I was privileged over the Christmas holidays to see the movie Lincoln with my wife and in-laws. The movie was well-crafted and dealt with issues that are important to me. I was similarly privileged recently to participate in Linn-Benton Community College’s Martin Luther King Day Celebration, where members of the community did a public reading of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” at our Albany campus. I was surprised at my emotional reaction to portions of both the movie and the letter.
President Lincoln and Dr. King were rationalists, or people who believe that reason and experience are the fundamental criteria for solving problems. Lincoln was also a lawyer, and Dr. King was a scholar who fully understood the concept of the rule of law. It was not the purpose of either the movie or the letter to explore the rule of law, but I believe both offered some great insight into an important question.
The term “rule of law” was apparently coined in England during the early 19th century, and scholars continue to debate its meaning today. I think most agree in rough terms it represents the idea that we govern ourselves by laws and the processes that create them rather than by individual whim, force, divine right, or some other supernatural power. We practice this belief in the United States through democratic mechanisms such as elected representation and, in some cases, direct democracy.
Lincoln felt so strongly enough about the rule of law as expressed by the U.S. Constitution that he was willing to send troops to enforce it. As he later wrote in the Gettysburg Address, he was not prepared to see “government of the people, by the people, for the people … perish from the earth,” even recognizing the toll in human suffering that decision entailed.
Dr. King demonstrated a similar commitment in a different way. He respected the rule of law, despite rejecting, and, in fact, preaching disobedience to, laws that denied full citizenship to people of color in many parts of the country. King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail:”
“In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
I would be surprised if anyone could truthfully say they agree with and have obeyed every law they have ever been subjected to through the course of their lives. I’ve broken my share and will almost certainly do so again, although probably not on purpose. I will, however, continue to advocate for the rule of law because I have seen first-hand what happens when it no longer exists. Freedom from the law is not really freedom at all, but rather anarchy that penalizes the humane and civilized while rewarding the brutal and immoral.