The world’s oldest written constitution still in effect has many inspiring lines, but perhaps the one that most stirs the souls of the patriotic appears in Article 30. Delineating a familiar separation of powers, that Article forbids the legislative, executive, and judicial branches from swapping or mixing functions. “[T]o that end”—and here’s the line—“it may be a government of laws and not of men.” John Adams, the author of that line and most of the rest of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, penned those words in 1779, eight years before the adoption of the second oldest written constitution still in effect. Writing just over twenty years later, the great Chief Justice John Marshall would affirm, in Marbury v. Madison, that “[t]he government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men.” Of course, neither Adams nor Marshall was on to something new with this “government of laws” notion. The idea that law, rather than certain men, ought to govern men—or, put differently, that men ought to self-govern through law—is quite old. In Western civilization, it is as old as political philosophy itself.
We invoke it still today, perhaps more vociferously than ever before. From the lips of Socrates and the quill of Chief Justice Marshall, the principle of the Rule of Law now takes center stage in the theater of international relations. This is no doubt because, as a global community, we are painfully aware that the Rule of Law has had some bad years of late—indeed, a bad century. In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the gulags of Soviet Russia, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the genocidal wastelands of Kosovo, the Rule of Law was nowhere to be found (though perhaps, with enough searching, one could uncover its remains—it has a way, after all, of being tyranny’s first victim). The nightmare of the twentieth century having passed, we naturally wish to do all that we can to ensure that such tragedies never happen again. As most recognize, that project begins and ends with understanding, spreading, and strengthening the Rule of Law in every corner of the globe.
Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain,
The Rule of Law and the Judicial Function in the World Today,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol89/iss3/8