H.L. Mencken, a famous writer of the first half of the 20th century, is often credited with having said: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
So far as I can tell, he never actually said that, which may just give more credit to the validity of the dictum itself. However, he did write something very similar in an essay entitled “Notes on Journalism,” published in the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 19, 1926.
“No one in this world, so far as I know,” said Mencken, “...has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
What is surprising is that the next line has been largely forgotten through the passage of time: “Nor has any one ever lost public office thereby.”
The greatest proof of this latter point would seem to be the re-election three times of President Franklin Roosevelt by great majorities, despite the overwhelming evidence of his disregard for the Constitution, the rule of law and the inalienable rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
Consider the evidence: Roosevelt, who essentially became president for life, massively expanded the federal government beyond its constitutional restraints; he tried to pack the Supreme Court in order to gain control of the judiciary; and he asked for and was granted massive new powers by Congress with the Reorganization Act of 1939, thus forever changing the balance of power between the three branches of government.
It’s hard to believe that Roosevelt convinced the country to go along with such nonsense 75 years ago, but he certainly didn’t convince everyone. To browse through the historical record is to be struck, time and time again, by just how vehemently and loudly people shouted out that Roosevelt was leading the country to ruin.
Listen, for instance, to Ogden Mills, the former secretary of the treasury, speaking to an economic forum in New York in May 1934 about the dangers of the New Deal:
“The social and economic planning that has been enacted into law during the last 12 months has been presented to the people as novel, progressive and liberal,” he said. “It is not novel... It is not progressive since it reverts back to the economic despotism of the Middle Ages. It is not liberal since it means the end of individual liberty. In part or in whole ... it has been tried repeatedly throughout the course of history. Everywhere it has failed.”
Nor was this Herbert Hoover Republican alone in his criticism of FDR. Democrats were equally vocal in their defense of liberty. One such was former Sen. James A. Reed of Missouri, who said in a Constitution Day address in Chicago in 1934 that the Roosevelt administration was “violating the safeguards of liberty set up in the Constitution and doing by force what the basic law of the republic specifically prohibits.”
It is perhaps not coincidental that Mencken, that harshest judge of politicians, had only kind words for Sen. Reed when he had retired from the Senate in 1929. He saw Reed as virtually a lone defender in the Senate against the excesses of government.
“It is a great pity that there are not more like him. The country could use a thousand, and even so, each of the thousand would find a thousand mountebanks in front of him,” Mencken wrote of Reed in the American Mercury. “The process of government among us becomes a process of pillage and extortion. The executive power is in the hands of a gang of bureaucrats without responsibility, led by charlatans without conscience. The courts, succumbing to such agencies as the Anti-Saloon League, reduce the constitutional guarantees to vanity and nullity. The legislative machine is operated by nonentities, with frauds and fanatics flogging them. In all that vast and obscene mob there are few men of any solid ability, and fewer still of any intellectual integrity. Reed was one. He had both.”
That intellectual integrity, along with Reed’s respect for the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, was no doubt what led him to speak up, several years after his own day in power had passed, and condemn the vast expansion of government under the New Deal.
He was legitimately frightened about the direction of the country, and condemned Roosevelt for it, just as he had spoken against fellow Democrat Woodrow Wilson during that president’s administration. What mattered to him more than party loyalty was national loyalty — and particularly loyalty to the Constitution.
What he said back on that Constitution Day in 1934 might not have been popular among Democrats of the time, but it certainly strikes a chord for all patriots who believe in the principles of limited government.
Speaking at the Chicago World’s Fair, he told the many in attendance that “Liberty — the spirit of the Constitution — is not safe in this republic today.”
“The framers of the Constitution had seen enough of paternalistic government,” Reed said. “They had studied the pages of history — they knew that power feeds on power, and that when government once asserts the right to control labor, the property or the habits of the citizens, it has entered upon the old and bloody road of despotism.”
Reed did not name Franklin Roosevelt personally in his speech, but there was no doubt who he perceived as the greatest threat to liberty in our long history as a nation.
“Can it be that those we have trusted with power, and who swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, now stand foresworn and are plotting the destruction of the great Magna Charta of our liberties? Fortunate it is that we are beginning to realize that the liberties gained by the struggle of the centuries are imperiled, and that the Constitution is the great bulwark of liberty. Such it was intended to be by its authors. Such, please God, it may remain, despite assaults of foreign foes and the conspiracies of domestic traitors. The Constitution of the United States is the keystone of the arch of liberty. Destroy it and liberty is dead.”
Yet, despite the loud cries of Reed, Mills and many others, America sank further and further into the age of “paternalism” that they decried. Why? How? What sheep’s clothing did the wolf wear to gain power over the innocent people of the nation? Reed provides the answer, in words that easily explain the despotism of the nanny state and make it clear how completely we have been conned by those who “only want to help us.”
As Reed warned, The despot’s “countenance is wreathed in smiles, and in honeyed words he protests his love for the people — an infinite desire to shield them from harm and guide them to the high plains of prosperity. But in the end the tyrant has struck with an iron hand.”
In a front-page editorial that quoted Reed and Mills, the Centralia [Wash.] Daily Chronicle of Sept. 20, 1934, reflected on the nation’s newfound attention to the Constitution as a terrified response to the New Deal.
“From all sections of the country there [are] being published speeches delivered by prominent men on the Constitution of the United States. There has never been a time since its adoption in 1787 that there has been so much interest in its contents and its incorporated principles. Attached to the original draft and a part of it are ten separate paragraphs called the Bill of Rights.... Study the Bill of Rights in the light of the present governmental plans to force the people to do certain specific acts and you will then understand why the thoughtful men and women of the country are so deeply concerned over the regimentation now going on.”
The dangers of the New Deal were thus plainly laid out just one year after it started. Liberty itself was seen to be in peril. Statesmen of great stature were willing to speak out and say so, and yet America slumbered for the next 75 years with self-serving somnambulance. We walked liked zombies from one government handout to the next, until finally we woke up and found ourselves being handed an order to buy health insurance.
That was the final straw. On top of the government bailouts, the stimulus bills, the endless giveaways, there was the indignity of Obamacare. Finally the sleeping beast awoke again and threw off its chains. The American people yearned for liberty, and once again they sought it in the Constitution.
It is no accident that the House of Representatives has opened its new session with a reading of the complete U.S. Constitution for the first time in the history of Congress. That document is our lifeblood. It alone can restore our nation to health, and our future depends on understanding how badly the liberty it protects has been abused in the past.
Some have called the reading of the Constitution a stunt or cheap theatrics. I suspect those are the same people who say the Constitution is irrelevant when Congress makes laws. Sadly, for the past 75 years the Constitution has indeed been made largely irrelevant by the federal government it was intended to control.
But today, thanks to the Tea Party movement, America has revived from its long slumber and once again has a chance to restore the Constitution to its rightful place as the tether on ambitious men. If we are lucky — if we are worthy — then in future centuries, the period between the New Deal and Obamacare will be known as the long interregnum when the Constitution was nearly — but not quite — forgotten.