“Democracy dies in darkness”—so says the Washington Post, in a clever attempt at marketing to anxious readers in the Trump era. History, however, begs to differ. Experience shows that democracy typically dies in a bright blaze of passion. It is not from some intellectual darkening that democracies tend to collapse, for as a wise man observed, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” The inherent and insidious weakness to which democracies actually tend to succumb is the breakdown of the rule of law. When the people are sovereign, they tend to feel justified when taking the law into their own hands, even though it means the destruction of the difference between law and force which is the very basis of the legitimacy of their rule.
The American people were rightly shocked by what they saw in the South last week. We are proudly unaccustomed to seeing self-styled neo-nazis on parade in our streets, and especially unsettled when such demonstrations result in the savage death of another citizen. And we have only ever seen angry mobs tear down statues from their pedestals in far away countries formerly ruled by cruel dictators. Of course we should be repulsed by a group of people proclaiming their hatred for other people on the basis of skin color. But we should also feel disgust for those who, in proclaiming their disgust for these views, would take the law into their own hands. Both result in oppressive lawlessness.
Clearly it is time for us to do some hard thinking about how to resolve these long-standing tensions in American society. For even more important than resolving the question of what to do about Confederate memorials is the looming question of whether Americans are going to continue to abide by the rule of law to settle our differences.
In 1838, the country was exhibiting similar symptoms of lawlessness. At just 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Springfield, Illinois in which he decried “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” Lincoln warned that the unchecked growth of a “mobocratic spirit” would lead people from being “lawless in spirit” to being “lawless in practice.”
These are words to keep in mind as we consider that while some white supremacists have been expressing a disgusting glee over the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, on the other side we have people now calling for the removal of memorials to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This “lawlessness in spirit” has already led to “lawlessness in practice” in a woman’s death and in several instances of vandalism around the country, even upon memorials to Abraham Lincoln—one tellingly emblazoned with the words “Fuck law.”
Lincoln argued that the only way to prevent the death of our democracy was to restore an “attachment of the people” to “a reverence for the constitution and laws.” He did not deny that “bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible,” but he declared that “while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.”
As our Constitution is the longest-living republican form of government, it is easy for us to take it for granted, but it is a mere parchment barrier in the hands of an impassioned and unrestrained people. Many citizens in this country are angry and impassioned about a cause they believe just. They want swift retribution for the horrible crime of slavery and they want to take it out on the memorials to slaveholders. Some, it is clear, would have that “justice” even if it means breaking the law to achieve it.
One thinks of the famous lines from the film “A Man for All Seasons,” about Sir Thomas More. In the film, More is attacked by William Roper, his son-in-law, for not arresting a certain man who had betrayed him, though the man had not broken any law in doing it. When More declares his fidelity to the law, even if it meant protecting the Devil himself, Roper assails him for not taking the law into his own hands.
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
There is a beautiful yearning in every good-natured person for justice and a desire for God’s kingdom to reach us here on earth so that it might be “as it is in heaven.” But history teaches us that, unrestrained from the rule of law, even this holy desire can become an ugly and evil thing. Human beings, evidently, can only be truly happy when they live under laws, and it has been the desire of the imperfect people of our country since our founding to continue to strive to make those laws good.
We will never have perfect laws, and that is why politics is a perpetual human activity. But if we give up on what we have now in order to achieve justice through force outside of the law, afterward there will be nothing left to protect us from the force of those stronger than us. Let us never let our desire for justice burn out, but let us likewise never stop reasoning together and bearing with patience our imperfect condition while we enjoy the shade of a democracy planted thick with laws under the longest-living written constitution this world has yet seen.