"I FEEL CONTRAINED BY MY DUTY TO THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES TO DECLINE TO COMPLY WITH THE SUBPOENA": EXTRAORDINARY 1953 THREE-PAGE TYPED LETTER STATING TRUMAN'S UNWILLINGNESS TO RESPOND TO A SUBPOENA SUMMONING HIM BEFORE THE HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE DUE TO HIS CONVICTION THAT PRESIDENTIAL PRECEDENT AND THE CONSTITUTION FORBID IT, BOLDLY SIGNED BY PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN
TRUMAN, Harry. Typed letter signed. [Independence, Missouri], November 11, 1953. Three sheets of cream paper, each measuring 8-1/2 by 11 inches; pp. 3. $9000.
Fascinating and rare three-page typed letter from President Truman to the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee in response to a subpoena, in which he refuses to appear before the Committee citing presidential precedent and constitutional doctrine on separation of powers, boldly signed by President Truman.
The letter, addressed to Congressman Harold H. Velde, Chairman of the Committee on Un-American Activities, marked "For Immediate Release," and dated "November 11, 1953," reads in full: "Dear Sir: I have your subpoena dated November 9, 1953, directing my appearance before your Committee on Friday, November 13th, in Washington. The subpoena does not state the matters upon which you seek my testimony, but I assume from the press stories that you seek to examine me with respect to matters which occurred during my tenure of the Presidency of the United States.
"In spite of personal willingness to cooperate with your Committee, I feel constrained by my duty to the people of the United States to decline to comply with the subpoena.
"In doing so, I am carrying out the provisions of the Constitution of the United States; and am following a long line of precedents commencing with George Washington himself in 1896. Since his day, Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Hoover and Franklin D Roosevelt have declined to respond to subpoenas or demands for information of various kinds by Congress.
"The underlying reason for this clearly established and universally recognized Constitutional doctrine has been succinctly set forth by Charles Warren, one of our leading Constitutional authorities, as follows:
"'In this long series of contests by the Executive to maintain his Constitutional integrity, one sees a legitimate conclusion from our theory of Government….Under our Constitution, each branch of the Government is designed to be a coordinate representative of the will of the people….Defence by the Executive of his Constitutional powers becomes, in very truth, therefore, defence of popular rights—defence of power which the people granted to him. it was in that sense that President Cleveland spoke of his duty to the people not to relinquish any of the powers of his great office. It was in that sense that President Buchanan stated the people have "rights and prerogatives" in the execution of his office by the President which every President is under a duty to see "shall never be violated in his person" but "pass to his successors unimpaired by the adoption of a dangerous precedent." In maintaining his rights against a trespassing Congress, the President defends not himself, but popular Government; he represents not himself but the People.'
"President Jackson repelled an attempt by the Congress to break down the separation of powers in these words:
"'For myself I shall repel all such attempts as an invasion of the principles of justice as well as of the Constitution, and I shall esteem it my sacred duty to the People of the United States to resist them as I would the establishment of a Spanish Inquisition.'
"I might commend to your reading the opinion of one of the Committees of the House of Representatives in 1879, House Report 141, March 3, 1879, 5th Cong. 3rd Sess., in which the House Judiciary Committee said the following:
"'The Executive is as independent of either house of Congress as either house of Congress is independent of him, and they cannot call for the records of his action or the action of his officers against his consent, any more than he can call for any of the journals and records of the House or Senate….'
"It must be obvious to you that if the doctrine of separation of powers and the independence of the Presidency is to have any validity at all, it must be equally applicable to a President after his term of office has expired when he is sought to be examined with respect to any acts occurring while he is President. The doctrine would be shattered, and the President, contrary to our fundamental theory of Constitutional Government, would become a mere arm of the Legislative Branch of the Government if he would feel during his term of office that his every act might be subject to official inquiry and possible distortion for political purposes.
"If your intention however is to inquire into any acts as a private individual either before or after my Presidency and un-related to any acts as President, I shall be happy to appear.
"Yours very truly, [signed] Harry Truman."
Truman was subpoenaed to provide testimony about the actions of Harry Dexter White, a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury who Truman appointed as director of the International Monetary Fund in 1946. Truman had overruled warnings from the F.B.I. that White was suspected of espionage and the Senate—required for advise and consent—was never made aware of the report. In June 1947, White abruptly resigned after Attorney General Tom Clark ordered a grand jury to investigate accusations made against him by a Societ defector, Elizabeth bentley. White testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948, arguing that he was not a community. He died of a heart attack ten days later. Even after his death, the case did not go away. Instead, new accusations were made by prominent government officials including Senator McCarthy when the F.B.I. revealed that it had warned Truman. In a public statement, Velde, the committee chairman, harshly criticized Truman for rejecting the subpoena and complained that the case could not be properly resolved." Years later, documents unearthed from Soviet archives revealed that White was a high-level Soviet intelligence source. However, by the time the information was uncovered, the House Un-American Activities Committee had already been abolished due to widespread public condemnation for its "red-baiting." Truman survived the incident relatively unscathed.
Interestingly, this letter reflects Truman's vast historical knowledge. Although not college-educated, Truman was an avid reader and skilled autodidact. Professional historians such as Arthur Schlesinger occasionally pointed out that Truman's interpretation of history was often flawed and his memory of historical events sometimes altogether wrong. Nevertheless, Truman was able to shape an internal sense of American history and apply his knowledge to resolve problems that emerged during the Presidency. Truman recognized the House Un-American Activities Committee for the fanatical, undemocratic institution that it was, while maintaining faith that the American people would eventually resist. The letter reflects his commitment to that resistance in its repeated nods back to earlier presidents and its intentional underlining of bedrock constitutional principles. With original New York Times newspaper clipping about subpoena refusal.
Evidence of staple removal. Small clip marks on bottom edges of leaves. About-fine condition.