A Government of Laws and Not of Men: Thoughts Prompted by Tuesday's Hearing

The saying that ours is a government of laws and not of men came to mind while I watched the January 6 committee hearing on Tuesday. Adam Schiff was right when he noted at one point that the system held, but barely, in the waning days of 2020 and the first week of January 2021. The system, this government of laws, held because women and men acted with honor and integrity, as Rusty Bowers, speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, did when he refused to bow to pressure by the president and those around him to betray his oath of office, the US and Arizona constitutions, and the laws of the land. As did Brad Raffensberger, Georgia secretary of state, and Gabriel Sterling, that state's top elections official. As did Atlanta election workers Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, who also appeared before the committee, and election workers like them across the country.


A republic, a government of laws and not of men, relies on the virtue of women and men who exercise their civic responsibility as officeholders and as citizens even when pressured by the president, even when harassed and threatened, their families harassed and threatened, by the mob spurred on by his wild rhetoric. Terms like honor, virtue, civic responsibility, have an old-fashioned, almost quaint ring to our oh so sophisticated postmodern ears. They still matter.


The idea of a government of laws and not of men and the relationship between virtue and such a government were front and center for John Adams in April 1776 when he sketched out his views on the best form of government in a letter to a fellow member of the continental congress (Thoughts on Government). Adams began by considering the end, or purpose, of government and reasoned that all speculative politicians agree that the happiness of society is the end of government and that moral philosophers agree that happiness of the individual is the end of man.


From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.


ALL sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.


Citing James Harrington, John Locke, John Milton, and other seventeenth century English political thinkers out of fashion with "modern Englishmen" of his day, Adams asserted that their principles and reasonings would convince "any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is Republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a Republic, is 'an Empire of Laws, and not of men.'" Virtue for Adams holds the highest rank in the scale of moral excellence and is the principle and foundation of republican government.


Republicanism (not to be confused with anything having to do with the Republican Party) :


a term for beliefs that have defined the American political experiment. In particular, republicanism stems from a form a government where the people are sovereign. In such a government, virtuous and autonomous citizens must exercise self-control for the common good. Republican citizens should not seek office or use public office for economic gain. Public officials must subordinate their personal ambitions for the good of the community. (William K. Bolt, Republicanism, North Carolina History Project)


Historian Gordon Wood writes that republicanism "assumed a wide range of meanings and, as Alexander Hamilton said, was 'used in various senses':


By the early nineteenth century John Adams professed to believe that he had "never understood" what republicanism was and thought that "no other man ever did or ever will." He concluded in frustration that republicanism "may signify any thing, every thing, or nothing." And so it did, becoming at times virtually indistinguishable from monarchy. Certainly it stood for something other than a set of political institutions based on popular election. In fact, republicanism was not to be reduced to a mere form of government at all; instead it was what Franco Venturi has called 'a form of life'… (Woods, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Alfred A. Knopt, 1992)


One is hard-pressed to find examples of the exercise of self-control for the common good and of subordination of personal ambition for the good of the community among today's public figures. Belief in the American experiment and the virtue that is its foundation can seem naïve in our benighted age. We have witnessed instances of that virtue on display throughout the hearings conducted by the committee investigating the events of January 6. They can be tenuous, subject to human frailty and blockheadedness. Without them, though, the system would not have held.


Tuesday's hearing was conducted with the gravitas that has been the mark of these proceedings. Thus a lighter moment stood out all the more when Bowers recounted Rudy Giuliani's response to a request for evidence to support his allegations of fraud and a rigged election. Giuliani replied that they did not have any evidence but they had a lot of theories. Bowers told the committee that he and his attorneys laughed about that as they walked away from the meeting.


Bowers was an impressive figure. Unlike Mike Pence, who has rightly been lauded for his actions on January 6 but was missing in action before and after, Bowers supports the hearings and willingly testified before the committee. Yet he also told reporters that he will vote for Trump again if he is the Republican candidate for president in 2024, "[s]imply because what he did the first time, before COVID, was so good for the county" (Bob Christie, Arizona Republican calls push to overturn 2020 'juvenile,' AP, January 20, 2022). The cognitive disconnect here is, as we used to say in the sixties, mind-blowing.


Legislation, such as reform of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, to make it more difficult for another attempted coup to succeed should be a priority. In the current environment this is a necessary condition for preservation of the nation as a constitutional republic. By itself it is not sufficient. The imperative to cultivate the virtue that John Adams held is the foundation of republicanism is equally pressing and damnably confounding.


Note: Like many readers I am left reeling by this week's Supreme Court decisions affecting abortion rights and gun regulation. Although neither comes as any surprise, it is impossible not to be shaken. More on this dismal topic anon.

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