Lem Hooper on the Constitution
by Ellis Parker Butler
Our eminent jurist, Justice of the Peace Lem Hooper, looked over the tops of his shell-rimmed spectacles at the worried-looking little man Officer Bungay had brought to the bar of justice. The big cop held the little prisoner firmly by the arm, as if he feared an attempt to escape.
"Now, now!" the judge exclaimed. "What's this? You don't mean to tell me that Mr. Pethcod has been up to something, Bungay?"
"Judge," began the meek looking Mr. Pethcod pleadingly, but the big cop gave his arm a twist and shut him up.
"He's complained against by Mrs. McDoodle," said Officer Bungay. "This afternoon at four o'clock the lady was givin' a five o'clock tea to the elect of Riverbank and this man's wife left him at home next door --"
"She told me to start cooking dinner at four," said little Mr. Pethcod.
"Sauerkraut!" exclaimed Officer Bungay. "And his kitchen to the North-East-by-East from Mrs. McDoodle's residence, your honor! And the wind wafting itself to the South-West-by-West! Twenty-four of the swellest noses of Riverbank was insulted immediately, your honor, and the tea party put on the bum, as you may say. The lady telephoned me, and I fetched the little fellow in. He must have been busting some law, judge."
Judge Hooper shook his head.
"No, Bungay," he said kindly. "Turn your prisoner loose. There's no law on the Riverbank statute books against cooking dinner. Not even if it is fried onions, Bungay; not even if it is fried onions complicated by sauerkraut. You misjudge the statutes of Riverbank, Bungay; the citizens of Riverbank are still permitted to cook sauerkraut no matter where the wind bloweth, and I see no way you can justify your action, Bungay, unless you have an amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibiting the same. Or prohibiting the wind from blowing, Bungay.
"And it should not be so difficult, Bungay. Time was when the Constitution was more like a solemn pact guaranteeing the rights of those who united under it to form a government, and less like a bangle bracelet, than it seems like to become, Bungay.
"The notion seems to be, Bungay, that when a State or a town isn't man enough to enforce its own laws it totes them down to Washington and has them hooked onto the Constitution, in hopes that the big gun will Shoot better than the little gun. 'Here's a cartridge my gun won't shoot,' it says; 'try it in the big gun for a change.' The only trouble, Bungay, is that when the bore of the sixteen-inch rifled cannon is changed so as to shoot .22 blanks, some folks take the notion it is but little more respectable than a target rifle. They all want to borrow it to shoot sparrows with.
"The elephant is a great and noble beast, Bungay, and its tread shakes the earth. When insulted and enraged it is most awesome and terrible. When it pulls the car of the Maharaja it inspires veneration and amazement. But if you hook a donkey cart behind the car of state, a goat wagon behind that, and a wooden duck that flaps its wings when the little red wheels turn behind that, and a peanut behind that, somebody is going to laugh. Some lawless guy is going to step on the peanut.
"The Constitution was once looked upon as the bulwark of our liberties; now it begins to look like a slot-machine into which any majority in Congress can drop a brass slug stamped 'Amendment' and get a permit to pass a bill not otherwise legal, whether it is to control the proportion of hemp seed in canary food or to compel Red Indians to grow beards.
"There was a time, Bungay, when a Viscount Bryce could read over the Constitution of the United States and say 'The United States is a nation founded upon the following great and immutable principles.' The time may come, Bungay, when the man that picks up the Constitution will read for six months and then say: 'After a serious study of the Constitution of the United States I make bold to announce that skirts for ladies between the ages of sixteen and sixty, for the first three months of the coming year, unless Amendment 658 is amended, will be one inch longer than at present, the Supreme Court not ruling to the contrary, if the Supreme Court is not amended in the meanwhile.'"
"That's interesting -- it's very interesting," said Mr. Pethcod nervously; "but, your honor, I left my sauerkraut on the stove --"
"Your wife trusted you," cried Lem Hooper, "and you left that sauerkraut on the stove? Here, Durfey!"
The Court-Officer stepped forward respectfully.
"Durfey," said the judge, "sit down instantly and write a letter to Washington and demand an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting husbands, when left in charge of sauerkraut, from deserting it."
"You're jokin', judge," said Mr. Durfey. "They'd never put through an amendment like that."
"Maybe not," said Judge Hooper, "but who are you and I to say what they'll do to the Constitution next?"