Could You Stand Upright in the Winds That Would Blow?
Thomas More’s question about the centrality of the law is as portentous today as it was in the early 16th century.
What does the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 last year have to do with my warning visiting family and friends to be very careful when crossing intersections on D.C.’s major thoroughfares? Lawlessness. In the first case, a rampaging crowd attempted to overturn a constitutionally informed election by stopping the Vice President’s count of Electoral College votes. In the second, drivers ignore yellow lights. Instead of slowing down and stopping at the intersection, as required, they speed up to beat the red light and often just run it. It’s fool’s gold for a pedestrian to think a walk sign means it is safe to actually walk.
Of course, there is a world of difference between the importance of the two. Nevertheless, one wonders if a large segment of the American public is getting a bit too comfortable with deciding which laws to obey or not. A recent Washington Post poll has some 34 percent of U.S. adults saying that “violent action” against the government is “sometimes justified.” If more than a third of “adults” are willing to hold such a view, it is not difficult to imagine how an even greater percentage think it is okay to ignore laws and norms that don’t require putting up one’s fists or worse.
In preparation to moderating an event in late December featuring Diana Schaub’s new book, His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation, I re-read the three speeches featured in the volume: the Lyceum Address, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The Lyceum Address, in which Lincoln discusses the challenges of perpetuating America’s governing institutions, is particularly apt for thinking about the meaning of January 6.
Lincoln’s argument, prefiguring the famous line from Pogo that “We have met the enemy and he is us,” was that the danger of sustaining the experiment in American self-government would not be some conquering foreign power, but instead “would spring up amongst us.” “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Lincoln then goes on to describe several instances of mob violence that he said had been plaguing the whole of the nation.
Lincoln’s answer to this problem is a “reverence for the laws” so deeply held that it becomes “the political religion of the nation.” How deeply? Deeply enough to moderate American individualism and its propensity to resist any restraint. Let it, Lincoln said,
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 in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.
Needless to say, that is a far cry from the state of U.S. civic education today, in which STEM dominates school curriculums and where the Left emphasizes activism as the key to producing model citizens, while the Right focuses on testing that often only requires a bare minimum of knowledge of U.S. government processes.
The very fact that, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll, two-thirds of Republicans—“the law and order party”—don’t see what happened at the Capitol on January 6 as an attack on the government is remarkable. No less remarkable is the continuing silence from virtually all the Republican leadership in describing the events of that day for what they were. Failing to call the insurrection out for what it was—an assault on the constitutional order itself—and hoping that it will just fade away as a memory implicitly legitimates what occurred then and does next to nothing to head off future mobs from pursuing the same course.
It is a modern American view that civil disobedience is something of a right, with the most famous exemplar being Martin Luther King. King, however, was willing to accept punishment for his civil disobedience precisely because his goal was to reform laws, not challenge the rule of law itself—showing, in his own words, “the very highest respect for law.” Absent the latter, he understood that nothing stood in the way of the gains that might be made in changing the laws from being overturned by others taking the law into their own hands.
Tellingly, Lincoln in the Lyceum Address makes no room for civil disobedience. As his specific examples of mob violence make clear, the murder and mayhem aimed at gamblers and a murderer were not without a semblance of raw justice. But from Lincoln’s point of view, once the passions were given free rein—perhaps especially in the name of justice—there was no telling where the violence would end, producing a degraded state of affairs of which a talented and ambitious demagogue might take full advantage.
At a minimum, Lincoln might ask how one can, as a practical matter, ensure that only a King-like figure is judging which laws to obey and which to challenge. The right once conceded has nothing to prevent it from being claimed more broadly. And probably, given human proclivities to see one’s acts as righteous, there will be scant willingness to suffer the penalties that should come with breaking the laws.
There is perhaps no more iconic and apt picture of the events of January 6 than that of self-described “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley standing on the Senate dais in horns, bare-chested, with fur-lined headdress and red, white, and blue war paint. While Chansley has compared himself to another model of civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi, his appearance that day captures more accurately the state of nature we are left with when laws are broken, constitutional forms assaulted, and a large segment of the public and its leaders cannot or will not come to terms with the precedent being set.
Gary J. Schmitt, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow in social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image: Tyler Merbler, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tear_Gas_outside_United_States_Capitol_20210106.jpg
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