When Congress Tried To Rule


Since the days when the thirteen colonies, each so jealous of its sovereignty, got together to fight the lobsterbacks, the American people have exhibited a tendency—a genius—to maintain widely divergent viewpoints in normal times, but to unite and agree in times of stress. One reason the federal system has survived is that it has demonstrated this same tendency. Most of the time the three co-equal divisions of the general government tend to compete. In crises they tend to co-operate. And not only during a war. A singular instance of co-operation took place in the opening days of the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the harmonious efforts of Executive and legislature to arrest the ravages of depression brought the term “rubber-stamp Congress” into the headlines. On the other hand, when in 1937 Roosevelt attempted to bend the judiciary to the will of the executive by “packing” the Supreme Court, Congress rebelled. This frequently proved flexibility—this capacity of both people and government to shift from competition to co-operation and back again as circumstances warrant—suggests that the federal system will be found equal to the very real dangers of the present world situation.

In the Congress of 1868, one of the charges against Andrew Johnson—a charge subsequently softened by historians—was that his actions were directed by a “boundless egotism.” That they were not is indicated by the fact that never for one moment did he look upon the impeachment proceedings solely as an attack on him personally. As he made clear in numerous statements, he realized that he was not standing alone at the bar of the United States Senate. Standing beside him, faint shades in the sparkle of the chandeliers, were Washington and Madison, Franklin and Randolph, and all of the other devoutly remembered architects of our federal system of government.