Former President Trump on December 4th advocated “terminating” parts of the Constitution in response to his continuous allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Why ‘Terminating’ the Constitution Matters,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the stormy history of constitutional contestations, from the 1798 Kentucky & Virginia resolutions, to the “Second Founding” of the Fourteenth Amendment, to the 1970s rise of originalism. Trump, in other words, is far from the first divisive figure to attack America’s guiding documents. In the early 1930s, the architect and public intellectual Ralph Adams Cram unleashed a particularly provocative, Gothic-inflected campaign to do away with the Constitution.
In July 1932, the eminent, 68-year-old, Boston-based Cram published a widely-reprinted opinion column in the popular Catholic journal Commonweal entitled “A Motion to Suspend the Constitution.” Cram encouraged President Herbert Hoover to “declare the Senate and House of the United States dissolved, or adjourned sine die.”
Cram’s cri de coeur came at a particular low point in the Great Depression. On July 8th, 1932, the Dow Jones fell to its lowest point of the entire economic conflagration, landing at a shocking total index of 41.22, a 90% drop from its 1929 high. A month earlier, 20,000 World War I veterans had marched on Washington to demand bonuses for their service that were not technically due until 1945, leading to violent confrontations with federal troops. A quarter of American adults were unemployed.
Cram argued that the crisis “may be as complete as that which overtook classical civilization and brought in the era of the Dark Ages.” He blamed Congress – then battling with a recalcitrant Hoover to pass meaningful relief legislation – for the severity of the Depression. He argued that the legislature was “marked by a more exaggerate state of imbecility and incapacity than has been recorded thus far in the history of the Nation.”
Hoover’s solution, Cram argued, resided in state leaders. Cram advised the President to “call to Washington the Governors of the several states of the Union to form a provisional ad interim Government, acting with himself and his Cabinet and with full authority to govern by decree until the date of the next Presidential election.”
The architect suggested that the new governor-led Senate be called the “Council of State.” He advised that the November presidential election should double as a referendum on the new system. If the President lost, he should turn himself in to the authorities for violating the Constitution.
Cram’s explicit call for departing from the Constitution was a dramatic crest in a fifty-year intellectual quest for political reform that had its center in his love for Gothic architecture.
The architect, who came of age in the 1880s around the Boston elite (he was mentored by the famed art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner), developed with his professional partner Bertram Goodhue a reputation as a leading Gothic Revival church architect, designing such landmarks as the soaring 1910 chapel at West Point’s U.S. Military Academy.
In 1911, Cram gained national attention when he took control of the plagued Cathedral of St. John the Divine project in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood. Cram dramatically altered the original 1892 design from Romanesque to Gothic, requiring a redo of much of the construction.
As he labored through the ultimately-still-unfinished, staggeringly complicated church design, Cram also oversaw Princeton’s 1920s graduate school buildings and the much-lauded Rice University master plan in Houston.
While Cram ascended in the architectural realm, he pumped out an astoundingly prolific written output. Some of his first books were collected ghost stories, led by the 1895 collection Black Spirits & White. He also wrote an Arthurian play, Excalibur, in 1893.
As Cram’s reputation grew, he published more works praising Gothic aesthetics and the Medieval age more generally. Cram’s Middle-Ages-centric texts were ostensibly focused on architectural principles, but their foci increasingly expanded to consider questions of modern technology, democracy, and – more often than not in highly problematic terms – race.
By World War I, Cram’s pronouncements were glaringly political, even in such books as his benign-sounding 1919 Walled Towns.
Cram viewed America’s turn toward commercial architecture and mechanical utility as a massive folly, arguing that the built environment and larger philosophical tenets of the noble monarchs and feudal lords of the late Medieval period were far superior. In a 1916 lecture to the Lowell Institute, Cram condemned industrialization – and its architectural effects – to the dustbin of history: “What happens when a once noble art dissolves at last and no body of men remains to preserve traditions and hold to standard, we can see here in America between the years 1835 and 1885.”
In 1917, Cram applied his artistic conclusions to the American political system in his Nemesis of Mediocrity, a book that – as its title suggests – focused on how the growth of representative government had lessened the power of great leaders.
Cram called out a whole host of democratic reforms: “For the last hundred years the world has abandoned itself to an insane devising of new mechanical toys for the achieving of democracy: representative government, the parliamentary system, universal suffrage, the party system, the secret ballot, rotation in office, the initiative, referendum and recall, popular election of [the U.S. Senate], woman suffrage, direct legislation.”
He began to embrace an “aristocratic democracy” that he argued was more honest to America’s Framers, writing, “The true democracy of St. Louis, Edward I and Washington is forgotten and a false democracy has taken its place.”
Cram’s anti-democratic sentiments often drifted into bald-faced anti-Semitism and racism. Just after the World War I armistice, on November 24th, 1918, he wrote a polemic in the New York Herald Tribune called “Peace in Peril!—Ralph Adams Cram Warns Us All.”
Cram laid the blame for the departure from Medieval principles largely on the shoulders of Jews: “Financial, political and industrial imperialism on the one hand, Bolshevik-Marxian internationalism on the other will work with might and main, and not without accord, to prevent this re-creation of sane and wholesome nationalism, and on both sides we shall see—we already see—that Semitic influence which has and always will be the foe of nationality.”
As Cram continued to develop his philosophy over the next decade, he combined his pro-feudal politics with a new reliance on eugenics. Shortly before his 1932 calls for abolishing the Constitution, Cram published a particularly controversial column in the American Mercury, “Why We Don’t Behave Like Human Beings.”
Cram argued that humans should be classified by skill, an attribute he often overlapped with race, building on his repeated proclamations of distaste with the “mongrelization” that resulted from mass migrations. “The just line of demarcation should be drawn, not between Neolithic Man and the anthropoid ape,” Cram wrote, “but between the glorified and triumphant human being and the Neolithic mass which was, is now and ever shall be.”
Yet even as Cram engaged in his brutal hierarchization of humans, he somewhat contradictorily called out reactionary groups, whose continued power he blamed on a collective over-commitment to democracy. Cram argued that America’s “sub-men” encouraged the “‘Know Nothing,’ Ku Klux Klan, Black Legion and similar terrorist gangs” and was responsible for the election of “a ‘Big Bill’ Thompson as mayor, a ‘Jim’ Curley as Governor…a Huey Long as Senator, a Harding as president.”
After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential victory in November 1932 and his subsequent enacting of the New Deal, Cram expressed some optimism about the new leader. In an interview with the Herald Tribune in December 1936 conducted while he was headed to Europe on the liner Normandie, Cram argued that Roosevelt’s expansions of the welfare state were encouraging: “The old idea of personal leadership has been reborn in the United States. The American people have decided that they want a leader to emancipate them from the control and dictation of petty politicians.”
Cram also reflected to the Tribune on his upcoming writing, in which he now argued that Medievalism could stem the threatening tide of Soviet Communism: “Its central idea will be the imperative necessity of a return to the ideas and values of the Middle Ages. We must jettison the corrupt American preference for measures over men. Only by choosing men and not measures, and building up new systems of loyalties and obligations, in the Gothic spirit, can the world escape the peril of communism.”
By this juncture, the popular press had started to approach Cram with suspicion. When Cram’s autobiography, My Life in Architecture, emerged in 1936, he included sections in which he fantasized about abolishing gunpowder, the printing press, and the internal-combustion engine. The New York Times’ R.L. Duffus argued that Cram’s theory “sounds to suspicious ears slightly like Fascism, but that is not what he means. At least it is not what he thinks he means.”
Cram devoted an entire book to his political ideals in the 1937 The End of Democracy, in which he again excoriated popular elections, argued for replacing the president with a lifetime “Regent” or “Chief Magistrate,” and reaffirmed that the “high democracy” of the Founders had been bastardized into “low democracy.” Cram declared that “the Constitution of 1787 was, then, what may be called an aristocratic republican form of organic law with no salient democratic features.”
New York Times book critic Ralph Thompson argued that Cram was lost in the ether of philosophers (like Hilaire Belloc and Oswald Spengler) and his own self-regard that he had lost clarity: “So thoroughly upset has Mr. Cram been by the evils attendant upon universal suffrage, and so bemused by the Belloc-Spengler school of thought, that he has not only drifted off into a veritable lunarland of Kings and Knights but decided that the drifting was the result of his realistic and philosophically sound facing of the facts.”
Even with these dismissals, however, Cram retained a certain teflon quality in the popular imagination. When he died in 1942, President Roosevelt declared, “A towering figure has been lost to our cultural life.”
While Cram’s disorienting blend of Medieval worship, elitism, racism, and distrust of “sub-men” may seem distinct from the anti-constitutional Trumpist calls, the architect’s grab-bag arguments against democracy illustrate the continuously seductive appeal of calls to chip away at representative government.
For more on Ralph Adams Cram’s decidedly bizarre viewpoints, check out Douglass Shand-Tucci’s 1995 Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests: Medieval, Modernist, American, Ecumenical.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history:
- ‘A Hungry Kid in a Candy Store’: Lowell Birrell’s Flight and the Allure of the American Con Man
- ‘The Person in Charge’: Nancy Pelosi and the 1984 Democratic National Convention
- ‘Tea Chest Tempest’: The Boston Tea Party, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Search for Historical Authenticity