John Adams’s oft quoted phrase “a government of laws and not of men” has very specific meaning. Our nation was founded by wise men who realized that a government of laws was stable, but a government of human beings, of personalities, was not. Personalities differ from person to person, as do ambitions, vision, ideas, education and depth. What one person believes may change from time to time thereby also making what he does about what he believes change, as well.
George Washington, probably the most powerful personality of his day, was once offered the option of being a king or a president. He chose to be president and even limited his service to two terms. Washington, in his wisdom, recognized the principle embodied in Adams’s phrase, because kings do not rule consistently, while a president elected by the people on the promise that he will maintain established laws, will be most consistent.
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. 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, Barak Obama promised instead to fundamentally transform America.
Therein is the danger of electing a personal leader instead of a public servant. In such situations, personality trumps the humble promise to keep the nation as it was conceived and instead to fashion laws and policies to suit his intentions. Electing someone on the basis of personality is like saying, “Make up your mind and tell us what to do” rather than “Make sure you uphold all of my established rights and protect them from being stolen by an unscrupulous government.”
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 founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the greatest documents ever conceived by man with respect to freedom and rights, because they chose the individual over government.
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. But 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.
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 to human discourse. You can find out more about FJ over at http://www.candiddiscourse.com/.