rather than Congress, had the constitutional authority to act.”

Moreover, he further explained that powers to act in the way Truman did are left only up to Congress. The Constitution clearly states in Article 1, Section 1: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.” Furthermore, the Fifth Amendment states that no “private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The president has no power to raise revenues and as Douglas put it, “[t]he branch of the government that has the power to pay compensation for a seizure is the only one able to authorize a seizure…” In addition to this, in a rather brazen manner, Douglas further acknowledged that while Truman is the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” he is not the “Commander in Chief of the country, its industries, and its inhabitants.”

Justice William Douglas

On June 2, 1952, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that shocked not only President Truman, but the nation. Truman had been so confident in his decision, and the legality of his decision, that when a reporter asked him if the President could also seize the newspapers and the radio stations, Truman replied back, “under similar circumstances the President of the United States has to act for whatever is for the best of the country.” However, the Supreme Court decided that this was not the case and in a 6-3 decision, the Court declared that “[t]he Executive Order was not authorized by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and it cannot stand.”

3 thoughts on “Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952)

  1. this is good to know they never taught us in school about this, I like how the court guy said that the president had authority over the navy and army not the people, the industries or country as a whole, (or individual parts which make up the whole either.) pretty cool. sometimes you can find logic in them capital hills, to bad it is few and far between.

  2. I’ve seen books, such as “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” and while I enjoy those, I believe there is a bigger problem in education. It isn’t necessarily the “lies,” but often the overlooked events that I want to know about.

    I’ve toyed with an idea for a book about historical concepts that should have been taught, or given more than one line, but that never surface in the classroom–at least when I was in school.

  3. This reminds me of the famous exchanges between King James I and Chief Justice Coke who reminded the king: “…the King ought not be subject to any man, but subject to God and the law.”

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