Presidents Day Honors Lawbreakers

As far as the federal government is concerned, today officially marks George Washington's birthday. Washington was in fact born on February 22, and because Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, some states split the difference by celebrating today as "Presidents' Day." Both of my daughters' schools in turn celebrate "Presidents' Week," because, you know, it's hard to make it all the way from Christmas/New Year's break to spring break without another week-long break in between. Of course, other than the idle rich, as a professor with May, June, July, and most of August off from teaching (but not blogging!), I'm among the most poorly positioned people in the world to begrudge the school teachers and kids their R&R.

And I don't. My topic today is entirely different: How both Washington and Lincoln were lawbreakers. Washington was the leader of a revolution against the established British government---for which he himself had fought valiantly in the French & Indian war---and almost surely would have been hanged as a traitor had the Revolutionary War ended differently. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus without prior Congressional authorization and announced a justification---"are all the laws but one to go unexecuted and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?"---that prefigured rationalizations of later tyrants such as Stalin ("you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" was said about Stalin but could as easily have been said by him), Mao ("A revolution is not a dinner party"), and most directly and recently, Pervez Musharraf quoting Lincoln ("By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life.")

One could take from such parallels the view that one person's revolutionary or even terrorist is another person's freedom fighter or statesman, and while there is some truth to that view, there is also significant foolishness. Washington and Lincoln fundamentally believed in constitutional democracy and the rule of law but also thought that in some drastic circumstances, the letter of the law has to be sacrificed to preserve its spirit. That certainly cannot be said about Stalin or Mao, and I highly doubt that this would be an accurate account of Musharraf's thinking either, whatever his public posturing.

Interestingly, the idea that the letter of the law must sometimes be broken in order to preserve society (and law too), has appeal across the political spectrum. Conservatives who want to read civil rights narrowly or ignore them altogether when faced with what they regard as an existential threat echo (and often invoke) Lincoln. But liberals can and do make the same sorts of arguments. Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman's views about constitutional change map perfectly onto the lawbreaking of Washington and Lincoln. Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention that produced a document that was essentially illegal under the Articles of Confederation and though Lincoln did not live to see the 13th Amendment ratified, he supported it actively. Because of the inconsistent treatment of the Southern States with respect to ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments, Ackerman views the Reconstruction Amendments, like the Founding, as a template for constitutional change that bypasses the letter of the law while keeping faith with its spirit. More broadly, across a wide swath of issues in both private and public law, liberals tend to be sympathetic to the idea of furthering the law's spirit even if at the expense of its letter.

Thus, when liberals object on formal legal grounds to conservative rationalizations of torture or the curtailment of habeas corpus, as when conservatives object on formal legal grounds to broad readings of individual constitutional liberties, we should see these objections for what they really are: objections to the underlying substantive values to which the letter of the law is being sublimated. We all agree that sometimes formal legal bounds must be slipped or even broken; we just disagree about when.

Happy Presidents' Day.

Posted by Mike Dorf