FORD, GERALD. (1913-2006). Thirty-eighth president of the United States. TLS. (“Jerry Ford”). 1¼ pp. 4to. Washington, November 12, 1963. On his congressional letterhead. To Donald Teets, a constituent.
Remarkable Typed Letter Signed About a Constitutional Amendment Permitting Public School Prayer: “This important decision of the Supreme Court…”
Signed by Gerald Ford
“Thank you for sending me a copy of your letter of November 10th addressed to State Senator Milton Zaagman. As you know the Supreme Court decision of June 17, 1963 relative to the use of the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer in public schools has been widely discussed. The validity of this decision of the Court has been disputed by many competent attornies [sic] and jurists and, as you know, Justice Potter Stewart wrote a dissenting opinion. Enclosed is a copy of my newsletter for June 26th in which I discussed the Court’s decision and pointed out that I would support a resolution to submit to the state legislatures a constitutional amendment to overrule this decision of the Court. About 75 such resolutions have been introduced in the House of Representatives and are presently with the House Committee on the Judiciary. The right to amend the Constitution by constitutional means is an integral part of our constitutional system. As you know, the Congress may submit constitutional amendments by a 2/3 vote in each House and the proposal will become a part of the Constitution if ratified by ¾ of the states through their legislatures or specifically convened conventions. Amendments may also be proposed under Article V of the Constitution by a convention called upon application of the legislatures of 2/3 of the states. Consequently any action within the Michigan state legislature to propose the calling of such a convention is action within the provisions of the same Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the freedom of petition. On this important decision of the Supreme Court on which reasonable men can disagree I feel that any action taken by constitutional means to overrule the Court is action within the finest traditions of the American system and the American way…”
During his long tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, which lasted from 1949 to 1973, Ford was distinguished by his modesty. “Michigan voters elected Mr. Ford 13 times, and of his 25 years in the House, he served eight as minority leader. He saw himself as a negotiator and a reconciler, and the record shows it: he did not write a single piece of major legislation in his entire career,” (“Gerald R. Ford,” The New York Times, December 28, 2006).
Our letter discusses the 1963 Supreme Court case Abington School District v. Schempp, in which school sponsored Bible readings were declared unconstitutional. The case caused a public outcry and led to more than 150 Congressional resolutions to overturn it through Constitutional amendment.
American Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart (1915-1985) authored the only dissenting opinion in the case in which he cited other examples of religious ceremonies in government settings including the opening of each Supreme Court session with the phrase “God Save this Honorable Court.” An excerpt from his 13-page opinion was quoted in Ford’s newsletter, which he refers to in our letter and in which he outlines his support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.
Milton Zaagman (1926-2012) was, like Ford, a veteran of World War II and served as state senator from 1963-1974. In 1973, he unsuccessfully ran for Ford’s congressional seat, vacated when, in October, President Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned after pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion and money laundering. Following the procedures laid out in the 25th Amendment, Gerald Ford was nominated and confirmed by the Senate as the country’s new V.P. Meanwhile, Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and despite compelling evidence, he continued to assert his ignorance of the affair, refusing to cooperate until he finally resigned from the nation’s highest office on August 9, 1974. Ford succeeded him, becoming the only person to ever serve as both president and vice president without having been elected to either office. Ford faced the challenges of an economic recession and inflation, cold war tensions with the Soviet Union, the complicated U.S. pullout of Vietnam (resulting in the fall of non-communist South Vietnam), and mistrust of the executive office caused by Watergate. In 1976, he reluctantly ran for reelection but was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter. Neatly folded into thirds. In fine condition on a subject that still resonates more than 50 years later.