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FDR’s witch hunt against conservatives

Matthew Vadum author image /

Federal targeting and intimidation of conservatives is nothing new, writes University of Alabama history professor David T. Beito.

Franklin D. Roosevelt routinely audited the income taxes of such critics as Representative Hamilton Fish, a Republican who represented the president’s hometown of Hyde Park, N.Y. Democrats of that era not only found creative ways to intimidate conservative and libertarian organizations, but also, like their modern counterparts, eventually attracted charges of witch-hunting.

The modern Tea Party, however, has yet to find a more effective symbol of defiance than Edward A. Rumely. Though he is largely forgotten today, the publisher’s appearance in June 1950 before a special House committee to investigate lobbying was a defining moment.

When Rumely showed up to testify, nobody was quite sure what he would say. For the most part, he answered the committee’s questions, but he stood his ground on one issue: He refused to name the Americans who had purchased a book critical of the New Deal. Pointing to the First Amendment, he asserted that the committee had “no power to go into a newspaper publisher and say, ‘Give me your subscription list.’ And you have no power to come to us.” If the House wanted to cite him for contempt, then he promised to give it “an education on the Bill of Rights.” Chairman Frank Buchanan warned that the unfriendly witness risked a contempt resolution, and vowed not to “divert this hearing into an argument over constitutional rights.”

Beito notes that after Harry S Truman’s surprise reelection in 1948, Democratic lawmakers used governmental power to go after their opponents.

The New Republic, then as now a left-wing rag, cheered on the liberal lynch mobs.  The magazine declared that the “New Deal is again empowered to carry forward the promise of American life” and that “the great lobbies and the millions they have spent . . . to defeat social legislation” ought to be investigated.

Funny how historians always leave out these progressive witch hunts, isn’t it?