We Balk at ‘Law and Order,’ but Democracy Needs the Rule of Law

Bizar Male

They are still deciding what to call the events of January 6. Riot? Insurrection? Coup? From the Wilkes mob and the Gordon mob in 18th century London to our own Seattle and Portland mobs, hyperbole and euphemism have fought a close contest in this area. Consider two stock phrases that look synonymous but have come to mean very different things. “Law and order” may convey the preconditions of a free society, but the use of that slogan—by Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968 and its successors in 1988 and 2016—gave the words a dubious odor. Repression of speech and assembly and ordinary freedom of action could be hidden under the seemingly harmless phrase. Yet no such opprobrium has ever attached to the instruction to abide by “the rule of law.” Why not?

In the absence of the law-abiding habit, we could hardly trust our fellow citizens in the commonest daily encounters. Civil society depends on self-restraint far more than on regulation by the authorities. A rational commitment to equality likewise depends on self-restraint. The axiom that all persons are equal under the law will only prevail where citizens restrain their desire for power. In a free society, the authorities can never enforce habits the people at large decline to practice.

No better analysis exists of the reasons to abide by the law than Abraham Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address” of 1838. The speech was one of a series commissioned by the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., on the perpetuation of American institutions. Lincoln, who was just 28 when he delivered it, took as his occasion the recent accounts of “outrages committed by mobs,” which “form the every-day news of the times” and “have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana.” The outrages in question all involved the passions of a mob leading to the killing of persons. “Alike,” said Lincoln, these incidents “spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits.”

Among the scenes “revolting to humanity” was the hanging of gamblers in Vicksburg, Miss., but the mob went on from there: “Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State; then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring States.” Lincoln is still more shocked by a “horror-striking scene at St. Louis,” the lynching of “a mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh,” who was “seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business.” These episodes have in common the replacement of law by mob rule.

The lynchings in Vicksburg and St. Louis, said Lincoln, show what happens when “the lawless in spirit,” by going unpunished, are permitted to become “the lawless in practice.” Such outbreaks amount to more than a concern of certain localities: “By the operation of the mobocratic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the People.”

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