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The Militant, 21 February 1949

Ruth Johnson

Issues in Washington’s Time and Ours

Resistance to the Use of Arbitrary Powers

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 8, 21 February 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


With hypocrisy gained in long practice, the capitalist politicians this week will proclaim their devotion to George Washington and the program of the War for Independence. Without a blush, Harry S. Truman will lead their chant of “Americanism” while his arrogant claim of “inherent powers” still rings in the public ear. This is a cynical denial of what the American rebels of the 18th Century fought for.

The American Revolution was a struggle against arbitrary power exercised by the head of the government. The Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the colonists’ determination to be free, was a ringing answer to King George III who claimed the “divine right” to rule them by decree.

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States ...

“He has refused to assent, to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good ... He has made judges dependent on his will alone ...

“He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws ... depriving us, in many cases of the benefits of trial by jury ... taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our government.”

This was the despotism they organized against and overthrew by force of arms. Their grievances against George III are not so different from many the workers might well write against Truman today! Truman’s decrees, his “subversive” lists denying a fair and open trial for the accused, are as autocratic and as dangerous to the people’s liberties as were the English king’s.

Paine’s Indictment

Hatred of such tyranny was the life-blood of the American revolutionists, inspiring the cold and tattered armies of “Continentals” to fight on through the bitterest hardships. The burning words of Thomas Paine, great pamphleteer of the colonial cause, are immortal attacks on autocratic rule.

In the Crisis papers which Washington asked him to write during the darkest days of the revolution, Paine constantly lashed the King’s “inherent” or “divine” powers. Only the whole people, he said, have any “inherent” rights; all rulers by decree are base usurpers.

“Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey,” Paine warned, “soon grow insolent ... their minds early poisoned by importance.” His words apply just as well to the chief executive today, who arrogantly claims the right to decide that men must work regardless of conditions, and to break strikes by injunctions and fines.

No Legal Authority

“Independency,” Paine wrote, “means no more than this, whether we shall make our own laws, or whether the King, the greatest enemy this continent hath or can have, shall tell us there shall be no laws but such as I like.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Nor did the colonial revolutionists, having thrown off the yoke of the despot in England, intend to set the stage for a hew despotism on American soil. Despite the fact that the. merchants and planters succeeded in putting over a conservative Constitution, the powers which Truman claims for himself today are not granted by the Constitution. Far from it.

Under the provisions of the Constitution, the President is the chief administrator, with strictly limited powers to make recommendations to Congress. As executive he has no right to make laws, and no judicial rights, whatsoever.

Moreover, Article 10 of the Bill of Rights, passed by the first Congress under pressure of popular demand, specifically forbids him to usurp other authority. It declares in unmistakable words:

“Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Nowhere will you find in it a hint of “inherent” powers of the President, op the granting of absolute rule to any individual. The young American republic, born in the struggle agaihst British autocracy, Was founded on the desire of the colonists for democracy. So long as American capitalism expanded and prospered, the American people were able to preserve most of the democratic rights they had conquered through struggle and even extend them.

Cynical Pretender

Today, capitalism is senile and confronted with unsolvable problems. Since it cannot go forward, it reverses the pattern and falsifies the traditions of its youth.

Step by step, capitalism now attempts to restrict and wipe out the rights of the people – freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair and public trial. Unable to grant improved living conditions to the masses and thus to hold their support, it turns toward despotism in a vain scheme to halt their demands.

And the chief executive of the capitalist government acts like a cynical pretender to the crown of George III. He deliberately overrides the Constitution and discards the cherished traditions of democracy in a brazen effort to usurp rights belonging to the American people.

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