Guest Essayist: George Landrith
Careful Observance Upon Forming and Executing Laws: Principle of the Rule of Law, Not of Men

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



The Rule of Law comprises a number of important legal doctrines designed to make our governmental system and our society more just and fair. It starts with the idea that we are all equal before the law and accountable to the same laws. But it also includes the concept that those laws should be made in public and not in secret; that the law should be evenly applied and not selectively applied, that all laws must be applied prospectively — meaning a law cannot punish behavior that occurred before the law’s existence; that government power cannot be exercised arbitrarily or capriciously, and that we should all have access to due process and an independent and fair-minded decision maker before our life, liberty or property can be taken from us.

For most of human history, most people have been ruled by individuals who had almost unquestioned power. For example, for much of Europe’s history, it was ruled by kings, who claimed “the divine right of kings” – meaning that no one on earth could question or challenge their rule. Such a ruler could imprison those he or she didn’t like or found annoying simply on a whim. And they had power to make laws that would be applied solely to those they didn’t like or had some grievance with.

Magna Carta officially ended the “Divine Right of Kings” by placing very modest limits on the power of the king. But modest limits on the arbitrary rule of men doesn’t qualify as the Rule of Law.

Fortunately, America’s Founders saw the Rule of Law as a foundational element of the society and nation that they sought to build. Thomas Paine in his seminal work, Common Sense, wrote that “in America, the law is King…” — meaning that there would be no king to rule over Americans. The law, as an impartial standard, would govern Americans.

Part of our national heritage in the Rule of Law means that we ought not care whether we like or dislike the accused, or whether we agree with the politics of the accused. We ought to be concerned only about the law and its equal and fair application. The Rule of Law is a major check against the abuses of government.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once described his totalitarian view of the law as — “show me the man, and I’ll find the crime.” That is obviously not the Rule of Law. That is a prime example of the arbitrary and capricious rule of man.

While America has been an example to the entire world of the Rule of Law, it has not always been perfect in its application. But our commitment to the Rule of Law is noteworthy all over the globe and it has helped to make us “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

America cannot survive as a beacon of hope and a land of freedom and opportunity for all if the Rule of Law is sacrificed upon the alter of political expediency. Americans of all political stripes must demand that the government play by the rules, live within the limitations placed upon it by our United States Constitution, and honor and uphold the principles of the Rule of Law.

One informal test that can help us judge the relative health of the Rule of Law in our nation is: does the government treat us like subjects or citizens?

Sir Thomas More lived from 1478 to 1535 AD and was an English lawyer, judge, and author. He was a strong and heroic advocate of the Rule of Law. In 1535, More did not attend the coronation of King Henry VIII’s latest wife, Anne Boleyn as Queen. Not attending the coronation was not an act of treason and, in a letter, More had wished the King and his new bride much happiness. And while most of the nation had not attended, More’s absence angered the King because of his reputation and influence.

After a number of failed attempts to punish More for not attending the coronation, the King came up with a plan to entrap More. He demanded that More sign a statement that King Henry was the head of both the nation of England and the Church of England. More had made no statements against the King’s authority, but he was unwilling to sign such a statement because it required him to repudiate his Catholic faith.

More made it clear to the King that he was not refusing to sign because he challenged the King’s authority. He simply was unwilling to repudiate his faith. But this did not matter; the King had him arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually executed for treason.

A Man for All Seasons is a play and movie based upon Sir Thomas More’s life. In the play, the King pressures More to sign the statement and promises to pardon him if he will sign. More asks the King, I’ve acknowledged your right to rule and your Queen, “then why does your Grace need my poor support?”

The King’s response was, “Because you’re honest… and what is more to the purpose, you’re KNOWN to be honest. There are those … who follow me because I wear the crown; and those … who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I’m their tiger; there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there’s you….”

Later, a friend of More’s tried to talk him into signing a statement to avoid the King’s wrath by saying, “Oh, confound all this…. Thomas, look at those names…. You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” More responded, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

Later, Oliver Cromwell tried to bully More into signing the statement. More objected to being bullied and said, “You threaten like a dockside bully.” Cromwell responded, “How should I threaten?” More responded, “With justice.” Cromwell, then replied, “Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.” Thomas More said, “Then I’m not threatened.” Obviously, More understood that a process focused on right and wrong and justice and fairness would not harm him.

Another interesting conversation in A Man for All Seasons shows why the Rule of Law must protect everyone’s rights — no matter how unpopular or disliked. More’s son-in-law, William Roper, while discussing the Rule of Law and More’s defense of it asked, “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!” More responded, “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” Roper responded, “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” Sir Thomas More’s response is both insightful and correct:

“Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake!”

More was no fan of the Devil as he was a very religious man and was executed because of his commitment to his faith and refusal to bend to the will of the King. But his point was important and true — we cannot have laws and judicial processes that only protect those that we like or approve of. Even those we despise must be afforded the benefits of the Rule of Law or we do not have the Rule of Law.

Thomas Paine’s description of America as a place where the law is king will hopefully always be true. Our nation’s freedom depends upon it. Thus, Americans who value freedom must, as Thomas More did, uphold, support and champion the Rule of Law. There is no freedom without it.

George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom. Frontiers of Freedom, founded in 1995 by U.S. Senator Malcolm Wallop, is an educational foundation whose mission is to promote the principles of individual freedom, peace through strength, limited government, free enterprise, free markets, and traditional American values as found in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

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