In a 1944 article penned for the New Republic, Edison candidly admitted that, prior to his personal involvement in politics, he, like the mass of the American electorate, was unaware of "the extent to which the parties are institutions in themselves. It is necessary to take an active part in politics to observe how often the welfare of the party organization is put before the issues, even before the welfare of the commonwealth." Whereas "in physics," he noted, "to be in two places at the same time would be a miracle; in politics it seems not merely normal, but natural." Thus, Edison concluded, "economics, politics, and personalities are often inseparable." (note 3) Likewise, Edison noted elsewhere, "'liberal' and 'conservative' can be synonyms or antonyms, depending upon who speaks the words--that any basic difference between Democrat and Republican is infinitesimal, if, indeed, any difference exists." (note 4)
This non-partisan political pragmatism liberated Edison from the traditional bonds of party loyalty. As a statutory lame duck who harbored no higher political ambitions, Governor Edison was able to challenge the adherence of both parties to the status quo with impunity. Only through constitutional reform, Edison concluded, could the sovereignty of the electorate and the integrity of the electoral process be restored to New Jersey. "My goal," Edison wrote of his decision to make constitutional reform the centerpiece of his 1940 gubernatorial campaign, "was to make New Jersey's state government a model for all other states to emulate, hopefully thereby to stem, or at least slow down, the flow of power to the federal government." (note 5)
Moreover, Edison maintained, the problems confronting the commonwealth cannot be solved by political parties, regardless of the rhetoric of their partisans, "unless someone solves them. Our democracy poses problems and these problems must and shall be solved by courageous leadership." (note 6) As governor of New Jersey from 1941-1943, Charles Edison translated this ideal into an actuality. His unyielding insistence upon administrative economy and representative responsibility arrested the emasculation of the state's governmental infrastructure from within, thus amplifying the appeal of constitutional reform as the sole agency whereby New Jersey's electorate could safeguard its sovereignty against abrogation from without.
Charles Edison never actively sought nomination to elective or appointive office. He entered public service during the depths of the Depression not out of ambition, but out of an acute sense of responsibility. Edison believed that affluent Americans had an inherent obligation to assist in the preservation of the institutions that had enabled their fathers to rise from obscurity and penury to affluence and acclaim. Edison's conception of American capitalism, therefore, dictated that, as a beneficiary of the free market system, he suspend his corporate career in order to aid in the reinvigoration of American's economic infrastructure--the foundation, Edison believed, of the nation's democratic institutions.
Likewise, Edison's candidacy for governor--his sole foray into elective politics--was not motivated by personal aspiration. Rather, it was a visceral response to what Edison perceived as the most tangible threats to democracy--the burgeoning federal bureaucracy and the persistence of political machines. By denying the electorate the effective exercise of its sovereign right--the power to elect officials in whom it had voluntarily vested a discreet and well-defined amount of authority. Both political phenomena, therefore, undermined the basic framework of American democracy as Edison understood it. Edison feared that unless counteracted, the exponential growth of the federal bureaucracy would lead to an inevitable, and potentially irreversible, erosion of the sovereignty of the individual states, as federal agencies assumed responsibilities and powers which properly rested with the states. In New Jersey, Edison believed, the danger to the state's sovereignty was amplified by an antiquated constitution.
Democracy, according to Edison, was predicated upon the unimpeded ability of the people to choose representatives who are not only representative, but responsive, to their constituents. To Edison, therefore, the highest expression of this sacred trust was the federal constitution, from which the proper disposition of legislative, executive, and judicial power and authority derived. The state constitution of New Jersey, by contrast, Edison believed, was dedicated not to the protection of the prerogatives of the people, but to the preservation of a persistent state of political paralysis. The instability which the provisions of the Constitution of 1844 fostered--most notably the brevity of legislative tenure and the inherent impotence of an executive precluded from self-succession and with limited appointive power--Edison noted, had created a vacuum of real power within the state. Into this vacuum a succession of political machines had eagerly entered.
The power of the political boss in New Jersey stemmed from the provisions of the Constitution of 1844 which invested the legislature with sweeping appointive powers. Since the governor was limited to the appointment of those "officers whose appointments are not otherwise provided for by law," the majority of state and county officials were appointed by joint sessions of the legislature, creating a statutorily sanctioned spoils system. Consequently, the leader of the party machine which most effectively manipulated the vote in its own favor controlled the distribution of political patronage. The inevitable result was a steady erosion of both the rights of the electorate and the integrity of the electoral process.
The most successful of all New Jersey's political bosses was Frank Hague. Hague's power far exceeded that which was legally vested in him as mayor of Jersey City--an office he held from 1917 to 1947. It was his position as head of the Hudson County Executive Committee, a post he obtained in 1913, however, which provided Hague with a springboard to political supremacy in New Jersey. The political fortunes of Jersey City and Hudson county were inextricably linked, not only through Hague's control, but by the fact that the city contained 46% of the county's population and 47% of its registered voters. (note 7) Hague's true power, however, is reflected in the findings of a 1938 federal electoral investigation, which documented that in 1936, not only were 90% of Hudson county's statistically eligible voters registered on the election rolls, but that 86% of the registered voters participated in that year's election. (note 8) Thus, the density of population in Hudson county, coupled with its unnaturally high voter turnout, allowed Hague to exert disproportionate control not only over the state's Democratic Party organization, but over statewide politics as well. Moreover, an earlier federal investigation into Hudson county's electoral irregularities, the Case Committee, had found that in 1928, "the evidence showed that approximately 22,000 Democrats voted in the Republican primary." (note 9) Thus, artificially inflated Hudson county pluralities played a defining role in the disposition of power in New Jersey, assuring Hague leverage not only over municipal and county officials, but over the selection and election of New Jersey's federal Senatorial delegation as well as the governorship.
In Edison's eyes, the shadow state government which Frank Hague manipulated from Jersey City would--given the increasing centralization of power under FDR--ultimately cause New Jersey to be stripped of any semblance of sovereignty and self-rule. Edison feared that even if a monkey wrench--whether in the form of a federal investigation (despite the fact that Hague had successfully weathered two intensive investigations by 1940) or an anti-corruption citizen's coalition--brought the Hague machine to a grinding halt, without constitutional reform, the powers which Hague and his associates had clandestinely usurped would be inexorably absorbed by the federal bureaucracy. "One obvious approach to combating increasing centralized authority in Washington," therefore, Edison argued, "was, and is, to revivify and strengthen the role of state governments. The better the job the states do, the less excuse there is for stringent federal control." (note 10)
Ironically, Edison owed his election to the very machine he so vehemently condemned. In an attempt to distance himself--both symbolically and physically--from the Hague controlled state Democratic party organization, Edison had established a separate gubernatorial campaign headquarters. This act proved to be a crucial component in establishing Edison's credibility as an untainted self-propelled candidate, rather than merely another in the long line of governors--both Republican and Democrat--whose candidacy and constituencies were the creations of Frank Hague, since--under the 1844 constitution--the entire Assembly was elected annually, and therefore the Democratic party's cadres were fully mobilized and activated for the campaign. The election returns for 1940, however, provided Edison with a dramatic illustration of the primacy of Hudson county in New Jersey's politics and the magnitude of the obstacle he faced in agitating for constitutional, and hence electoral, reform. Edison carried only seven of the state's 21 counties. He even failed to win the popular vote in his home county of Essex. Edison's margin of victory was due not to his vigorous advocacy of reform and assertions of his independence from Frank Hague, but to the decisive 107,571 vote plurality manufactured by Hague's Hudson county machine. (note 11)
Yet, Edison had neither asked for, nor sought, Hague's aid. On the contrary, he had gone to great lengths and personal expense to distance himself from the Democratic party boss, even going so far as to proclaim, "I would rather be respected than elected." (note 12) Edison made his most definitive declaration of his political independence in August 1940, at a giant Democratic party rally at Sea Girt--a rally which had been organized and coordinated by none other than Frank Hague.
It is my happy privilege to be able to stand here and tell you that if you elect me you will have elected a governor who has made no promises of preferment to any man or group. I want to make this perfectly clear: you can be sure that I will never be a yes-man except to my own conscience. (note 13)Nevertheless, throughout his tenure as governor, Edison was continually forced to defend himself against charges of collusion with Hague. Such accusations were not only fielded by Republican opponents of constitutional reform, but by Hague's numerous allies and surrogates. Regardless of the source, the aim of such attacks was to undermine support for constitutional reform by portraying Edison as a hypocrite, who advocated reform as a means of self-aggrandizement. As late as May, 1942--in the course of testifying against a Hague-picked candidate for a seat on the federal bench before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee--Edison was compelled to offer the following self-defense:
I could not help it if it suited the purposes of Mayor Hague to back me for the governorship and I had no control over him supporting me because he thought it was to his advantage. I never sought the support of Mayor Hague. I did seek the support of the Democratic Party, a party that he has deliberately weakened all over the state, except in Hudson, to suit his own selfish purposes. (note 14)The persistence of highly personal bipartisan attacks upon Edison bears eloquent witness to the threat which his proposed reforms presented to Democrat and Republican alike. Edison's campaign proposals were sweeping in scope. He called for a complete overhaul of the state's election laws and the reorganization of the state's administrative infrastructure so that appointed officials would be directly responsible to the governor, who would be given the right to dismiss delinquent officials. Edison also advocated labor law reform which would extend to those employed in intrastate commerce the same rights guaranteed to workers in interstate commerce, as well as judicial and civil service reform.
Most controversial of all, however, was Edison's advocacy of
a constitutional convention, to be elected on a nonpartisan basis, to bring our fundamental law up to date. Democracy cannot work through obsolete machinery. Our society cannot progress while our constitution stands still. (note 15)
"Lest we loose our own rights," Edison warned his fellow citizens at the outset of his address, "we must have a renewed determination to govern ourselves so well that we will never be ruled by a despot." After characterizing the campaign as the most divisive since the Civil War, Edison, immediately extended the olive branch of rational non-partisan democratic dialogue to all potential political opponents. "I know that we can now turn to our national and our state problems not as Republicans and Democrats, but as Americans, united to serve our country." (note 16)
"Conscious of our many problems," Edison continued,
I seek today to lay a foundation to our public policy. My fundamental purpose is to devote my term of office to raising the standard of public service in New Jersey. I want to say here and now, that I demand unshakable integrity of every State employee. (note 17)Edison proceeded to assure the legislature that, as governor, he would "seek to cooperate with it in the advancement of the public interest," and pledged to predicate his exercise of gubernatorial authority
upon the principle of promoting the common good. We all know that heavy demands are placed upon each one of us to play politics. We know also, that delay and obstruction of governmental action is the only certain result when that game is started. I am confident that this legislature will rise above partisan bickering, especially after the public promises its members made last fall, and that it will demonstrate a high capacity for civil service.Edison then renewed his pledge to "exert every effort to reduce public expenses," and called upon "all public officials in the State and local governments" to do likewise. (note 18)
The crux of Edison's address, and the keystone of his program of reform, however, was the issue of election reform.
In view of our public pledges, we public officials can never again go before the public merely promising election reform. The time for promises is past. An enormous amount of time has been spent in discussion... but the people want reform now. To meet with my approval, any measure should set up uniform requirements for registration throughout the state. I can see no logical justification for the treatment of different localities in different ways. Evidence brought out last year indicated that election fraud existed in rural as well as in urban communities. We must have a law which cleans up this sordid mess in all areas. (note 19)It was Edison's actual proposals, however, which would prove to be the source of the stiff resistance and attempts at character assassination mounted against Edison by opponents of electoral reform. Edison expressed his distaste for the system of state senatorial apportionment which resulted in "a law-making body in which acres are represented rather than people." Such a system, Edison argued was unacceptable, as it allowed "the acres" to
out-vote the people. That has happened at times, I am told, in the Senate. ... The existing representative inequality that permits a majority in the Senate to be formed from the representatives of 15% of the people should be eradicated. (note 20)Finally, Edison proposed that the governor be granted "a veto power that amounts to something." As the sole state official elected by the entire electorate, Edison argued, the governor "should have the power to stop faulty, partisan, or sectional legislation." Furthermore, Edison advocated lengthening the governor's term of office from three years to four, provided that gubernatorial elections were held "in years other than presidential ones, to avoid confusion of national and state issues." (note 21) Edison also advocated for the extension of state Senatorial terms from two to four years and that of Assemblymen from one to two.
In summation, Edison argued that the purpose of all reform should be to ensure that representative government in New Jersey was representative of the needs and aspirations of its citizens.
A new constitution should be more amendable. A needlessly confusing system of courts should be altered to produce an arrangement that would be simple, responsible, and less awkward. (note 22)
Nevertheless, Republican opponents of Edison in the legislature and press continued to characterize the governor as an evil executive seeking to create a New Deal-type bureaucracy in New Jersey under his personal domination. The official Republican reaction to Edison's calls for constitutional reform reveals the disdain the GOP's leadership entertained for the vox populi. Philosophically, the majority of New Jersey's Republicans, especially those from rural districts, were neo-Federalists, who preferred to let the legislature decide what was best for the electorate once it had designated who constituted the electorate, how it was to be allowed to elect its representatives, and what or who they represented. As a result, the GOP tenaciously clung to the apportionment policy which valued acres over people. In order to preserve the uneasy balance of power between the state parties in the wake of the rise of Hague's Democratic party machine, the GOP had little other recourse. It entered into a Faustian bargain with the Democrats, willingly ceding the governorship to the Hague machine in return for artificially maintained legislative majorities which ensured the state GOP control over the disposition of a consistent share of the state's major appointive offices.
When the official Republican response finally came, it was as abrupt as it was absolute. It was precipitated by Edison's offer to preserve the current system of legislative apportionment of state Senate seats if the legislature statutorily abandoned any and all appointive powers and ceded them to the governor. "The system of administrative appointments by the Legislature destroys executive control and keeps Legislators in a constant patronage position," Edison argued in a personal plea before the legislature in June, 1941. Aside from giving legislators "a black eye in the public perception," Edison argued, the legislative distribution of appointive offices led to the perpetuation of "a sort of hereditary bureaucracy that is remote from the responsible government to which the people are entitled." An outraged Senate President Scott responded to Edison's proposal by tersely informing the press: "There just won't be any convention." (note 24)
The Republican dominated legislature responded to Edison's personal appeal by abruptly adjourning until November 13, 1941, without taking action on the governor's repeated requests for a constitutional convention. The Republican State Chairman, H. Alexander Smith, summarized the GOP's opposition to a constitutional convention thus:
I question whether we need a convention to accomplish what we need in modernizing our constitution. It seems to me a series of amendments adopted in the usual manner might accomplish what we want without the risk of radical elements always possible in a convention. (note 25)Edison quickly responded to Smith's obstructionism with the simple, prescient, and pointed observation that, on the contrary,
if a convention is called, the taxpayers will get a better break for their money, and a lot of political tricksters will have to stop running around under the grass. The state government is needlessly complex and disorganized so that it offers an ideal field of opportunity for any shrewd unprincipled trickster entrusted by the people with the least bit of political power. Many of you honorable Legislators have sat around this historic State House on certain Monday nights, thoroughly disgusted, while two or three of those same political tricksters, not even members of the Legislature, have met in some hotel room and presumed to tell you when you can have a joint meeting and just whom you should appoint. (note 26)Despite the adamant opposition mounted by the Republican majority in the legislature, Edison continued to insist that a constitutional convention be called because "the amendment route" outlined in the Constitution of 1844, and advocated by the state GOP, would require "too many changes... to make such a revision feasible." Furthermore, Edison informed the press at a July 31, 1941 press conference that he would refrain from convening a special session of the legislature on the subject of a convention, as was his prerogative under the present constitution, because the Republican majority
spent most of its time in these sessions just closed on the subject of jobs, giving jobs, protecting tenure for job holders, naming boards by legislation, and similar matters. But don't get the idea that I have given up one jot of desire for a constitutional convention. I will press for it vigorously. (note 27)The unified front of opposition to Edison's proposals presented by Republican legislators in the summer of 1941, however, began to splinter, and ultimately crumble, as an increasing number of individual Republicans realized that, far from being mere partisan posturing, the governor's advocacy of sweeping constitutional reform was an honest attempt to break Frank Hague's stranglehold on New Jersey politics. Unlike the Hague-controlled Democratic state party, the Republican party of New Jersey was neither unified nor monolithic. The state GOP was little more than a federation of municipal and county officials, magistrates, and politicians, who wielded only localized and highly specific political leverage. Despite the numerical superiority of Republicans in the state legislature, therefore, individual Republican Assemblymen were beholden not to the state party's officials, but to the local magnates and special-interest groups who had engineered their elections.
The Republican majority in the state legislature, therefore, lacked the unity and discipline which characterized the Democratic party organization dominated by Frank Hague. Thus, as the rift between Edison and Hague became more pronounced, increasing numbers of individual Republicans began to view constitutional reform as a means of escaping their party's unsavory alliance with Frank Hague. As a result, Republican attacks upon Edison's character steadily decreased even as Hague's attempts to undermine Edison grew ever more frequent and strident.
Characterizing himself as the governor of "all the people in the State, charged with equitable, just, and proper enforcement of the law, and not as a participant in an interparty political fight," Edison responded to the highly personal attacks of Hague's party organization by equating the cause of constitutional reform in New Jersey with the defense of democracy. While Edison disavowed any desire to destroy Mayor Hague and his "henchmen" as individuals, in a landmark radio address in February, 1942, the governor publicly pledged himself to the eradication of
the things they stand for, the tyrannies they promote, and the stifling of democracy they foster. I want to destroy their grip on the process of government. I want to take their hands from the throats of our courts and judges, our prosecutors and grand juries. I want to restore a government of laws and of men. I want the Bill of Rights to mean something in Hudson county and every other county of our state. In Hudson county there is no freedom of speech without fear; there is no freedom of religion without fear; there is no freedom of press without fear, and justice and civil liberties are mockeries. (note 28)Through his explicit equation of constitutional reform with the "Four Freedoms", to whose defense FDR had committed the United States, Edison elevated the public's perception of his struggle against the status quo with the contemporary conflict between fascism and freedom, thereby implicitly equating Frank Hague with Hitler. This masterful feat of association illustrates Edison's adeptness at unobtrusively orchestrating public opinion. By elevating the public's perception of the political power struggle, Edison was able to engage in reciprocal character assassination without appearing overtly adversarial, thereby preserving his personal and political integrity in the public eye.
Charles Edison's career in public service was predicated on the proposition that, if democracy was to survive the turbulence caused by economic depression and cataclysmic military conflict, every American had a sacred responsibility to safeguard his freedoms through active participation in the mechanics of democracy--the foundation of which is the regular exercise of the franchise. "Bosses," Edison believed, "are no more inevitable in state and local governments than dictators are in national governments. They will arise and prosper, nevertheless, if true believers of democracy--citizens devoted to the democratic ideals--do not constantly oppose them." (note 30)