Guest hosting for Glenn Beck, Fox News' Andrew Napolitano highlighted what he called Beck's work uncovering the "revisionist history" of progressives. In attacking Franklin D. Roosevelt, Napolitano used Beck's tactic of ripping quotes out of context, revising comments made by FDR to accuse him of calling the constitution "a horse-and-buggy document." In fact, in making those comments, Roosevelt was criticizing the Supreme Court of 1930s as out of touch with the realities of the 20th century, not criticizing our founding document.
On the September 8 edition of Glenn Beck, Napolitano claimed, "Roosevelt openly mocked the Constitution by calling it a horse-and-buggy document."
In fact, Roosevelt was not mocking the Constitution; he was urging the Supreme Court, which had struck down extremely popular reforms, such as a minimum wage, to interpret the Constitution "in the light of present-day civilization." In explaining that the court should "view the interstate commerce clause in the light of present-day civilization," FDR stated that "the country was in the horse-and-buggy age when that clause was written," going on to explain, "[s]ince that time, because of the improvements in transportation, because of the fact that, as we know, what happens in one State has a good deal of influence on the people in another State, we have developed an entirely different philosophy." So, he said, "the hope has been that we could, through a period of years, interpret the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution in the light of these new things that have come to the country."
Clearly, Roosevelt was not "mocking the Constitution," but explaining that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of advancements in transportation from the horse and buggy to an era in which interstate commerce was increasingly common -- and therefore it was not unreasonable for the federal government to set minimum wage laws and ban child labor. As historian Jeff Shesol wrote in his 2010 book Supreme Power, the "horse-and-buggy" comment has been "almost invariably presented" "[o]ut of context," and Roosevelt's complaint "was not with the Constitution, but with a Court that read the Constitution as a set of limitations. He did not see any inherent, unavoidable conflict between the New Deal and the Constitution; he never had." Apparently, it is now acceptable to even take quotes by revered historical figures out of context.
Even more context would reveal that Roosevelt famously faced the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" on the court, who claimed that the Constitution forbade banning child labor, setting a minimum wage, and limiting work hours. As Andrew Lynch wrote in a review of Jeff Shesol's Supreme Power for the Irish newspaper The Sunday Business Post:
Led by a bloc of elderly conservative justices dubbed the 'Four Horsemen', the judges reached their zenith on Black Monday in May 1935 when they repudiated laws on minimum wages, maximum hours and workers' rights.
Mike Norman elaborated on the courts decisions in an op-ed for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
In 1905, the court struck down a New York law that said bakeries couldn't work their employees more than 60 hours a week or more than 10 hours a day.
The court said the law was "an unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty" of individuals to buy and sell labor. During the same period, the court also invalidated minimum wage and child labor laws as infringements on economic liberty.
In striking down these laws, the court prevented FDR from making these desperately needed reforms. FDR spoke out against these court decisions -- not against the Constitution. If Napolitano wants to go after FDR -- a man who historians have consistently ranked as one of the greatest presidents in American history -- he should at least have the respect to quote a man who can no longer speak for himself in context.