In 1907 J. Allen Smith wrote:
Minor legislative reforms were pointless because they took for granted that our general scheme of government was especially designed to facilitate the rule of the majority. But in fact, the scheme of government had been crafted to thwart majority rule: Democracy…was not the object which the framers of the American Constitution had in view but the very thing which they wished to avoid, and its ratification represented the triumph of a skillfully directed reactionary movement.
In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt proposed:
We propose to make the process of constitutional amendment far easier, speedier, and simpler than at present. I believe in pure democracy, and so endorse all governmental devices which will make the representatives of the people more easily and certainly responsible to the people’s will.
Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette spelled it out:
Constitutional amendments could be proposed by a majority of both houses of Congress or by one-fifth of the states, and ratified by a simple majority of voters distributed across a majority of the states.
Senator Elihu Root from New York had served as Secretary of State for TR and in 1912 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he opposed TR’s proposals for a radical progressive constitutional reform program. Sen Elihu’s response:
In our Constitution we have embodied the eternal principles of justice; we have set up a barrier against ourselves. As Ulysses required his followers to bind him to the mast that he might not yield to the song of the siren as he sailed by, so the American democracy has bound itself to the great rules of right conduct, which…make it practically impossible that the impulse, the prejudice, the excitement, the frenzy of the moment shall carry our democracy into those excesses which have wrecked all our prototypes in history. A Senate directly elected by the people would do away with the benefits of discussion and comparison of views and mutual concessions, and that fair and open-minded yielding to the argument of our fellows, which is the essential of good legislation. The result would be senators less likely to protect the American democracy against itself, and more likely to posture and preen for the public.
The 1912 Republican national convention was held in Chicago, and Elihu Root was nominated for convention chairman by the Taft forces. Then the Roosevelt forces nominated Wisconsin Governor Francis McGovern. In the first major vote of the convention – the one that presaged everything to follow – Root narrowly defeated Roosevelt’s candidate, Wisconsin governor Francis McGovern, 558 to 502. The Roosevelt delegates shook the hall with outrage. Elihu Root had this to say to the convention delegates:
We shall not apologize for American institutions. We cherish with gratitude and reverence the memory of the great men who devised the American constitutional system…their deep insight into the strength and weakness of human nature, their wise avoidance of dangers which had wrecked all preceding attempts at popular government. I pledge to make and vigorously enforce laws for the promotion of public interests, but I promise to observe those great rules of right conduct which our fathers embodied in the limitations of the Constitution. The Constitution was, after all, a solemn covenant that between the weak individual and all the power of the people…shall forever stand the eternal principles of justice declared, defined, and made practically effective by…the limitations of the Constitution. The Republican Party in particular was obligated to defend the Constitution, since it had been born in protest against the extension of a system of human slavery approved and maintained by majorities. The Republican Party must remain the party of Abraham Lincoln, who had declared in his First Inaugural Address that “a majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations…is the only true sovereign of a free people.” Our duty was not to reform the constitutional system, but to humbly and reverently seek for strength and wisdom to abide by the principles of the Constitution against the days of our temptation and weakness.
Other public figures who had been close to Roosevelt for years – George Meyer, Henry Stimson, even his own son-in-law Nicholas Longworth – concluded that they had to follow Root into the Taft camp. But perhaps no split with Roosevelt was more wrenching than the one made by his lifelong friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Lodge had the following response:
The makers of the Constitution not only knew that the will of the people must be supreme, but they meant to make it so. At the same time, however, they aimed…to make sure that it was the real will of the people which ruled and not their momentary impulse, their well-considered desire and determination and not the passion of the hour. To this end the framers built into the Constitution various safeguards to make it certain that there should be abundant time for discussion and consideration, that the public mind should be thoroughly and well informed and that the movements of the machinery of government should not be so rapid as to cut off due deliberation. Beside the question of the maintenance or destruction of the Constitution of the United States all other questions of law and policy sink into utter insignificance.
TR and his supporters bolted from the Republican party and formed a third party, the Progressive Bull Moose party. This new third party platform included most of what progressive-liberalism has sought to achieve over the past 100 years:
- direct primaries and the direct election of senators
- a more easy and expeditious method of amending the federal Constitution
- federal occupational safety standards
- the minimum wage
- strong national regulation of inter-state corporations
- the policy of conservation (including public control of all national resources)
- the ratification of the 16th Amendment
- a single national health service
For decades after the 1912 contest, historians faithfully reflected Roosevelt’s assessment that the Taft conservatives were laissez-faire reactionaries who distrusted popular government, and when they had to accept it, accepted it with reluctance. They hedged around it with every species of restriction and checks and balances, so as to make the power of the people as limited and ineffective as possible. As early as 1913, Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution would reinforce J. Allen Smith’s earlier view that the government’s protection of the interests of the wealthy few against the rights of the people could be traced directly to the Constitution itself.
It’s interesting to note that the message from progressive liberals was no different in 1912 than it is in 2012. They lie about their opponents and describe them as laissez-faire reactionaries who only want to protect the wealthy few. Did TR consider Taft and Root laissez-faire reactionaries when he appointed them to his cabinet as the Secretary of War and Secretary of State, respectively? Did TR consider Henry Cabot Lodge a laissez-faire reactionary when Henry Cabot Lodge helped pass his anti-trust and conservation bills in the US Senate?
There are also ironies concerning the principal men in 1912 and in 2012. In 1912, we had a Wisconsin Governor trying to put the Republican party on the wrong track, and now in 2012 we have a Wisconsin Congressman trying to put the Republican party on the right track. In 1912 we had an incumbent Republican President trying to protect and defend the US Constitution, and in 2012 we have an incumbent Democrat President trying to destroy the US Constitution. In 1912, the writings and speeches of Elihu Root and Henry Cabot Lodge gave us meaning and context applicable to 2012 for understanding the Tea Party’s stance toward the American Constitution – that constitutional limitations on democratic majorities are fully consonant with popular government. Indeed, they are essential for the preservation of democracy, and the alleviation of its tendencies toward the violation of those rights which, the Declaration of Independence tells us, are the true ends of legitimate government.
One final word for libertarian concern trolls who might latch onto a recent poll, primary, or misstep, as an indication of doom. Just Stop It. Recently Blue Collar Muse wrote a dispatch about a bill that passed the Senate and House as a streamlining measure dispensing with Senate confirmation for some presidential appointees. It’s just one small rip in the fabric of the Constitution, and let’s not wring our hands over the 95 House Republicans and 27 Senate Republicans who voted Yes. Instead, let’s recognize the 5 House committee chairmen and 6 Senate ranking committee members who voted No. John McCain describes himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, and Rush describes Paul Ryan as a Ronald Reagan Republican. Let’s compliment the 11 listed below by calling them Henry Cabot Lodge Republicans.
- Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller FL-1
- Transportation Chairman John Mica FL-7
- Education Chairman John Kline MN-2
- Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas OK-3
- Science Chairman Ralph Hall TX-4
- Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley IA
- Intelligence ranking member Saxby Chambliss GA
- Ethics ranking member Johnny Isakson GA
- Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Richard Burr NC
- Environment ranking member Jim Inhofe OK
- Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch UT