The American Liberty League and the Rise of Constitutional Nationalism
Volume 86, No. 2, Winter 2014
By Jared A. Goldstein [PDF]

This Article launches a project to identify constitutional nationalism—the conviction that the nation’s fundamental values are embodied in the Constitution—as a recurring phenomenon in American public life that has profoundly affected both popular and elite understanding of the Constitution. It does so by examining the nearly lost story of the American Liberty League and its failed campaign to defeat the New Deal as an un-American and unconstitutional aberration. Like today’s Tea Party movement, the American Liberty League of the mid-1930s generated massive media coverage by vilifying the President as a radical socialist who sought to foist un-American policies of “collectivism” on an unwilling public. In 1936, the Roosevelt reelection campaign made the strategic choice to focus the campaign on the American Liberty League because it made the perfect foil for Roosevelt to present the New Deal constitutional philosophy. Neglected in the large body of scholarship on the New Deal constitutional revolution, the fight between the Liberty League and Roosevelt should be recognized as a central episode of popular constitutionalism, in which the American people were asked to choose between competing constitutional philosophies, both of which were asserted to embody the nation’s true values.

The Liberty League utterly failed to topple the New Deal—in fact, it may have helped to generate a consensus in favor of the New Deal constitutional philosophy. Yet the Liberty League crystallized the rhetoric and philosophy of constitutional nationalism that has been at the core of a long line of political movements that have challenged the modern state as fundamentally contrary to American values. The American Liberty League is the prototype of later constitutional nationalist movements, from the John Birch Society of the 1950s, Barry Goldwater Republicanism of the 1960s, the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the militia movement of the 1990s, and the Tea Party movement today, all of which have proclaimed as their central goal the return to what each particular movement identifies as the nation’s true constitutional values and to reject all other values as dangerously foreign.