Sunday, June 30, 2024

J. Reuben Clark, Jr. and the Constitution

Joshua Reuben Clark, Jr. was born on September 1, 1871 in Grantsville, Utah to Joshua Reuben Clark and Mary Louisa Wolley Clark. He graduated in the first class at the University of Utah in 1898 and married Luacine Annetta Savage in September of that year. They became the parents of three daughters and one son. In 1903 Clark moved his family to New York City to attend the law school at Columbia University, where he graduated with an LL.B. degree in 1906. He excelled in law school and was elected to the editorial board of the Columbia Law Review. During his public career from 1906 to 1933, Clark served as assistant solicitor, solicitor, and undersecretary of the U. S. State Department, taught as an assistant professor of law at George Washington University, and crowned his public career by serving as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. It was during his service as undersecretary of the State Department that he published his influential “Clark Memorandum on the Monroe Doctrine.” 

In July 1935, J. Reuben Clark, Jr. spoke at a luncheon at the California Club on the subject of the Constitution, and said in part: “ We are deaf today to the approach of tyranny because we have lived so long under the protection of the Constitution that we take for granted the blessings of liberty . . . . We need more people today with strong convictions in support of the Constitution and with courage to back their convictions.”  J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “Stand Fast by Our Constitution” (Deseret Book Co. 1973), p. 4 (cited herein as “Clark”). 

He was a devoted and life-long student of history and of the roots of the American founding. With particularity he studied the Roman legal system and its progeny. From this background, he viewed the Constitution “as emerging from a long historical process. . . . [and saw] the framers of the Constitution as being men of great historical knowledge as well as practical experience.” He said: 

The Framers of our Constitution . . . were trained and experienced in the Common Law. They remembered the barons and King John at Runnymede. They were thoroughly indoctrinated in the principle that true sovereignty rested in the people. . . . Deeply read in history, steeped in the lore of the past in human government, and experienced in the approaches of despotism which they had, themselves, suffered at the hands of George the Third, these patriots, assembled in solemn convention, planned for the establishment of a government that would ensure to them the blessings they described in the Preamble. (Clark, p. 145, 147). 

Yes, he revered the Framers, and describing them said, “[a]s giants to pygmies are they when placed alongside our political emigres and fellow travelers of today, who now traduce them with slighting word and contemptuous phrase.” (Clark, pp. 135-36).         

A key feature of the Constitution important to J. Reuben Clark was the Bill of Rights, and particularly the First Amendment. He observed that “the greatest struggle which now rocks the whole earth more and more takes on the character of a struggle of the individual versus the state.” (Martin B. Hickman, “J. Reuben Clark, Jr.: The Great Fundamentals,” BYU Studies 13:3 (1973), p. 257 (cited herein as “Hickman”). In this regard, “he was particularly concerned with the protection of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment: freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion.” (Id.) His firm opinion was that, “the fathers felt that when they protected freedom of speech and of the press against government interference, they had effectively guaranteed the citizens freedom to talk and write as they felt and thought about their own government” (Id., p. 269), and that this was essential to a free society. 

In describing the concept of federalism inherent the Constitution (see 9th & 10th Amendments), J. Reuben Clark emphasized that there is a dual jurisdiction in our Constitutional form of government -- State and Federal. He felt strongly that a limited federal government is what the Founding Fathers clearly intended in the Constitution, and that  “local government governs best.” He said: 

The Federal Government may only do what we the people have authority to do; if it does more it is guilty of usurpation. The people have reserved to themselves or to their State governments every right and power they have not delegated to the Federal Government, which must always look to the Constitution and its amendments to find its rights, for it has none other. This system puts the great bulk of our daily life activities in the hands of our own neighbors who know us and our surroundings, and not in the hands of a bureaucrat in a far-away national capitol, who, to all intents and purposes, is an alien to us and our affairs. This plan gives the largest possible measure to local self government. Liberty will never depart from us while we have local self-government controlling and directing matters pertaining to our personal liberties and to the security of our private property; it will not abide with us if we lose our local self government. (Clark, pp. 187-88). 

In regard to an informed society, Clark continually stressed the need for all American citizens to “constantly review the purposes for which the Constitution was written.” (Id., p. 271). He taught that our patriotic allegiance should not run to individuals or government officials “no matter how great or small they may be,” but that the only allegiance we owe as citizens runs to our Constitution. He stated that “this principle of allegiance to the Constitution is basic to our freedom.” (Clark, p. 189). He decried “those who . . . are incapable of understanding or appreciating the fundamentals of, or to think practically and creatively about, the problems of free self-government.” He expressed the conviction that “those who understand the spirit as well as the word of the Constitution will be able . . . to preserve its great principles and the republican form of government for which it provides.” (Clark, p. 158). 

With respect to the founding documents with which every citizen should be familiar and conversant, J. Reuben Clark was a diligent student of the history of the founding and particularly the Federalist Papers. He made the statement (in agreement with Thomas Jefferson) that “these essays have been appraised as ‘the greatest treatise on government that has ever been written,’ and its writers have been ranked as of the same order with Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Locke.” (Id., p. 135). He quoted Fiske stating that, “for all posterity the Federalist must remain the most authoritative commentary upon the Constitution that can be found.” (Id., p. 167). He also loved George Washington's poignant Farewell Address, and described it as a “prophetic admonition and warning.” He frequently quoted excerpts from the address when writing or speaking on the meaning of the Constitution and earnestly recommended to his listeners “to read it in its entirety.” 

In connection with Constitutional learning and vigilance, he vigorously urged each citizen to be watchful and to discern gradual encroachments to our liberties under the Constitution. James Madison stated: “I believe that there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” Echoing Madison's admonition, J. Reuben Clark offered this solemn warning: 

In the whole history of the human race, from Adam until now, Tyranny has never come to live with any people with a placard on his breast bearing his name. He always comes in deep disguise, sometimes proclaiming an endowment of freedom [or rights], sometimes promising to help the unfortunate and downtrodden, not by creating something for those who do not have, but by robbing those who have. But Tyranny is always a wolf in sheep's clothing, and he always ends by devouring the whole flock, saving none. (Clark, p. 5).