All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1960

If I Were King


Mr. Pettengill, noted attorney and author, was formerly a congressman from Indiana<.

A great author once wrote a story: “If I Were King.” I suppose every decent-minded person wishes, at times, that he were a king, not to feed his vanity with the trappings of thrones, but to use his power to benefit his fellow men.

If two choices were offered me, and one was to be the richest man in the world so I could turn my vast estates into public parks (as Caesar did in his last will in Shakespeare’s play) or endow churches or colleges, or finance laboratories to seek the cure for some dread plague, I would turn this down if the other choice granted me were the power to get all of my fellow Americans to truly understand the priceless heritage they have in the Ameri­can Constitution.

I say this soberly and after years of reflection. If this were in my power to do, I know my name would go down in history as a greater benefactor than any, and perhaps all, of the rich men who have ever endowed great charities. Such an understanding would enable common men every­where to build their own fortunes. It would lead to a country invin­cible abroad and happy at home.

Only one thing would I value more, that being my’ own under­standing and ability to teach the laws of God for men, individually and socially. Part of these laws are, indeed, in the Constitution.

The Bible and the Constitution! “And the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.” The storm-tossed Stars and Stripes is, with one possible exception, the oldest flag that streams anywhere against the wind. It flies over the only undefeated great nation in the entire history of the world.

The American people do have a deep reverence for the Constitu­tion in the same way as they revere the memory of brave but un­known men who long ago died for freedom at Valley Forge or the Alamo.

It has, however, been a long time since Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers to explain every word and sentence in the Constitution; a long time since the Fourth of July meant much to American youth, beside the noise of firecrackers.

We need new Madisons, new Websters, new Calhouns. We need a new Benjamin Hill who, in the post-bellum days of the Old South, said, “The Constitution is my only client, and its preservation is the only fee I ask.”

Recognizing, as Jefferson did, that “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind,” I still believe, as our fathers hoped, that the basic truths of the Constitution constituted “a new order for the ages”; or as in the Latin words, “Novus ordo seclorum,” which they inscribed on America’s Great Seal, as you will see it pictured on the back of the dollar bill in your pocket. It was intended to be “for the ages.” I believe most of the so­cial and political ills of our time, including depressions and unem­ployment, are due to the fact that we have veered from the course our fathers charted.

The cavernous bureaus of government today are spinning intri­cate and sticky spider webs of countless laws, rules, and regula­tions which entangle the bees from the human hive; the taxes they levy for their support discourage thrift and growth, and in addi­tion, the favors of government have become a vast prize immor­ally fought for by huge pressure groups which are carrying on a fierce civil war of mutual exploita­tion.

The Fundamental Fallacy

This is a far cry from the free government our fathers designed where young men might climb the ladder to success by their own ef­forts, where ambition had its open field, and honest work its earned reward.

I will never believe that millions of men will work as hard to sup­port the wives and children of un­known men in other towns, cities, and states, as they will to build a rooftree for their own wives and for their children. (This is the fundamental fallacy of socialism.) We have not yet reached that point, but when the federal gov­ernment takes away in taxes from 20 per cent to 50 or 90 per cent of what a man earns and gives it to the support of people he never saw, we are fast approaching a stagnant and discouraged Amer­ica.

Our fathers faced the great is­sue of individualism vs. collec­tivism. They designed the Constitu­tion to safeguard the individual. The State was to serve him and give him his chance; it was not to make him serve it and deprive him of his chance. They did not intend men to make their livings like robber bands, preying upon each other with the ballot as their weapon of pillage. They intended, as God said to men in Genesis, “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”

“I am not,” said Jefferson, “the friend of an energetic government. It is bound to become oppressive.” It has become so.

Due to popular ignorance of the true meaning and worth of the Constitution, which enshrined the individual and the family at the hearthstone as the very handiwork of the Creator, the materialism of a godless communism is eating its way, like termites in the timbers of a house, into every nook and corner of the American edifice.

The Failure Is Ours

It is not the Constitution which has failed us; we have failed it. We have been the unfaithful stew­ards of the trust our fathers, dy­ing, committed to our care.

With the actual record of great achievement under the Constitu­tion in releasing the energies of free men in the greatest march of progress in the history of mankind, it is amazing indeed that so many Americans in their ignorance are embracing the reactionary philos­ophies of the Europe our fore­fathers thought they had left be­hind them forever, and whose gov­ernments now build barbed wire stockades at their frontiers to pre­vent the escape of desperate men seeking freedom from their cruel­ties.

Yes, if it were in my power, I would call back from their graves the brooding spirits of Washing­ton, Franklin, Madison, and Jef­ferson, I would:

Wake the dead,

Bid the old heroes rise from their graves and scourge with their tongues

Until this vain and rotting age, revitalized, shall rush

To emulate their deeds, or learn to blush.

I would try, too, “if I were king,” to wake the teachers, pas­tors, editors, lawyers, and the youth of today, so that Americans yet unborn may proudly say, “Freedom has still a continent to dwell on.”