February 14, 2017

A government — and a nation — of laws…

John Adams government of laws quote WM


A government of laws and not of men.”
John Adams (1735-1826) 
       American lawyer, politician and 2nd President of the United States
       Although the basic concept of “a government of laws, and not of men” reflects a political philosophy dating back to the ancient Greeks, Adams gave it lasting fame in those exact words, initially by using it in his
7th “Novanglus” letter published in the Boston Gazette in 1775, then more famously by including it in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
The “Novanglus Letters” were a series of essays Adams wrote for the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym Novanglus (meaning “New Englander”). In them, he argued that Great Britain’s treatment of American colonists violated their rights under British law.
       In the seventh Novanglus letter, Adams said:
“If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition is just, the British constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government's being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend.” 
       Five years later after he wrote the Novanglus letters, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Adams was primary author of that historic document. In it, he again used the phrase “a government of laws and not of men.” In the section outlining the crucial principle of the separation of powers, he wrote:
       “In the government of this Commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.” 
       “A government of laws” and the variation “a nation of laws” came to be commonly used in commentaries on legal issues, political disputes and court decisions. They are sometimes
used almost simultaneously by people on both sides of such issues, who believe their interpretation of the law is the correct one — often regardless of what the courts decide.



“We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws.  As a sovereign country, America has the right to control its border.”
Sen. John Neely Kennedy 
       Republican politician now serving as U.S. Senator for Louisiana
a press statement he released on January 30, 2016 in support of President Donald Trump’s travel ban executive order. The order, designed to bar the entry of travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations into the U.S., was soon blocked by a federal judge whose decision was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 
       Presumably, Sen. Kennedy respects that outcome as an example of how the separation of powers works in our nation of laws. (But somehow I doubt it.)




“We are a nation of laws. And, as I have said, as we have said, from day one, that those laws apply to everybody in our country, and that includes the President of the United States.”
Bob Ferguson
      Washington State Attorney General
      In a
press conference on February 9, 2017 after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the state’s favor in a lawsuit challenging President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order. As I write this, it’s unclear whether President Trump will appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
       It also remains to be seen whether supporters or opponents of the ban will be happily (or grumpily) using “a nation of laws” when the legal dust finally settles.

Archibald Cox


“Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
Archibald Cox (1912-2004)
      American lawyer and law professor who served as a Special Prosecutor during the investigation of the Watergate scandal
Comment to the press on October 20, 1973 after President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox from his Special Prosecutor position for zealously pursuing access to the then still-secret Watergate Tapes.
       Richardson refused to fire Cox and resigned in protest. Deputy Attorney General
William Ruckelshaus also refused to carry out the president’s order and resigned. Nixon then succeeded in getting Robert Bork, who’d been tapped as acting head of the Justice Department, to fire Cox on Saturday, October 20, 1973. 
      This so-called
“The Saturday Night Massacre” didn’t help Nixon. It simply generated negative press, public outrage and even more intense Congressional investigations. Ultimately, Nixon was forced to release the tapes. On August 9, 1974, he became the first American president to resign, knowing he’d be impeached if he didn’t.



“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” 
       Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006)
       American politician who served as 38th President of the United States
       Lines from
his speech on August 9, 1974, the day he ascended from being Richard Nixon’s Vice President to be inaugurated as President of the United States after Nixon resigned.
       One month later, President Ford gave Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon” for any crimes he committed while president. Whether “the people” agreed with that decision didn’t matter. In our nation of laws, the president has the legal power to grant such pardons under the powers given to him by the U.S. Constitution.

Philip K. Howard


“In our obsessive effort to perfect a government of laws, not of men, we have invented a government of laws against men.”
Philip K. Howard (b. 1948)
       American lawyer and conservative political commentator and author 
       A quote from his 1994 book The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America
       In the book, Howard argues that the increasing number of laws and regulations in the United States have reached a point of absurdity that stifles our economy, personal freedom and our quality of life.



“The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.”
Frank Zappa (1940-1993)
       American rock musician, provocateur and entrepreneur     
       A famous quotation
widely attributed to Zappa, though it’s unclear if and when he said it 
his excellent Big Apple language history site, Barry Popik notes that in a 1992 interview journalist Jon Winokur reminded Zappa that he “once said” the line.
      Zappa didn’t actually confirm that he’d said those words in the interview. But the quote does seem consistent with his typically critical view of the American political and legal system.

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