John Adams’s oft quoted phrase “a government of laws and not of men” was once taken for granted in the US. I grew up in the 40s and 50s when it was taught to school children that we in the US were blessed to have 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, i.e., the elected and appointed government officials and bureaucrats those laws, pledge scrupulous allegiance to uphold and preserve them. In fact, when sworn in, elected officials take such a pledge before taking office. But 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. Herein lies 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. 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.
The practical fruits of the our system have been two and a half centuries of human freedom and wealth unprecedented in all of human history, not limited to those in political power, but spread among those people with energy and wit to pursue their own fortunes. But as Benjamin Franklin warned about keeping our republic, the Constitution and Bill of Rights can be lost to politicians with false promises, but big personalities. Therefore, as John Adams’s phrase tells us, we must have a government of laws and not of men.
FJ Rocca is an independent, conservative writer/blogger of fiction and non-fiction, most interested in the philosophy of American Conservatism. Clarity is more important than eloquence, but truth is vital in human discourse.