Times of crisis are not distinguished by respect for rights—although, paradoxically, all revolutions claim to be mounted in the name of rights. During our War of Independence, criticism of the patriot cause was an invitation to a lynching, and Jefferson defined the Tory as “a traitor in thought, if not in deed.”
In 1773 George Rome, a Rhode Island Tory, wrote a private letter criticizing the Assembly and judiciary. The letter was discovered by the patriot party and appeared in a newspaper. Rome was arrested by the Assembly for “vile abuse” of the government. Summoned before the bar of the house, he refused to declare whether the opinions in the letter were his own. “I do not think,” he said, “on the privilege of an Englishman, that the question is fairly stated, because I do not consider that I am called here to accuse myself” The Assembly, indifferent to rights long admitted in England (and even in Rhode Island), found him guilty of contempt for refusing to answer and imprisoned him for the remainder of the Session. In Virginia men were put in jail on the suspicion that they might some day assist the enemy.
Years later, after the American government was secure, matters were considerably improved. Although the men of Philadelphia did not include specific “rights” in their work, on the grounds that, as Roger Sherman said, “It is unnecessary. The power of Congress does not extend to the Press,” the fact is that they were well aware that rights exist by the permission of power.
“The framers,” wrote Leonard Levy in his classic work on the Fifth Amendment, “were . . . skeptical of the values of Tarchment barriers’ against ‘overbearing majorities,’ as Madison put it, knowing that even an absolute constitutional prohibition, as. experience had proved, dissolved in the case of an emergency or public alarm.”
But if the Founders were aware of the realities of power, so were the people. They did not trust their government not to override their liberties; they wanted guarantees. Anti-Federalists, the party of skepticism, perceived that the purpose of the Philadelphia lawyers was to create a centralized government, and they feared (correctly, as history proves) that such a government would seek to extend its tentacles as far as any of its predecessors.
Even the Reverend Samuel Stillman, defending the Constitution during the ratification debate, had to admit the reality of such fears—even as he sought to allay them. “Who are the Congress?” he asked. “They are ourselves, the men of our choice.” But he admitted that a Constitution alone was no sure safeguard against tyranny. Nothing could guard the people’s liberties for them “unless they watch their own liberties. Nothing written in paper can do this.” For at least two generations Americans were sure they could, in fact, do that. But they underestimated the nature of crises—and of revolution.
Before the Civil War it was taken for granted that states could secede from the Union. Even Lincoln, a consummate political leader and superb lawyer, did not openly argue against that widespread position. In his First Inaugural, widely hailed as conciliatory, Lincoln said there would be “no bloodshed or violence” and “no use of force” against the seceding states; even the mails would be abandoned if they were not wanted. But taxes were another matter. Lincoln would collect “the duties and imposts, but beyond what would be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no use of force against or among the people anywhere.” In other words, the South could secede, but the tariffs that protected New England would continue to be collected by the North. Then he sent a supply ship to Fort Sumter, where “duties and imposts” were collected for Washington, and the war was on.
In its course, Lincoln suspended the ancient right of habeas corpus for spies, prisoners of war, confederate sympathizers, and “anyone who interfered with the military.” This left the military free to create commissions and to try civilians. This resulted, in the view of Allan Nevins, in the arrests of numerous persons “in circumstances imperiling the basic liberties long held sacred in Anglo-American tradition and law. . . . Arbitrary arrests, according to the New York Journal of Commerce became so numerous that a mere list would fill eighteen columns of the paper. . . . Figures range from 38,000 as a top to 13,535, which may be too low.” Three hundred newspapers were suppressed. This is not to deny Lincoln’s stature as a great man, sitting atop a keg of dynamite during a critical period of internal war. But it is an instance of a power struggle overriding rules.
Wars, however, have a way of preceding revolution. That lesson first emerged in frightening form in the 1780’s in France, when wars bankrupted the treasury of the richest nation in Europe. Faced with the collapse of French governmental credit, Louis XVI was told by his advisors he had to raise taxes. And, since the air was heavy with the need to “reform,” that forced the King to summon the Estates General—to deal only with taxes. The rest is well-known history.
First, the Commons demanded national elections and an end to the three tiers of representation. Those elections held, with radicals elected, the General Assembly demanded a new constitution, a reduction of the executive authority of the king, elimination of tax exemptions for the nobility and the clergy, and other reforms. When these were accomplished, and the king reduced to a constitutional monarch, the radicals (aided by demonstrators and a press that combined radical politics with pornography) increased their demands: new elections were held and more radicals were elected. These proceeded to confiscate the properties of the Church and the nobility and to launch trials of persons accused of “crimes against the people.” Retroactive in nature, formless and frightening, these rendered the courts of France obsolete and launched the wave of terror which engulfed the king, the queen, thousands of peers, nobles, citizens, priests, nuns, children, and oldsters alike.
It is most important to note that all these horrors were not unleashed by mobs in the street but by officials seated in elected offices in a duly elected legislature. It is also noteworthy that these officials expanded their powers as the executive (in the French instance, Louis XVI) retreated from confrontation. Eventually, when the king had completely collapsed, he was put on trial, found guilty (of having been the king), and executed.
These instances are not at all remote from the American experience. The unexpected murder of Lincoln left the office of the presidency (the American equivalent of the king) occupied by a man of lesser political skill and flawed reputation. Suddenly the legislature was convulsed by a faction (the Radical Republicans) that saw an opening toward supreme power.
Those who may consider this hyperbole should remember the climate. The American nation had just concluded a massive war, during which sensitivities were blunted toward death, suffering, misery—and legalities. This was made clear by the treatment of those accused of being part of the conspiracy that martyred the President. The seven men and one woman arrested and charged with complicity in Lincoln’s murder were held, incommunicado, in the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary, in chains, in dark cells, their heads encased in leather hoods. Tried in the penitentiary grounds without being informed of their right to counsel, the men were handcuffed to a metal bar and wore hoods much of the time. Mrs. Surrat, a boardinghouse keeper, was guilty mainly of having some of the men as boarders. The defendants were finally allowed counsel only after public protests, but the counselors were forced to write their briefs as the trial proceeded and without being able to consult their clients in private. The judges—three major generals, four brigadiers, and other officers—had no legal background whatever. Reverdy Johnson, attempting to speak for the defense, was so insulted by the judges he withdrew from the case. Both the tribunal and the press—and Congress—sought to prove the vanquished Confederacy guilty of the plot. In the end of a proceeding managed even worse than the Soviets later exhibited, two men and Mrs. Surrat were hanged, three sentenced to life at hard labor, one to six years.
In a climate where such a trial was considered legal, the Abolitionists (renamed Radical Republicans to maintain their historic reputations) launched their campaign to have the South “reconstructed.” Led by Thaddeus Stevens, a fanatical racist in the name of antiracism, this faction sought to force President Johnson to agree.
Failing to do this by ordinary political suasion, the revolutionists (for this is what they were), enacted the Tenure in Office Bill, which forbade the President, acting as chief executive, to dismiss any officer of the executive branch whose appointment had been made with the consent of the Senate. Such a bill needed, of course, a Cabinet officer to collude with the revolution; this proved to be Secretary of War Stanton.
The Abolitionist-revolutionists knew, of course, that the tenure bill would go to the Supreme Court, and they enacted another bill making it mandatory that any constitutional ruling of the Court be by a two-thirds majority. Then, with Stanton primed and the Court threatened, they moved through agitators, demonstrators, the New England and the New York press, through the Methodist Church and others, to demand reconstruction in the name of expanding constitutional rights.
In due course Johnson, as planned, discovered Stanton’s duplicity and dismissed him. Stanton appealed to the Senate, which declared the President had no authority to take such a step without its permission. Stanton then barricaded himself in the War Department, and the revolutionists proceeded to draw up a bill of particulars against the President, around which Congress voted for impeachment.
While Johnson held fast, the Senate canvassed for votes. Waverers and supporters of the President were placed under heavy pressure; detectives trailed the uncertain, seeking evidence of misdoing by which they could be pressured, bribes were offered, threats brandished.
Although hired demonstrators appeared, the mass of the people were not greatly excited. It was a press sensation, and a political one—but the average American did not seem excited. Horace Greeley, ardent for revolution, was amused at a Cooper Union meeting of those opposed to the impeachment. “They know very well,” he wrote, “that Wall Street and Fifth Avenue are not with them.” This was, in other words, a struggle among the highly placed—a struggle the average man did not understand. As Homer observes in the Iliad, “The fool only believes what has happened.”
In the first effort to topple an American President, the average man seemed right: It failed. But the impeachment of Andrew Johnson failed by only one vote; the President won only the right to dismiss those whom he appointed, without asking the permission of the Senate. Had he lost that right, the presidency would have been immeasurably weakened in 1867, and the Abolitionist Congress would have pressed for larger gains, greater territory.
As it was, Congress gained from the struggle. The Abolitionist program to occupy and govern the South in the name of universal rights was enacted; the Fourteenth Amendment was pushed into law in the absence of 11 states; the program for which Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and others had argued was realized. In the process, the seeds of racial discord were sown deep, and many crops continue to be gathered.
The revolutionary tide moved to other parts of the world. Authoritarian socialism, a substitute for religion in the name of antireligion, appeared among our intellectuals and in Europe. Nietzsche carried Emerson’s Essays with him everywhere; the Higher Law of the New England Transcendentalists reappeared as the Ubermensch; European anarchists decided to imitate the example of the widely applauded John Brown and to kill innocent bystanders to make political points.
These cultural-political tides crested in Russia, where revolution had been bruited for at least two generations. The Social Democrats achieved legislative power in 1905, in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, in the Duma, and in a reduction of the complete authority of the tsar. In 1917 the issue of executive authority reappeared when Russia’s losses became immense. The tsar was persuaded to abdicate, and the Duma created committees to rule the nation “provisionally.” The plan was to change the constitution and to hold plebecites and elections—as the books on democracy recommend. At that juncture the German General staff, led by Ludendorff, who had become wartime dictator of Germany, intervened.
Creating subversion behind enemy lines, an honored wartime practice since before the days of Sun Tsu, appealed to Ludendorff’s conspiratorial mind. Berlin had, the year before, financed the efforts of Roger Casement and others in Ireland but saw the Easter Uprising fail. Berlin had hopes that its agents inside the French Chamber of Deputies and various French newspapers—and especially in the French army, which was on the verge of mutiny—would persuade France to stop fighting.
Acting on the recommendation of Parvus (Helphand), a well-connected financier, Ludendorff decided to provide a credit of 50 million gold marks to Lenin & Co. to create a new government that would pull Russia out of the war. Lenin, according to Trotsky and others later, first used the money to buy 47 Russian newspapers, then guns, and then hired men to use the guns. His coup took place in October (in the new calendar, in early November) 1917, and Russia became captive to an oriental-style despotism that operated without law, without rights, and without religion.
Lenin’s triumph sent a thrill of hope throughout the revolutionary ranks everywhere. The speed of his rise from nowhere was proof that revolution can reward the most obscure. Where the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century had required three years from the first meeting of the Estates General in 1789 to the guillotines in 1791, the Russian revolution reached the dictatorship stage in only nine months after the tsar’s abdication.
Equally obvious but less often noted in both the French and Russian examples is that the office of chief executive—king and tsar—was held by weaklings: men incapable of resisting heavy or dangerous pressure. In both instances, however, the revolution succeeded from within the offices of government, from men situated inside the legislature. Legislatures, it seems, in addition to containing “representatives” of the people, can also be seedbeds of revolution.
This overall pattern was repeated in the German revolution which, like its predecessors, proceeded in stages. First the Kaiser abdicated without a struggle. Then Germany, with no really strong executive power, governed through a Reichstag dominated by Social Democrats—as often by emergency decree as by constitutional rules. In time, disorders escalated and violence became embedded in German politics. Nazis vied with Communists to win elections over the Social Democrats. In 1933 they achieved a third of the vote, and an electoral deadlock was ended when the senile Hindenburg was persuaded to name Hitler Chancellor. From that high governmental office, legally achieved, with his party dominant in the Reichstag, in eight weeks the Nazi revolutionary and his party received complete authority over every human being and all property in Germany from the Reichstag. Once again, the revolution triumphed—from inside the government.
It is in that context that present trends inside the American government should be reviewed. As in France, Russia, Germany, and other countries, the preceding, build-up stages, spearheaded by alienated and deracinated intellectuals, took a long time—in the instance of the French, from at least 1715 to 1789; in Russia, from the 1840’s to 1917; in Germany, from the 1870’s to 1933. In the United States, the intellectuals turned against our government in the 1870’s and 1880’s, against Christian education in the period from 1890 to 1900.
During the New Deal radicals lumped Roosevelt with all other capitalist rulers and joined the national consensus only when America joined hands with Josef Stalin in the name of anti-dictatorship. Meanwhile, the New Deal resumed the centralization of government that had marked Woodrow Wilson’s administration in World War I. In 1933, in his First Inaugural, FDR asked Congress for “wartime powers in peacetime”—and received them. His administrations were marked by single party control of both Congress and the presidency and enormous expansions of governmental authority in the name of charity, equality, and war.
But assaults on the presidency as such did not really resume until the Vietnam War. This adventure, initially undertaken by a Democratic President, John Kennedy, disordered the campaign of 1964. Expanded by President Johnson, the radical barrage, conducted through the media and complicated by a “civil rights” campaign marked by riots, murders, parades, demonstrations, and orations reminiscent of Abolitionist times, led to Johnson’s decision not to run again for office. This was accepted as an abdication, though other Presidents had made similar decisions without provoking such a description. The propaganda use of the term “abdication” introduced the idea that the presidency of the United States can be, somehow, attainment of the purple without the consent of the people (the people being defined as those who support revolutionary change).
It is former President Nixon’s unhappy distinction, however, to be the first American chief executive to be forced out of office before his term expired. Hoover was covered with more invective (difficult thought that is to believe), but this merely destroyed his chances for reelection. Nixon was pilloried in the media on various grounds, beginning with his agonizingly slow retreat from Vietnam, and extending, eventually, to the fact that some members of his staff sanctioned illegal actions by their underlings. That the actions were part of the rough politics long practiced in Washington was beside the point; far more pertinent was the truth that Richard Nixon, beneath his bluster, was a weak man who would not fight. Despite all the evidence, he could not believe that his landslide election could be set aside on such specious grounds as an abortive burglary in which nothing was taken, conducted without his knowledge by overly zealous, low-ranking staffers.
For all its absurdity, the significance of Watergate is profound. Not since the Radical Republican-Abolition effort had the traditional American system been so heavily dented. Congress had overturned an election. All events, moreover, seemed to play into the hands of the radical Democrats, whose tactics overwhelmed all moderates.
Vice President Agnew, a target of harassment, was discovered to have taken bribes while governor of Maryland. Admitting guilt, he resigned. That placed Congress in position to name a new, unelected Vice President. They chose Gerald Ford, who gave his word of honor not to run for the presidency. (He later broke that oath.) Then Congress proceeded toward the impeachment of President Nixon, on grounds that he had not admitted his knowledge (after the event) of the Watergate break-in or punished those responsible.
After Nixon’s resignation. Congress appointed Nelson Rockefeller Vice President. The American nation then had a President and a Vice President selected by Congress. An interregnum followed, occupied by Jimmy Carter, who proved he did not have an “inordinate fear” of Communism by retreating while it advanced.
Since 1980 Ronald Reagan has occupied the presidency. From the first his administration has been marked by reasonably conservative rhetoric, inflationary economic policies, and feeble efforts to resist Communist insurgencies in the Third World. These have been portrayed by the American media as efforts to involve us in “another Vietnam” and in Europe as saber-rattling.
Meanwhile, radical resistance against Reagan’s foreign policy increased in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. Some wrote letters of support to Ortega; others visited and encouraged Castro; still others established ongoing contacts with the Soviets. Rep. Solarz, a self-appointed sideline Secretary of State, involved himself in the Philippines, South Korea, and everywhere that change toward a more leftist government seemed possible (with the exception of the West Bank).
These efforts, although assisted by a transparently pro-Soviet press, did not shake Reagan’s personal popularity (he was reelected with ease in 1984), though they reduced the standing of his party. This was evident when Republicans lost their precarious control of the Senate in 1986.
Then the Soviets, through channels, informed the American media that the United States was selling arms to Iran in the hope of rescuing hostages and influencing that strategic nation in the Persian Gulf. Combined with the Reagan effort to assist the anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua, this caused Congress to launch an official investigation.
Although only the President is constitutionally authorized to conduct foreign affairs, and only the Senate is supposed to “advise and consent,” the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committees and Representatives themselves are now as vocal on this subject as Senators. The investigation, therefore, consists of both Senators and Representatives and has proceeded along revolutionary lines.
That is to say, testimony is first taken in private. Then, armed with witnesses’ answers—elicited under threat of a contempt of Congress charge—the questions are repeated in more embarrassing terms in public, under klieg lights, before cameras.
The “witnesses,” as they are euphemistically termed, are allowed to have a lawyer beside them, but the lawyer is not allowed to speak for them. They have none of the rights of criminals in court because it is a fiction of the American Congress that it does not hold trials. Therefore, the rules against hearsay evidence and the right to be confronted with one’s accusers are not held to apply. If the witnesses incriminate themselves, a “Special Prosecutor” lurks to indict. If the witnesses contradict themselves (and all have been subjected to repeated interrogations over weeks and even months by various officials), they may be deemed guilty of perjury and so charged. (At least one such unfortunate is in this position and is appealing. Others are expected to fare similarly.)
While these public interrogations are underway, the Representatives and Senators make denunciatory speeches to the “witnesses,” challenging their patriotism and veracity, their scruples and principles, their words and their motives. A special attorney then cross-examines the witnesses further, making his contempt for them clear to a huge TV audience—and to representatives of the media. Few men can emerge from such an ordeal without suffering fearful societal penalties, for which there is no redress.
The resemblance to revolutionary tribunals is unmistakable. When one important “witness”—Lt. Col. Oliver North—refused to answer questions on Fifth Amendment grounds, demands arose that the President order him to answer, that he be dismissed from the service. The idea that the Fifth Amendment can balk a legislator is clearly, to the present Congress, outrageous—as outrageous, one might say, as such a privilege invoked by a Tory appeared to the Assembly of Rhode Island on the eve of the War of Independence; as outrageous as it would have appeared to a Union Army Commission when confronted by a suspected “Copperhead” in 1863; as outrageous as criticism of Woodrow Wilson’s wartime policies in late 1917 (this earned Eugene Debs a penitentiary sentence); as outrageous as defiance of FDR’s policies in 1940 (which earned a trial for sedition for the Trotskyites).
Our Congress, moreover, as well as our courts and prosecutors, has diminished Fifth Amendment rights in remarkable fashion. First, any witness or defendant claiming the right to remain silent under the Fifth can give only his name. An answer to any other question—no matter how insulting—is held to have relinquished his right. Then another weapon was created: immunity. This ensures that those who admit murder or any other crime can go free, if they implicate the persons prosecutors really want to convict. Now Congress has emerged with still another refinement: “limited immunity.” This means that a witness must answer even incriminating questions and is free from prosecution unless the prosecutors can find corroboration apart from his answers. All this adds up to the condition wherein our government is now determined to select whom it chooses to imprison and will go to extraordinary lengths to twist the Constitution to achieve its purpose. A “parchment barrier” indeed. Mr. Madison knew the nature of governments.
All these examples and arguments, precedents and observations are cited to prove that we are in a crisis—a condition, as usual, hidden from the popular mind. We are, in fact, in the midst of a revolution, a time when Congress is pushing against the Chief Executive with an eye toward seizing supreme power. This is the issue—not our foreign policy.
That is not to say that Congress is acting alone: far from it. The media wants change. There are demands for a new Constitutional Convention. The academe is an enemy of our present system. Radicals are widespread; their following is growing—and antiradicals are lost counting trees in the forest.
If Congress can subjugate the Executive, and the revolutionary leaders can place one of their own in office, our foreign policy may go one of several different ways. Which way, at this point, is immaterial. For whatever happens after the fall of this President will not be determined by national choice but by radicals in the legislature, abetted by radicals in the media, the Academy, and the bureaucracy. They will decide their foreign course later: the argument now is over control of the Ship of State. We have come a long way, in a short time, from elections.
Do not be deceived by the surface issues. Do not fall into the error of considering all that is happening to be simple party politics. For traditional parties agree on traditional politics. Radicals are out to end traditions. Do not be lulled by the fact that we have had a series of weak Presidents since FDR. The tools of complete power, in the form of Executive Orders and the like, have long ago been forged and await strong hands.
Do not overlook the discovery that Ronald Reagan, under pressure, has reacted like the amiable but slow-witted Louis XVI, like the weak though pleasant Tsar Nicholas II, or like senile old Hindenburg.
Do not ignore these portents, signs, and omens simply because the scenario appears melodramatic: life is melodramatic. Measured against the patterns of history, our culture and our political situation today resembles that of Paris 1788; St. Petersburg 1916; Berlin 1933. It is true our government is not yet bankrupt; we are not in the midst of a great war, we are not in the depths of a depression. But let one disaster shake our ship, even at a distance, and the revolution will move forward here, as it has elsewhere, with amazing and irrevocable speed—unless we awaken from our single-issue trances and combine to save America.