In this era of Trump, many liberals have looked back mournfully at the bygone Republican Party, the one that former Vice President Joe Biden alluded to back when he said it wasn’t “your father’s Republican Party” (Leven, 2012). This is by their understanding the party that was more “liberal” and “moderate”. While it is true that the 1960s GOP was more ideologically diverse, it is also true that its senators supported two constitutional amendments that are pretty much dead issues today and would be regarded as highly reactionary if they were brought up again.
The Warren Court was staunchly activist court, and the justices employed their activism on the subjects of civil rights, state legislative apportionment, school prayer, and on the rights of criminal defendants. These decisions were quite controversial in their times, and subsequent courts would roll back to a certain extent some of the decisions, particularly on criminal defendants. The GOP of the time was quite critical of the Warren Court, with the most extreme of conservatives going as far as calling for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The criticism of these court decisions would eventually translate into legislative action, with the central character behind these efforts being Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.).
Dirksen is probably best known today for the instrumental role he played in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through the Senate, but he also disagreed with many Warren Court rulings. In 1966, he spearheaded the charge for two constitutional amendments to overturn or modify Warren Court decisions. The first was the legislative reapportionment amendment, which its liberal Democratic opponents referred to as the “rotten borough amendment”. If ratified, this amendment would have allowed states to apportion one of the houses of their legislatures based on population along with other factors, thus enabling states to create legislative districts that didn’t fall under the “one man, one vote” standard. Dirksen was motivated by a fear in his home state of giving more political power to heavily Democratic Chicago, which under Mayor Daley’s machine had gained a notorious reputation for corruption. The second was the school prayer amendment, which if ratified, would have permitted voluntary prayer in public schools. Dirksen justified this amendment thusly:
Imagine the Chicago Bears football team, made up of green, inexperienced, unpracticed and unrehearsed players, undertaking a game against the Cleveland Browns. It would be unthinkable because they have not been disciplined by practice. . . . Mr. President, the soul needs practice, too. It needs rehearsal. (Kenworthy, 1969)
Although both amendments failed to clear the constitutionally required 2/3’s vote, the GOP vote on these measures is notable. For the reapportionment amendment, it was 29-3. Only Senators J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware (who would lose his bid for a third term in 1972 to Joe Biden), Clifford Case of New Jersey, and Jacob Javits of New York objected. For the school prayer amendment, it was 27-3. This time it was Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel of California along with Case and Javits who stood opposed. Of all the GOP Senators, only four objected to either of these amendments, with only the staunchly liberal Case and Javits objecting to both. A few other observations about these votes:
1. There were more moderate-to-liberal GOP members of the Senate than these four, meaning that even significant numbers of moderates of the time such as John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania were supporting these anti-Warren Court amendments.
2. This 90% vote in favor of a school prayer amendment notably was before the “religious right” is alleged in popular perception to have gained control over the GOP.
3. The vote on legislative reapportionment occurred during the same session of Congress in which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, with a Senate GOP vote of 30-2. The GOP therefore was almost as unified in opposition to the “one man, one vote” standard as they were in support of a federal solution to the deprivation of the vote for Southern blacks.
Ultimately, the push for revising the Constitution on legislative apportionment was a dead letter after Dirksen’s death in 1969 and the school prayer amendment continued to be pushed by the GOP well into the 1990s. While the left looking back at the Republican Party of the sixties with mourning has some justifications from their point of view, this carries some limitations that they don’t know or forget about, particularly Dirksen’s anti-Warren Court crusades.
Kenworthy, E.W. (8 September 1969). Dirksen Dead in Capital at 73. The New York Times.
Leven, R. (1 April 2012). Biden to voters: ‘This isn’t your father’s Republican Party’. The Hill.
To Pass S. 1564, The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/89-1965/s78
To Pass S.J. Res. 103, A Proposed Constitutional Amendment Permitting One House of a Bicameral Legislature to be Apportioned on the Basis of Population, Geography, and Political Subdivisions. Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/89-1966/s289
To Pass S.J. Res. 144, A Resolution Proposing a Constitutional Amendment Permitting School Prayers. Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/89-1966/s451