The Rule of Law – Lincoln at Lyceum

The Rule of Law posits that the Law, not an individual, is the supreme authority in a land. Deriving in the West from the Bible and from Hammurabi’s Code, the Rule of Law is one of the major reasons for the success of Western Civilization. Why are we throwing it away?

By Mark D. Harris

“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”

Lincoln spoke those words in 1837, only 24 years before civil war tore America apart. The future Great Emancipator spoke of mob justice, racially motivated violence, and attacks on American political institutions. Now in 2018, we read of racially motivated shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a Kentucky store, and mail bombs sent to politicians. If 1837 seems similar to 2018, it is…and Americans should do all they can to stop it.

The ancient Romans are reputed to have said “Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum” (let justice be done, though the heavens fall). Ironically, the English Roman Catholic priest and political conspirator William Watson popularized the sentiment in Ten Quodlibetical Quotations Concerning Religion and State (1601). The idea has been that to maintain civic order, the Law must be supreme. The institutions that uphold the Law, in America’s case the legislative, executive, and judicial branches at the national, state, county, and city levels, must also remain supreme in the minds and hearts of the people. The supremacy of American law, as with the “Law of the Medes and the Persians” famous from the Bible, is a major safeguard of peace and tranquility. This is dangerous, for every type of government is better than anarchy. When the Beatles sang “You say you want a revolution” to the youth of the 1970s, even John, Paul, George, and Ringo advised restraint.

America, though, was born of revolution. We hold two seemingly contradictory values, the status quo and the change (progressive or regressive), at the same time. Lincoln himself was conservative in his aims (to preserve the Union) and progressive in his aims (ending slavery). Politics in the United States has always been an uneasy balance.

The uniting factor, of course, is justice. Racial discrimination and even slavery in America has always been unjust, exactly as it has been in the Africa, Asia, Europe, India, Middle East, South America, and every other nation throughout human history. However, the murder of innocents through abortion is equally unjust. Neither modern “progressives” nor “conservatives” have a monopoly on justice. Rather, we can learn from each other. The real villains are those who would destroy American political institutions and leave us with tyranny. Justice will never be perfect in any human society, and justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. However, Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum is not a bad rule of thumb. Our society would be much better if we as individuals knew it, believed it, taught it, and practiced it. Abraham Lincoln did.



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