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John Ben Shepperd: An Address to the Mississippi LP-Gas Dealers

April 25, 1956

An Address to the Mississippi LP-Gas Dealers (Gulfport, Mississippi)

Texas owes an eternal debt to the great State of Mississippi for all of the fine people you have bred and given to our state. You gave us a number of the brave men who laid down their lives at the Alamo, and multiplied thousands of pioneer settlers. And not the least of the rugged trail-blazers who went to Texas from this section of the country was Judge Robert M. Williamson, a colorful character whom we called “Three-legged Willie” because he always sat on the bench with his six-shooter laid beside him, to discourage long-winded lawyers.

Men like these from the Old South gave to Texas what Carl Sandburg described as its “peculiar and unique blend of swagger and valor.”

But we have much more than that to thank you for. Along with the rugged, independent men and women you gave us a Southern tradition that has stood the test of time and trial by fire. It was a basic tradition, born of the calm, clear thinking done by free men in those heroic, wide-open days when a man might be killed in a tight scrape, but never by a tight schedule—when his major responsibilities were to plow straight and shoot straighter.

The issues of life were sharp and clear to those men and women who as often as not buried a child every other Spring. When a man’s wife was sick, he didn’t get on the telephone—he got on his knees. Life was too short to be complicated, and it resolved itself down to the fundamentals. Democracy was simple and strong, not cluttered up with federal bureaucracy and watered down with socialism. A man had one flintlock rifle and one vote, and he used them both.

It wasn’t easy on the pioneer women, either. They raised big families, and gave birth to their children without benefit of doctor, hospital or anesthetic. They made their own clothes, cooked for the hired hands, manufactured their own soap, chopped the firewood and hauled the water. And as if pioneering wasn’t enough to put up with, they also had to put up with the pioneers!

The old days are gone, and the pioneers are gone, but they left us an ideal of constitutional government whose salient characteristics is a belief in a local autonomy—self-government at home. They taught us to cherish the right to keep government close enough for us to see the people who run it walking on the street. If we ever lose that, we have lost everything. We have lost the Constitution.

This cherished system of decentralized, Constitutional government is founded on the ideal of government by laws instead of by men. And therein lies the greatest challenge to freedom this country has faced since its beginning; for this generation must decide whether we shall continue to be governed by laws instead of by men or whether we shall stand idly by and see our way of life suffocated under arbitrary federal pronouncements and bureaucratic edicts not born of the Constitution, but of the unholy union of politics and ambition.

In recent years the 48 sovereign states have been divested of basic powers which were never intended to be taken away and reposed in the already too-ample bosom of the Federal Government. Adverse and crippling decisions of the federal courts have deprived the states of vital sources of revenue, have pushed the states out of many fields of jurisdiction, have taken away many of their powers to regulate their own industries and police their own populations, have pulled the teeth out of many of their highway safety laws, have left many of their protective labor laws emasculated, have virtually nullified a large part of their conservation laws, and have wrenched away from a number of states the control of their most important natural resources.

To all practical purposes this began when the U. S. Supreme Court announced a doctrine of “paramount rights” by which all the states were divested of their interests in the lands underlying navigable waters within their boundaries, as well as the lands underlying the ocean within the historic limits of the coastal states.

There was a great deal of controversy over that, you remember, and not all states were on the same side. But it wasn’t long after that when a decision in an Oregon water case brought the dark shadow of “paramount federal rights[”] over every little inland creek and bayou on which the federal government happens to own a little frontage, whether it is navigable or not. A number of Western states vitally concerned with keeping control of their inland waters began to realize what the Tidelands case was all about.

One by one, dozens of other states began to encounter the heavy hand of federal encroachment on their sovereign rights through water cases, labor cases, transportation cases, tax cases and many others which consistently upheld the preeminence of federal authority. Many states, even in the North, are waking up to the fact that the goal of the centralizers is not only to erase the Mason-Dixon Line, but to obliterate all state lines as well.

The most recent blow was a decision of the Supreme Court on April 2 in the Nelson case from Pennsylvania, which struck down the anti-subversive laws of 42 states and two territories in one fell swoop, on the grounds that when Congress passed the federal Smith Act, it intended to occupy the whole field of subversive control to the exclusion of the states.

That’s the way the preemption doctrine works. The Court usually holds to the view that when Congress opens its mouth and utters an English word, it has preempted the whole dictionary, and the states must either keep silent or speak in another language.

There are other doctrines, too. Under the doctrine of interpretation, the Supreme Court led the Federal Government into the field of public education, which has been traditionally within the sole jurisdiction of the states, and overrode 150 years of social custom and 105 years of legal precedent to declare public school segregation unconstitutional. This decision had no stronger basis in law than the theory that times had changed, and the law therefore had changed also, all by itself, while our backs were turned.

Sometimes Congress will write into an act an express provision intended to keep the states from being pushed aside by it. The Natural Gas Act specifically exempts independent producers from federal control; they have traditionally been regulated only by state governments.

But the decision in the Phillips case ignored the exemption completely and brought the independent producers under the regulation of a federal bureau—on the grounds that that is what Congress intended!

State sovereignty continues to be challenged everywhere. Now pending in the Supreme Court is a labor case from Nebraska, in which the appellants are attacking the so-called right-to-work laws of 17 states, which protect workers from being forced to join a union in order to obtain or hold their jobs. The Federal Railway Labor Act says railway workers can be so compelled. Mississippi, along with Texas and several other Southern states, is filing a brief in that case, believing that the denial of a man or woman’s right to work for refusal to join any organization—church, party, club, lodge, union or anything else—is an unconscionable violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Also under attack through a suit in the Supreme Court is a state law forbidding mass picketing, the obstruction of streets, the picketing of employees’ homes, and other unlawful acts. In two important labor cases decided in 1953 and 1955, the Supreme Court has held that unfair labor practices are within the sole province of the Federal Government because Congress, in setting up the National Labor Relations Board, had excluded the states entirely from that area.

How long will it be until we have no jurisdiction left? How long until state legislatures will be puppet bodies with nothing to do? How long until state capitol buildings will become empty barns, or quaint old museums, full of relics and memories of lost glory?

I have been many times to Vicksburg and other battlegrounds where our great-grandfathers met, without faltering, the challenge that faced their generation. Many times I have stood in the old cemeteries, like the one I used to visit by the church just off the old Public Market in Charleston, where dim gravestones mark the resting places not only of Confederate heroes, but of many colonial Americans who were born under the dominion of an English king and laid to rest under the Stars and Stripes long before this nation was divided and re-joined.

I have often wondered what they would say to us if they could call to us across the abyss of time. What questions do they demand of us, their children’s children, as blood calls to blood across the centuries?

Where, they ask, are those liberties which we wrenched from the hands of tyrants and reposed in the bosoms of humble-God-fearing men? Where is that freedom that we took out of stone castles with iron doors and buried safely under the hearthstones of America? Whose hand has carried it away and laid it among the white marble halls on a hill by the Potomac? Is it forgotten, that it must lie among stone monuments? Is it dead, that it must rest in whited sepulchres?[sic]

Where is it written that the government which sits on those cherry-blossomed banks is to be the sole and final judge of the extent of its own powers? We didn’t write in in the Constitution!

Where is it written that the law of the land is to be promulgated from the bench instead of the floor of Congress? By whose authority is the Constitution changed without the consent of the people? By what devious means are the sovereign powers of the states overridden, their laws cut down like trees, and their righteous protests drowned under accusations of rebellion?

Who delegated to the creature a preeminence over his creators? What freak of Frankenstein is this that rises up to crush those who made him?

These works [sic] come to us across seventeen decades of time, spoken to a generation that knows the source of atomic power but does not know the location of its own government. For this nation, of all nations, is the only one in which the location of governmental sovereignty is in dispute. This uncertainty is a broad avenue to destruction.

What is the solution to Federal encroachment? What can we do to stop it?

The most immediate method is corrective legislation. There are literally hundreds of bills now pending in Congress which would in some way further the cause of States’ Rights. There’s the Forrester bill, which would remove from the federal courts all jurisdiction over the administrative policies of state educational agencies. There are the Barrett and Neuberger Bills, which would correct the federal policy announced in the Oregon water case. And there’s the Smith Bill—H.R. 3—an important piece of legislation which would forbid the courts to exclude the states from a field unless Congress has expressly stated its intention to preempt that field entirely.

However, most corrective legislation is a question of locking the stable door after the horse is gone. It puts Congress in the position of the little community that operated an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff instead of building a fence around it to keep people from falling off, on the theory “Aren’t we picking them up as fast as they hit the ground?”

Perhaps a better solution is a Constitutional amendment to clarify States’ Rights. The Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states or the people all of the powers not specifically delegated to Congress, is written backwards. It ought to enumerate specifically those sovereign powers which were intended to remain forever in state hands.

Constitutional amendment is the object of interposition, and interposition is an orderly process for bringing it about. It cannot be said that the Constitution ignores it, because Article V contemplates that the states themselves can propose Constitutional amendments when two-thirds of them pass resolutions calling for a convention for that purpose.

Interposition will not do as much as some think it will, but at the same time, it is not as ineffectual its critics would have us believe. It has worked many times in history, and it can work again if we work.

The one thing vitally necessary is that the states work together—that members of Congress, Governors, Legislators, Attorneys General and citizens cooperate with each other.

There has been little disposition on the part of the Texas delegation in Congress to help the states of the Deep South in the segregation field, and a number of Southern States voted against both the Tidelands Bill and the recently-vetoed Harris Bill, which would have rectified the decision in the Phillips case. I am happy to say that on both of these issues Texas and Mississippi stood side by side. You voted with us on Tidelands, and seven of the eight members of the Mississippi delegation in Washington voted for the Harris Bill. If the states are stripped of their rights to conserve and control their own natural resources, it isn’t the fault of Mississippi.

But the ultimate solution to the loss of Constitutional government lies in the people themselves. Again I hear the voices of our forefathers echoing across the decades; “you applaud the heroes of the Old South,” they say to us, “and you endorse the old traditions, but you don’t live them.”

I know what they mean. Local autonomy is big in theory, and small in practice. We don’t think local and we don’t live local. Community leaders fail to put courage into local governments by serving in office and executing policies consistent with our basic beliefs. Bankers are often too reluctant to give loans to young people who are just getting started, so they have to go to the state or federal government for money to buy their homes and start their businesses—or wait until they are too old to start at all.

Business men often don’t use their heads to stimulate local enterprise, and to keep people from having to depend on the help of a higher level of government to develop local resources and finance local improvements. Local governments are afraid to undertake major projects without a guarantee of federal aid, which is also a guarantee of federal control. When leadership on the local level breaks down, the people are forced to vote for a living instead of working for it.

You members of the LP Gas Dealers Association are forced into leadership by the very nature of your positions as business men and representatives of private enterprise in your communities. A silent voice in the ranks of private enterprise is a shout for socialism, and a negative business man is almost as bad as a positive Communist.

It is your job to build up attendance at meetings of your local governmental bodies . . . to get out the vote . . . to give the city council the benefit of your advice and experience . . . to give advertising space to explanations of local issues or to call attention to local problems . . . to support your candidates for office after election as well as before . . . and to serve on civic committees and in public office yourself when qualified and when called upon. It is your job to keep local and state governments strong.

Too many so-called leaders are sitting around waiting for their country’s call in the form of a big dollar-a-year appointment to a statewide committee or board and ignoring the call of the school board and the P-TA. Too many are willing to lead only within the safe boundaries of non-partisan and non-controversial fields, and won’t get mixed up in politics because they think it will hurt business. I feel sorry for this kind. Show me a man with no identifiable stand on public issues, and I’ll show you a man with no identifiable character, patriotism or business stability.

By no means would I exclude women. Women are peculiarly equipped for a job of leadership. Any women who can keep an eye on the stove, the ironing board, the T.V. set, the mixmaster and the kids in the yard, and talk to a neighbor on the phone at the same time, can also keep up with public affairs. Any woman who has learned how to can a jar of pickles and hold it up to the light to see if it is leaking air and is going to spoil in a few months can do the same to a politician.

We found out in Texas that a man without a woman is only half a man, and a government without women is only half a government.

Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean doing great things. It means doing a lot of little things in a great way. When you leave a warm building on a cold day, to go and cast a cool ballot in a hot election, you’ve done more than most Americans ever do. When you pack the car full of yelling kids on Sunday morning and drive to church, you’ve preached a sermon to the neighborhood. But don’t call yourself religious unless you preach a sermon to somebody every day without opening your mouth.

What is the alternative to good citizens on the local level? Big Government? Socialism? Communism? Is Communism just a foreign philosophy somewhere of the sea, which we don’t need to worry about? Where is Communism?

Communism grows in the path over which men and women no longer walk to the polls. It sprouts on the courthouse lawn where they no longer attend political rallies. It springs up on the steps of the school house where parents never set foot, and grows out of the dust in the empty chairs at the conventions of the LP Gas Dealers Association, where fair legislation and good business practices are discussed and free enterprise strengthened.

Communism is a cobweb that forms on church pews that are never filled, and spreads itself in homes where half the family just sits around waiting for the other half to get back with the car. It hangs over us when we stop running our own government and start begging from it, and when we start looking for a helping hand at the end of somebody else’s arm.

It will take courage to stop federal encroachment and preserve self-government at home. It will take a lot of men and women who won’t let Constitutional government die of cold feet because they were afraid to get into hot water. It will take candidates who won’t get into public office through pull and then stop pulling. It will take citizens who won’t be so concerned with the left and the right that they forget the above and below, and who won’t sacrifice a dot or a dash in the Constitution to get a dollar sign on the ledger.

We need men and women with the courage of those Confederate soldiers who stood and wept without shame when Gen. Robert E. Lee told them it was over, and the Cause lost. They took up their painful homeward march, over mountains, streams and valleys, where every wild rose marked the graves of a fallen comrade. They re-crossed old battlefields where they had lost all but their courage and their honor, and turned their steps toward the homes they had left with trellises and smiling children’s faces, only to return and find them a blackened ruin.

Their society was disrupted. Their industries were destroyed. Their churches were burned to the ground. Their loved ones were dead or scattered. Their legislatures were filled with arrogant renegades, carpet-baggers, and drunken illiterates. Civil rights were gone. Servants rode in carriages while proud men walked in the dirt. The old South, apparently, was dead.

But the men and women of the South did not sit down and moan that all was lost. They went to work, and out of the rubble and the shame of defeat they rebuilt their broken fortunes. In less than a generation they, the world, stood amazed at the rehabilitation of the Southland.

Shall we, then, stand hopeless and fearful while men hidden behind pious cloaks of congressional, bureaucratic and judicial immunities march in hob-nailed boots across the face of sacred traditions, and with legal sabers lash whole concepts of free government out of the Constitution?

Out of the blackened ruin of war and destruction the South rose again, and the ways of our fathers have been preserved. This is our consolation in those days when the winds of time and the rush of events sweep past the old landmarks of tradition and seem to write across the face of our most sacred institution the message “This, too, shall pass away.”

While a Southerner lives, freedom will never pass away.

Freedom is old, not young, yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;

It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;

It is not weak, yet is must be defended;

It is light, but it weighs heavy on him who is without it;

It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;

It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never found again.

Please note: The views expressed in these speeches were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.