Friday, November 30, 2007

On the late Henry Hyde

Is it just me, or does the mention of the name of Henry Hyde, who died yesterday, make you think of this speech, which might be viewed as profound or ironic depending on your point of view, in which he said among other things:

"The rule of law is one of the great achievements of our civilization. For the alternative to the rule of law is the rule of raw power. We here today, are the heirs of three thousand years of history in which humanity slowly, and at great cost, evolved a form of politics in which law, not brute force, is the arbiter of our public destinies.

We are the heirs of the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law: a moral code for a free people who, having been liberated from cruel bondage, saw in law a means to avoid falling back into the habits of slaves.

We are the heirs of Roman law: the first legal system by which peoples of different cultures, languages, races, and religions came to live together in a form of political community.

We are the heirs of Magna Carta, by which the freemen of England began to break the arbitrary and unchecked power of royal absolutism.

We are the heirs of a long tradition of parliamentary development, in which the rule of law gradually came to replace the royal prerogative as the means for governing a society of free men and women.

We are the heirs of 1776, and of an epic moment in human affairs when the Founders of this Republic pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor - sacred honor - to the defense of the rule of law.

We are the heirs of a hard-fought civil war, which vindicated the rule of law over the appetites of some for owning others.

We are the heirs of the 20th century's great struggles against totalitarianism, in which the rule of law was defended at immense cost against the worst tyrannies in human history. The "rule of law" is no pious phrase from a civics textbook. The rule of law is what stands between all of us and the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. The rule of law is the safeguard of our liberties. The rule of law is what allows us to live our freedom in ways that honor the freedom of others while strengthening the common good. The rule of law is like a three-legged stool: one leg is an honest judge, the second leg is an ethical bar, and the third is an enforceable oath. All three are indispensable to avoid political collapse.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln celebrated the rule of law before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, and linked it to the perpetuation of American liberties and American political institutions:

'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 almanacs - let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.'

My colleagues we have been sent here to strengthen and defend the rule of law - not to weaken it, not to attenuate it, not to disfigure it while seeking an extra-legal and extra-constitutional solution to the threat posed to the Republic by a presidential perjurer.

This is not a question of perfection; it is a question of foundations.

This is not a matter of setting the bar too high; it is a matter of securing the basic structure of our freedom, which is the rule of law.

No man or woman - no matter how highly placed, no matter how effective a communicator, no matter how gifted a manipulator of opinion polls or winner of votes - can be above the law in a democracy.

That is not a counsel of perfection; that is a rock-bottom, irreducible principle of our public life."

The quotation was from Abraham Lincoln, "Address to Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838," in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (New York: The Library of America, 1989), p. 32.

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