“The Will of the People”


According to Merriam-Webster, a homophone is “a word that is pronounced like another word but is different in meaning, origin, or spelling.” A well know example are the words pair and pare. One has at its core the concept of bringing things together. The other cuts them apart. While this definition applies to the world of individual words, for the History Rhyme it can have a much wider and more interesting usage – one that can help us to see how differing groups at different periods of history can appear to say the same things, but instead have very different meanings for their words and origins for their ideas. The example that we will examine now concerns a power that many Americans have had for decades, but used seldom if ever (that is until recently) – the power to remove judges from office (judicial recall) at election time.

This History Rhymer, like most Americans who have been of voting age for a while, had gone through many elections paying little attention to the list of judges at the end of the ballot. Beside that series of names were boxes in which the voter could check “yes” if he/she wanted to keep that person in office or “no” if he/she did not. Depending on my mood, I might have voted “yes” or “no” for all of them, but most often I just skipped over that section. It seemed like a quaint, albeit pointless, part of the ballot that was essentially irrelevant to most people’s lives. All of that began to change in the past few years when conservative social groups discovered the power behind the judicial recall process.

The issue that caught many people’s attention stemmed from the efforts of the Iowa-based Family Council in 2010 to remove from the bench three members of the Iowa Supreme Court whose terms were expiring and thus whose recall votes were on the ballot. The reason why the Family Council and its leader Bob Vander Plaats were so adamant on removing these justices was because, on April 3, 2009, the court had unanimously ruled in Varnum v. Brien that a ban on same-sex marriages as unconstitutional. This effectively made same sex marriage legal in Iowa. Thanks to an outpouring of grass roots support and donations from across the nation, the three justices were voted out of office.

What is notable for this addition of the History Rhyme is not so much that a conservative Christian group used a seldom-noticed part of the ballot to show displeasure for the actions of the courts. Instead it is more due the words used to explain why the Family Council acted. A good example of this can be found in a December 2010 interview of Vander Plaats on the news show Iowa Press. In that interview, he stated that that he had “asked for the resignation of the other four. I think it’s the honorable thing to do. I think it’s the right thing to do. It respects the will of the people.” It is that last phrase, “the will of the people,” that will lead us on our trip to the past in order to understand where the idea behind the need for judicial recall votes originated and the interesting examples of “history homophones” this journey will show us.

If we were somehow able to transport some of the members of groups like the Family Council or the Tea Party back in time to March 20, 1912, and directed them to an evening at Carnegie Hall in New York, they would have attended a speech by former President Theodore Roosevelt entitled “The Right of the People to Rule.” Many of the themes in this speech would have sounded familiar and welcome to our modern observers.

Roosevelt gave this address to discuss the “great fundamental issue now before the Republican party and before our people” which was to answer the questions “are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves?” Roosevelt, in his usual emphatic style said that the answer was yes but that changes were needed for this to occur. Roosevelt called for changes to the legislatures and courts so that “the servants of the people will come more quickly to answer and obey, not the commands of the special interests, but those of the whole people.” The problem as he saw it was legislatures that “refuse to carry out the will of the people” and “obstinately refuse the will of the majority “ and courts that had on occasion been known to “reverse the political philosophy of the people.”

If our modern observers were to stop at this point with these few quotes from Roosevelt’s speech, it would be very easy for them to see the old Rough Rider as a forerunner to their own conservative and Christian crusades. After all, he was a Republican who was outrages by elected officials who were more attuned to the will of special interests than the people and of judges in certain states who were blocking legislation that represented what the majority wanted. Furthermore, if they were to jump ahead to late June 1912 to Roosevelt’s speech at the Republican convention in Chicago the members of the Family Council would undoubtedly have been excited by Roosevelt’s speech where he ended with the proclamation that:

“The victory shall be ours, and it shall be won as we have already won so many victories, by clean and honest fighting for the loftiest of causes. We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind, fearless for the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

As you probably realize from my discussion of “history homophones,” that assessment would be quite wrong.

Theodore Roosevelt may have been one of the most well-known and successful Republican presidents in American history, but if alive today he would undoubtedly have been called a “RINO” (Republican in name only). To be sure, Roosevelt would not have cared what our observers called him unless they called him a drunk in which case he might be tempted to take them to court as he did the editor of the Ishpheming Iron Ore in 1913. Roosevelt called himself a “progressive” and actually ran as the presidential candidate for the Progressive Party (better known now as the “Bull Moose” party) in the 1912 election after her was denied the Republican nomination by the leaders of the party. The party that Roosevelt embodied advocated many of the main progressive “checks and balances” that were indicative of the wider movement (which had adherents in both the Republican and Democratic parties) – primary elections, the direct election of United States Senators, use of the ballot initiative, recall of elected officials, voting rights for women, and the review of judges.

Roosevelt was somewhat uncertain about some of these governmental reforms (especially the review of judges) but was definitely a progressive and was interested more in the rights of the working people than the owners of businesses. This can be seen by his comments in the Carnegie Hall speech that:

“We are today suffering from the tyranny of minorities. It is a small minority that is grabbing our coal-deposits, our water-powers, and our harbor fronts. A small minority is battening on the sale of adulterated foods and drugs. It is a small minority that lies behind monopolies and trusts. It is a small minority that stands behind the present law of master and servant, the sweat-shops, and the whole calendar of social and industrial injustice.”

What was especially annoying to Roosevelt was how the conservative judges of the time were using common law (e.g. Hoxie v. New Haven Railroad in 1909) and the “due process” clause “as if it prohibited the whole people of the State from adopting methods of regulating the use of property so that human life, particularly the lives of the working men, shall be safer, freer, and happier.” This definitely does not sound like a speech you would find at a modern Tea Party rally. Instead, the ideas he advocated required more government growth instead of the shrinkage many on the right demand today.

As we come back into the present, what can we learn from this example of “history homophones?” First, we can see how reforms that seemed so important to the empowerment of the people by some but dangerously radical by others, can lose their sting and become little noticed and quaint tools of a bygone era.  That was definitely the case of the judicial review elections in Iowa for most of the 20th century. Second, we observe that when the political climate changes and some forgotten electoral powers are rediscovered, the tools are not always used by the same people who created them and often for vastly different causes. Third, we learn that while political movements come and go and the political spectrum may shift to the right or the left, many of the core ideas of the “will of the people” still remain – even if the meanings of such phrases have changed to fit the times.

Excerpts of Theodore Roosevelt’s March 20, 1912 speech “The Right of the People to Rule” can be found at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-rights-of-the-people-to-rule/


The History Rhyme posts and additional information about the author are also available at TheHistoryRhyme.com.

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