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History Offers Warning that Some Crises of Civic Virtue are Overblown

Almost daily, polls, pundits, and organizations assert that the nation is polarized, its divisions unprecedented, its future in peril.  Consider this assessment from an American Bar Association (ABA) report:

Never in our history has there been so much hatred, prejudice, suspicion, greed, and malice; never has there been more division and strife; never so little effort to pull together in the exercise of a common purpose to improve social and industrial conditions.

That sounds like something from today’s news. Actually, it is from a 1922 report by the ABA’s Committee on American Citizenship.  That committee was established in 1922 at the urging of federal judge Martin J. Wade, co-author of the  book The Short Constitution and a proponent of  improved public understanding of the Constitution. Its proposals became a  major ABA priority in the 1920’s, with its chair for several years, Robert E. Saner, serving as ABA’s president in 1924.

This century-old alarm is an example of the fact that cries of doom and gloom, sometimes initiated by long-established, responsible, highly respected organizations that advance evidence in support of their assertions,  have been common and often exaggerated in our history. What may be perceived and reported to be real threats and looming calamities turn out to be divisions and flaws that were less serious than they seemed (or were made out to be), mend themselves over time, fade into insignificance, or simply go away.

The ABA was (and is) a highly regarded, judicious organization that has had a major role in shaping the judicial profession, It always goes through a thoughtful deliberative process before developing public positions.  But the work and influence of its Committee on American Citizenship a century ago shows what might be called the   “Trajectory of Crisis Anxiety” with four stages.

1. Sound the alarm. The first stage is to raise an alarm about an alleged insidious, deep-seated threat that people are not aware of or do not understand.

The committee, established in 1922,  perceived an “open revolt against authority”  in the nation. Communists and anarchists were attacking  American institutions. “Half-baked so-called educators” in schools and colleges were teaching young people that America was deeply flawed. Citizens’ “profound ignorance” of the Constitution made them susceptible to critics’ false claims that the document is “an aid to the rich and powerful.”  Even attorneys were not well versed in the constitution and therefore not well equipped to correct these public misperceptions.

Newspapers and politicians were criticizing the courts for protecting business by invalidating state industry and labor regulations. “Confidence in the courts must be revived. Faith in the justice of America must be restored.”

But “the gravest danger is the gross indifference of our people to the duties of citizenship.” People do not understand the constitution and are unaware of their civic responsibilities and threats to their liberties. Only just over 50% of eligible voters actually voted in the 1920 presidential election.

A year later, the committee in its 1923 report, added that  the influx of so many immigrants from southern and eastern Europe meant that “there is no longer a melting pot in America.”

People needed much deeper understanding of the “benefits and blessings” conferred by the constitution in order to exercise “intelligent citizenship.”

2. Take the lead. The second step is to assert a leadership responsibility to meet the threat on behalf of the group (in this case, the nation) as a whole.

Like many groups in history who sounded the alarm about alleged dire conditions, the concerned lawyers offered their own solutions. The association adopted a goal proposed by the committee: “To re-establish the Constitution of the United States and the principles and ideals of our government in the minds and hearts of the people.”  Using the term “reestablish” hearkened back to an earlier time in U.S. history when, the ABA insisted, citizens had much better understood their nation’s history, constitution, and the rule of law.

The nation’s lawyers must lead in restoring that understanding and support, the committee explained. State bar associations should follow the ABA’s lead and create committees on American citizenship and constitutional law. Law schools needed to offer more courses on the constitution and constitutional history. Practicing lawyers must self-educate about the constitution so they can explain and promote it in their communities.

Taking the lead would have an additional benefit for the profession, the committee explained. It would establish attorneys as guardians of the constitution and citizens’ rights and would burnish the image of state bar associations and the ABA as patriotic organizations

3. Advance strategies to meet the crisis. The third and most substantial part of the cycle is to advance and manage strategies to combat the threat.

Over the next eight years, the ABA pursued a number of strategies advanced by its committee on American citizenship.

*Build a coalition. Most of the state bar associations, at the ABA’s suggestion, established similar committees that advocated for the Constitution, patriotism, teaching U.S. history and the Constitution in schools, and related initiatives. The ABA encouraged civic, fraternal, and patriot groups to take up the cause and worked closely with the American Legion and several other groups.

* Distribute educational materials. “Education! This is our job!” said the committee in 1927. The ABA developed and distributed thousands of copies of pamphlets and booklets to organizations and individuals on topics such as “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” “The Story of the Constitution,” “Handbook of the Constitution,” “The Real George Washington” (“the greatest figure of our county, if not of all time”), “The Constitution in Our Schools,” “Suggested Contests on Citizenship Subjects for Schools and Colleges,” and “Suggestions for Thanksgiving” (urging clergy to refer to the constitution as a blessing).

* Distill the message. The 1924 committee report included a short appendix “Our Citizenship Creed” which was widely reprinted and distributed. “I … believe it to be my duty to inform myself on American history, the foundations of our government as embodied in the United States Constitution, and the application of the principles therein contained to present-day problems,” it began. “As an American citizen, the Constitution of the United States must be an actual part of my life and of my religion…” it concluded.

* Educate young people about the constitution and constitutional  government. ”The schools of America must save America!” said the 1922 report. The ABA made a major push for teaching about the constitution and constitutional history in the schools. The purpose was to convey principles “to the plastic and absorbent mind of youth,” in the words of the 1928 committee report. More education for teachers themselves would be needed to encourage them to “ground their teaching on bed-rock Americanism.”  The association lobbied for better teacher training.

Colleges needed to offer courses in the constitution and constitutional government, particularly since college graduates would be opinion leaders in their communities. 

4. Ease off on crisis anxiety. The final stage in the cycle is the perception that the reported crisis has eased, the threats have not materialized, we can relax and be more confident about the future, and the leading organizations or groups deserve credit for the benevolent turn of events.

By the end of the 1920’s, the Association seemed to relax on this issue. By then, 37 states had laws requiring the study of the Constitution in public schools (though usually  as a minor component of American History or “civics” courses rather than a separate course as the association had recommended). Oratorical contests sponsored by newspapers attracted about 2 million participants from high schools each year.  Orators extolled the constitution on Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Constitution Day. Law schools were offering more courses on constitutional law for future lawyers. State bar associations and committees continued to be active.

Moreover, at least some of the looming threats seem to have lifted. The advance of revolutionary communism had stopped with the takeover of Russia. Radicalism and anarchism receded as threats. While voter turnout lagged, the voters had continued conservative Republican control of Congress and elected reliably conservative Republican presidents in 1920, 1924, and 1928. Socialists, sometimes perceived by conservatives as a political threat to the nation, barely registered in the presidential contests. Senator Robert LaFollette, presidential nominee of the upstart Progressive Party in 1924, garnered only about 17% of the vote and the party then disappeared. The Supreme Court continued its conservative bent but there were fewer lightning-rod decisions and criticism of judges and the courts faded. Congress stemmed the tide of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe with a new restrictive immigration act in 1924.

The ABA itself became somewhat more prudent and restrained in its public work. Charles Evans Hughes’ 1925 ABA presidential address, titled “Liberty and Law,” decried “the most ominous sign of the time…the growth of an intolerant spirit. It is the more dangerous when armed, as it usually is, with sincere conviction.” America abounded with its “different racial stocks, variety of faiths, and the manifold interests and opinions which attest the vigor and zest of our intellectual life.” Teachers and professors should not become “the pliant tools of power” and schools should pursue “freedom of learning.”

Hughes meant his warning as a rebuke to self-defined patriots who were pushing anti-immigrant nativism and were trying to dictate books and curricula in American history courses, but it was also an indirect caution to the members of his own association.

The citizenship committee’s annual reports grew less strident and more optimistic, emphasizing progress toward accomplishment of item in  its agenda. Committees were active in every state. More than a thousand clergy had included the blessing of the constitution in their annual Thanksgiving sermons. The committee pivoted to a new threat, “the most immediate, imminent, and insidious danger to our form of government:.” It was ”the increasing centralization of power in Washington and the growth of bureaucracy there….a government of the Bureaucrats, by the Bureaucrats, and for the Bureaucrats.”

The ABA began touting itself as a patriotic institution that “largely helped to espouse the growing interest in the Constitution.”

Of course, the ABA had other active committees in the 1920’s but the citizenship group was prominent.. The committee convinced the association to adopt its agenda and in turn state bar associations, local organizations, newspapers, and thousands of individual attorneys and others, jumped on board. Over the years, the ABA has continued to be a leading voice of advocacy, changes its emphases and priorities as times and needs changed.

America certainly has many very serious political, economic, and other problems these days. But this historical example is one that suggests predictions of looming disaster and demise are frequent in our history.