In the wake of Monday’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, president Obama called on the citizens of Ferguson to keep their protests peaceful. “We are a nation built upon the rule of law,” he said. No such nation can long stand where people disregard the law in pursuit of their own manner of justice.
This isn’t the first time a U.S. president expressed concerns of “mob law” in St. Louis, Missouri. Speaking to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield—many years before the White House and the toils that would come with it—Abraham Lincoln told a story of a mulatto who had been “seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death.” The man had committed murder, and would surely have died at the hands of the court anyway. But Lincoln saw the murder and the response as equally tragic events.
He followed this with a question: “what has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?” The message he delivered that day, not so different from his later Gettysburg Address, was about the preciousness of the U.S. constitution—uppercase and lowercase—and the price we must pay to protect it.
People tend to think of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” whose primary goal was to overturn the system of slavery against all political opposition, including the Constitution itself—after all, the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, not a law of Congress or a constitutional amendment. Lincoln is therefore evoked by some presidents to justify a moral crusade of unilateral policy changes.
However, this is a misleading characterization. Yes, he was proud to sign his name to that document, and yes, he intended to do anything he could to fight that inhumane practice. But the cause to which he was most passionately committed was the Constitution and the political partnership that it created. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it;” he wrote in a letter to Horace Greeley, “and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.” The Proclamation—which he defended as a war strategy—only applied to Confederate states still beyond Union control, not slave states within or controlled by the Union. But Lincoln understood that such an act could not suffice as a legitimate alteration to standing policy, and thus sought constitutional amendments through the appropriate process.
In the previously mentioned Lyceum address, Lincoln urges an almost religious respect for the law as written, including the highest law of the nation—the Constitution. “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity,” he pleaded, “swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.” If there are bad laws, they should be changed. But “there is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
For Lincoln, the liberties won in the American Revolution and codified into the Constitution are at risk of crumbling apart with every new generation. He sees one of America’s greatest enemies: the rebel, the vigilante, the hero of an impatient majority, with a rope of righteousness clinched in his fist, a guillotine at his side, and a chorus of voices calling for swift action in the name of justice.
A lawyer by trade, Lincoln believed that the foundation of liberty and democracy is in the courts, not the streets.
If he had been an economist, he would have said the same thing as it relates to our ability to work, trade, lend, or engage in other economic activities. The central problem of many third world nations is not that they do not have enough money, food, education, or medical care. These are symptoms of something more systemic: the absence of the rule of law. Their legislative halls, elections, and police forces are marked with a pervading stench of corruption.
Without trust that your fellow man will make good on his word, and that your interests and his obligations will be backed by the force of a fair and impartial government, there can be no economic development—the critical engine for sustainable access to food, education and medical care.
We can think of the concept of “Rule of Law” in contrast to the rule of men. If a person rules, that person does what he or she wants, without restriction. But if the law rules, then those operating within it are held to a common standard of accountability to it. Of course, all written laws are man-made, so what concerns us is whether the law, once enacted, actually has power—specifically, whether it has power over those in power.
Did the laws of Germany, the Soviet Union, or China rule over Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong? Certainly not. These individuals made the law—they were the law. None of those nations could provide political or economic liberty, equality, or progress under the rule of men.
The Rule of Law demands adherence to process, and equal treatment under it. In the U.S., the first law is the Constitution, which dictates powers and processes used by the Federal Government, and certain limitations on state governments. From this framework the federal, state, and local laws are produced. Everyone is subject to them, and must be held accountable through due process as well. The rich and poor, the famous and meek. All become equal in two places: the graveyard and the court.
The riots in response to Ferguson should remind us that our society can only work if we respect one another, respect the laws, and respect the justice system. Instead of taking justice into one’s own hands, we must allow the process to work, and if we believe it is wrong, we must fight peacefully to change it in accordance with the law, just as Lincoln did.
But the president should reflect upon his own advice to the citizens of Ferguson, and on the words of Lincoln, on whose Bible he took the Oath of Office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitutional of the United States.” When the president himself appears to undermine the law with sweeping executive orders directly contrary to the laws of Congress, or by altering and eliminating parts of the Affordable Care Act with nothing but his will and the stroke of a pen, he sends the message that justice is a matter of action, and all laws, constitutions, and institutions must bow in obedience to its urgent demands.
For the United States to remain free and prosperous, justice cannot be merely the advantage of the stronger, whether demonstrated by violent protests or vain presidents.