A stealthy coup subverted our Constitution

Theodore Roosevelt

The United States was likely the first nation where officials took their oath of office by pledging to “preserve, protect, and defend” a document – representing the national idea – rather than a king or dictator. While a coup d’état against a leader is obvious, could a covert overthrow against the Constitution go unnoticed? What if the leaders remained the same because they were the ones instigating the takeover, subverting the Constitution?

In the early 20th Century, radicals, styling themselves as “progressives,” pushed for structural changes to our federal republic. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican nationalist “progressive,” and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat internationalist “progressive,” laid the groundwork for the fundamental transformation of the United States from a federal republic into a national social-democracy. Once implemented, these changes worked like poison to weaken the system. Safeguards against the concentration of power were worn away as the federal system became unbalanced.

In 1913, the states ratified the Sixteenth Amendment giving the federal government the power to directly tax citizens and corporations. The founders wisely prohibited direct taxes to block the federal government from unlimited access to funds fueling government expansion without concurrence from the states. The federal government was dependent on tariffs until 1913. The amendment was advanced by “progressives” who argued tariffs targeted the poor, by rural communities whose economy was tied to fluctuating commodity prices affected by tariffs, and by imperialists who wanted funds for a larger military with the reach and capability necessary for foreign adventures.

Later in 1913, states also ratified the Seventeenth Amendment making senators directly elected by popular vote instead of being elected by the state legislatures. The founders intended the House to represent the populace, but for the Senate to represent the states. Direct election denied state legislatures representation in the federal government, paved the way for the creation of oppressive federal agencies usurping state authority, and facilitated the confirmation of Supreme Court justices favorable to increasing national government control.

With unlimited funding available and freed from oversight and restraint by the states, the last defense against radical ambitions were the constitutional limits on federal authority.

Then Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president. In her book The Forgotten Man, author Amity Shlaes shows FDR was a committed radical, a “progressive,” bent on centralizing power no matter how many were hurt or how much damage was done. Rather than work with his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, to avoid an unfolding banking crisis during the transition, Roosevelt let the country and markets languish in uncertainty for three months. Banks folded, depositors lost their life savings, and lives were destroyed, but FDR relished the fact the blame fell on Hoover while Roosevelt profited politically from the crisis.

When Rahm Emmanuel, former aide to President Barack Obama, quipped “never let a crisis go to waste” he described the operating principle of the Roosevelt administration from 75 years earlier. Everything was done in the name of a parade of endless crises first under the rubric of the Great Depression and later World War II.

From the depression through the war, FDR and his apparatchiks recast the US as a national social democracy — in effect, a coup.

National bureaucracies sprung up seemingly overnight. They regulated, threatened, and pressured businesses — large and small alike — into submission. They appeared at the doorstep of stressed state and local officials with limitless federal cash. Politicians fell over themselves to sign away local autonomy in exchange for money and make-work jobs for constituents. Where states once checked federal overreach, governors and legislators now willingly signed their states into servitude. Unfortunately, the initiatives impeded a recovery as uncertainty scared off investment and higher taxes took money out of the economy. State leaders surrendered their power, and the depression only deepened.

Early in his administration, Roosevelt’s plans ran afoul of the Constitution. The Supreme Court struck down core elements of his program as unconstitutional. In Schechter Poultry Corp. v. US (1935), the Supreme Court struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act because Congress lacked power under the Commerce Clause to regulate local business. Then in US v. Butler (1936), the Supreme Court also struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act in finding the government exceeded their authority under the Commerce Clause by regulating farming, a purely local activity. They also struck down the Coal Conservation Act in Carter v. Carter Coal Co. (1936) because Congress lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to disguise a penalty as a tax to compel coal mines — another purely local activity — to “voluntarily” comply with regulations.

Like Obama, Roosevelt saw the Constitution as an obstacle. With the court preventing the metamorphosis the radicals desired, FDR attacked the court directly in a radio address. Then Roosevelt went silent, but FDR’s operatives and supporters viciously attacked the court as public enemies while others privately pressured conservative jurists to resign. After his re-election in 1936, Roosevelt proposed legislation increasing the numbers of justices so he could pack the court with jurists willing to support his policies in spite of constitutional limits.

The attempt backfired politically. The legislation ultimately failed, but not before the court caved to astro-turfed popular pressure and behind the scenes arm-twisting. Justice Owen Roberts switched sides while constitutionalist Justice Willis Van Devanter retired. The Supreme Court flipped to the opposite extreme with West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1936) by affirming minimum wage laws similar to laws held unconstitutional only 13 years earlier. In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court tucked their tail between their legs and gave Roosevelt favorable decisions contrary to earlier decisions and the Constitution. The independence of the court was compromised. With the Supreme Court subjugated, radicals moved to their next target: expanding federal authority.

In short order, radicals found two cases to expand the national government’s power through the Commerce Clause. Until 1933, court cases involving the Commerce Clause almost exclusively involved blocking state laws from regulating interstate transactions. The court acknowledged as much in the 1942 Filburn decision, “the influence of the Clause on American life and law was a negative one, resulting almost wholly from its operation as a restraint upon the powers of the states.” The Commerce Clause (US Constitution Article I, Section 8) gave Congress the power “…To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;” thereby precluding state regulations over interstate commerce. The Framers intended the Commerce Clause as a narrowly defined, enumerated power delegated to Congress to facilitate interstate commerce and prevent states from launching interstate trade wars.

The first case was United States v. Wrightwood Dairy Co. (1942). In his decision, Chief Justice Harlan Stone wrote “The commerce power is not confined in its exercise to the regulation of commerce among the states. …The power of Congress over interstate commerce is plenary and complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations.” Curiously, the decision only obliquely mentioned the 1935 Schechter case and failed to mention the Butler and Carter cases at all — the most recent Commerce Clause cases. A note at the end of the Wrightwood decision mentions Justice Roberts “took no part in consideration or decision of this case.”

The second case was Wickard v. Filburn (1942). Roscoe Filburn was an Ohio farmer who grew less than 25 acres of wheat and raised livestock. In 1939, he planted more wheat than the federal government allotted. An honest, law-abiding man, he only sold the wheat from his allotment. The remainder was for animal feed on his farm. He was fined by the Department of Agriculture. He sued on the grounds no commerce was involved. In his decision, Justice Robert Jackson quoted Chief Justice Stone from the Wrightwood case and then added, “But even if appellee’s activity be local, and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress…”.

The Filburn decision failed to cite even one of the Commerce Clause cases from seven years earlier. Perhaps, unable to refute the reasoning in the Schechter, Butler, and Carter cases, they decided the court was better off ignoring them. In his Butler decision less than eight years earlier, Justice Roberts made a compelling argument an expansion of the Commerce Clause upended the entire notion of enumerated powers and constitutional limits. In Filburn, Roberts concurred with the decision granting Congress unfettered authority.

Buried amidst the news from a raging world war and obfuscated with legal language, the coup went almost unnoticed. The leaders did not change. There was no amendment or constitutional convention, but our form of government changed radically. The enumerated powers of Congress were judged unlimited, even to include personal activity on private property. The Commerce Clause’s once narrow delegation of power became justification for Congress to micromanage any and all activity, public or private, whether commerce was involved or not. The 10th amendment, reserving all other powers to the states and citizens, was effectively nullified. The last safeguard of federalism was breeched.

America’s transformation accelerated. In 1930, civilian federal employees were only 6.5% of the American civilian labor force. By 1960, 12% of civilian employees in the US worked for the federal government. By 1980, the percentage was 15.2%. Government employees as a percentage of the workforce grew roughly twice as fast as the population.

Just one federal department, the Department of Agriculture employed 26,544 in 1933. By 1961, their workforce increased by 228.7% to 87,262 employees. The American population only increased by 46.8% in the same time period. Today, they employ over 105,000 with around 16,000 in DC, even though there is no significant agriculture in DC. The figures don’t even include the tens of thousands of employees for state, county, and local agriculture bureaus in jurisdictions where farming and ranching is an actual activity. Meanwhile, the number of US farms dropped from about 6.3 million in 1930 to 3.7 million by 1960, and there are only around 2.1 million farms in America today.

Comparing federal government spending to gross domestic product (GDP) — the entire economy — is the most telling. In 1930, federal spending was only 4.3% of GDP. By 1960, federal spending ballooned to 18% of GDP. Today, 21% of the GDP is federal government spending. Add in state and local spending, the total government spending in 1930 was 12.9% of GDP, 28% of GDP in 1960, and 36% of GDP today. The trend is unmistakable and alarming.

With the government sector over one third of the GDP, the United States is a social democracy – an incredibly inefficient one. When federalism was nullified, the Constitution was subverted and the United States changed from a federal republic into a national social-democracy. The stealth coup was complete.

Brian T. Carter

Brian is computer network systems engineer, commercial rated pilot, and writer who spent the last 12 years working overseas in hostile environments. He makes his home in Central Texas, but has traveled and lived abroad off and on since he was 11 years old. He lived, attended school, or worked in Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Find him on Twitter or Facebook.

3 Comments
  1. We the People is Democratic Socialism, if it weren’t, then those in rural areas would never even have had been given the ability for utilities like water, electricity, plumbing, etc. [In the early 20th Century, radicals, styling themselves as “progressives,” pushed for structural changes to our federal republic. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican nationalist “progressive,” and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat internationalist “progressive,” laid the groundwork for the fundamental transformation of the United States from a federal republic into a national social-democracy]

  2. How do you go from We the People, it was always meant to being a republic not a French style democracy. What the coup did was turn that into the French revolution, Wilson even called it as much. The writer could have continued on to the current court with Robertson redefining what a tax is on Obamacare.

    The only way to counter this is a convention of the states to take back their control of the federal government.

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