The Weekly Winston: What good’s a Constitution?

A year or two ago Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn sent me a packet of Churchill materials. I’m just getting around to reading them. One of the pieces is Churchill’s brilliant August 22, 1936 Collier’s essay, “What good’s a Constitution?” Looking around online, I find related commentary by Justin Lyons, “Winston Churchill’s constitutionalism: A critique of socialism in America.” The photocopy of the essay sent to me by Larry highlights the following amazingly timely paragraph with the marginal notation “very good stuff.” Consider this:

In the United States…economic crisis has led to an extension of the activities of the Executive and to the pillorying, by irresponsible agitators, of certain groups and segments of the population as enemies of the rest. There have been efforts to exalt the power of the central government and to limit the rights of individuals. It has been sought to mobilize behind this reversal of the America tradition, at once the selfishness of pensioners, or would-be pensioners of Washington, and the patriotism of all who wish to see their country prosperous once more.

As Lyons demonstrates with his exposition of Arthur Schlesinger’s characteristic abuse of the essay, it must be given the closest reading and viewed in its entirety. The two paragraphs that follow the one above continue to expand on the same thought regarding the perils of the socialist moment in its manifold varieties, including fascism (i.e., national socialism):

It is when passions and cupidities are thus unleashed and, at the same time, the sense of public duty rides high in the hearts of all men and women of good will that the handcuffs can be slipped upon the citizens and they can be brought into entire subjugation to the executive government. They they are led to believe that, if only they will yield themselves, body, mind and soul, to the State, and obey unquestioningly its injunctions, some dazzling future of riches and power will open to them, either — as in Italy — by the conquest of of the territories of others, or — as in America — by a further liberation and exploitation of natural resources.

I take the opposite view. I hold that governments are meant to be, and must remain, the servants of the citizens; that states and federations only come into existence and can only be justified by preserving the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the homes and families of individuals. The true right and power rest in the individual. He gives of his right and power to the State, expecting and requiring thereby in return certain advantages and guarantees. I do not admit that an economic crisis can ever truly be compared with the kind of struggle by races constantly under primordial conditions. I do not think that modern nations in time of peace ought to regard themselves as if they were the inhabitants of besieged cities, liable to be put to the sword or led into slavery if they cannot make good their defence.

We will have to return to this great essay in a subsequent installment of this series.


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