Let this be the distinctive mark of an American that in cases of commotion, he enlists himself under no man’s banner, inquires for no man’s name, but repairs to the standard of the laws. Do this, and you need never fear anarchy or tyranny. Your government will be perpetual.

—Thomas Jefferson. Notes for his first Inaugural Address, 1801.

For the rule of law to prevail requires the people to have a culture of respect for the law. Legal structures are well and good, but they are dead letter without a rigid respect for the law. The Roman Republic failed because each of the various factions was increasingly prepared to abandon the constitution in pursuit of its ends. This is why the practice of the Americans, when they take public office, of swearing to defend the Constitution against all foes, foreign and domestic, is so wise.

The people of a free country should admire their leaders for the same reason jurists admire famous judges—for their adherence and fidelity to the law. If a popular leader who has served the country well begins to break the law, then at that point, any loyalty or affection for him must immediately end. Thus, for example, as soon as Richard Nixon broke the law his party ought to have abandoned him. As Thomas Gordon noted:

To bear stupidly the wild or deliberate ill acts of a tyrant, overturning all law, and to assist him in it, has been impiously called loyalty; though it was all the while on the other side: As it is the very office and genius of loyalty to defend law, virtue, and property; and to pull down, as traitors and disloyalists, all who assault them. (Cato’s Letters No. 36, Of Loyalty, Saturday, July 8, 1721.)

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove