John Adams‘s oft quoted phrase “a government of laws and not of men” was once taken for granted in the United States. I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s when school children in the US were taught that it was a blessing to live in a nation founded by wise men who realized that a government of laws was stable, but a government of human beings, of personalities, was not.
George Washington, probably the most powerful personality of his day, was once offered the option of being a king or a president. He opted to be president, and even limited his service to two terms. Washington, in his wisdom, recognized the principle embodied in Adams’s phrase.
A body of laws tends to remain stable, providing those chosen to enforce those laws, i.e., the elected and appointed government officials and bureaucrats, pledge scrupulous allegiance to uphold and preserve them. In fact, when sworn in, elected officials take such a pledge before assuming office.
However, the principles embodied in our founding documents are easily lost or transmuted when they take second place to a “leader” in whom vast power is invested to govern without paying scrupulous attention to the pledge he or she has taken. Despite having taken the pledge to uphold and protect the US Constitution and the laws derived from it, Barack Obama promised instead to fundamentally transform America. Therein is the danger of electing a personal leader instead of a public servant. In such situations, grand personality trumps the humble promise to keep the nation as it was conceived and instead to fashion laws and policies to suit his intentions. How many executive orders has Mr. Obama issued to circumvent the US Constitution and the laws derived from it? I’m sorry, but I’ve lost count.
To avoid this very danger, the wise founders of our nation gave us a body of laws to ensure our great freedom, and of all our rights as American citizens. Christopher Hitchens, once an avowed socialist, once said that they were the greatest documents ever conceived by man. Now, that endorsement is significant for its wisdom; and he was right to say it.
The practical fruits of the our system, the proof of its effectiveness and its value to civilization, have been two and a half centuries of freedom and wealth unprecedented in all of human history, not limited to those in political power, but spread among all people who possess energy and wit to pursue their own fortunes.
However, as Benjamin Franklin warned about keeping our republic, the Constitution and Bill of Rights can be lost to politicians with big, flashy personalities who make false promises. Therefore, as John Adams’s phrase tells us, we must have a government of laws and not of men.
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