A Predecessor of George W. Bush’s Contempt for the Constitution

Everyone who has paid attention knows that political leaders regard the U.S. Constitution as, at best, a nuisance, and as, in general, an intolerable impediment to their quest for unlimited power. George W. Bush has become justly infamous for his outburst to an aide: “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”

A remarkably similar outburst occurred during government leaders’ deliberations with regard to forcibly removing persons of Japanese ancestry from a huge swath of the West coast states and confining them in concentration camps.  In a meeting on February 1, 1942, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy bridled at what he took to be Justice Department criticism of the Army, telling Attorney General Francis Biddle: “You are putting a Wall Street lawyer in a helluva box, but if it is a question of safety of the country, [or] the Constitution of the United States, why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

Notice that Bush’s outburst came during a discussion of the USA Patriot Act, and McCloy’s during a discussion of removing and confining persons alleged (but not proven) to pose a threat to national security. Notice further that the USA Patriot Act was never necessary for the protection of the country, and neither was the action to remove and confine the Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Existing laws and legal due process would have sufficed to deal with the prevailing conditions in both cases. The government in the early 1940s and again in recent years simply grabbed and exercised great powers while the public, ignorant of the true situation, allowed its groundless fears and ethnic prejudices to dominate its thinking.

In every such national emergency, precisely when constitutional restraints on the government are most desperately needed, the Constitution becomes nothing but a scrap of paper. Government leaders understand this fact, and they speak and act accordingly.

(My source for the quotation from McCloy is Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), pp. 149-50.)

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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