We often hear the concept of the rule of law thrown around in debates over several contemporary issues. Those engaged in this discourse, however, may not fully appreciate or understand the meaning of the concept. The principle of the rule of law is a fundamental part of the Anglo-American conception of constitutional government, or more simply, limited government. Both the government and the governed are subject to the law and no government official, no single private citizen, no single group of people can claim privilege or exceptions to the law. The rules are set forth in advance and are widely known to leaders and the public in general. It is the responsibility of those in power to apply the rules impartially to all citizens regardless of status, position, or political persuasions. To do otherwise, is to risk the complete breakdown of a civil society that is grounded on constitutional government.
Adherence to the rule of law and more particularly to its application poses unique challenges for every era. The law both empowers and restrains leaders as they negotiate the tensions between the immediate crises of the day, and the need to protect the basic institutions of government. History provides numerous examples of leaders confronting this dilemma, but probably none is better than President Lincoln’s conflict over emancipating the slaves. As president, Lincoln possessed the power to emancipate the slaves, but he recognized that the constitution granted him no legal authority to do so under normal circumstances.
Lincoln’s belief in the rule of law is legendary. It was so important to the 28-year-old Lincoln that he subtly equated the concept to spirituality. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield in 1837, Lincoln condemned the actions of a mob that burned a black man accused of murder. The threat to society was the failure to follow the law. Speaking directly to the threat, Lincoln said, “I know the American People are much attached to their Government;–I know they would suffer much for its sake;–I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come…”
Lincoln went on to speak passionately about the importance of law and order and its equal application at all levels of society and addressed the need to explain its necessity to all the people when he said, “The question recurs, “how shall we fortify against it?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, 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. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;–let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap–let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;–let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor.” For Lincoln, the rule of law was not only essential to civil society and constitutional government, but was a part of the very essence of the American spirit.
Eventually, Lincoln’s dedication to the rule of law would inform his approach to the issue of emancipation. By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation as a “war measure” utilizing his executive authority, he understood that the Emancipation Proclamation did not permanently resolve the issue. It only freed slaves in rebelling states. He took only those steps which he believed could be justified by his constitutional authority. It remained for Congress and the American people to change the Constitution and the law in 1865 with the 13th amendment to prohibit slavery throughout the United States.
Over the years, since Lincoln pronounced his views on the law and his reverence for the structure and order it produced, our governing institutions have evolved into a system he could never have envisioned; the issues faced could never have been guessed. However, the concept to which he was so dedicated remains disarmingly simple. The application of the principles of the rule of law remains as vital and essential to constitutional government and the maintenance of a civil society as it was in Lincoln’s nineteenth century. It continues to serve as a limitation of what goals may be immediately achieved, but Lincoln correctly observed that the law of and by the people, applied impartially, was the ultimate security to our political institutions and safeguard of the rights of all.