What is the Origin of “No Man is Above the Law”?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesIn the case of Trump v. Vance, the Supreme Court established that “In our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence. Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States.” The majority decision affirmed the well-known maxim that “no man is above the law” by rejecting the sweeping claim of immunity and anti-democratic conception of the American presidency advocated by Donald Trump and his attorneys. Speaking to the Washington Post, constitutional scholar Joshua Matz elaborates: “These opinions offer a resounding, definitive rejection of President Trump’s claims to monarchical prerogative. They affirm in the clearest possible terms that the president is not above the law — and that he is subject to state criminal subpoenas and congressional investigation under appropriate circumstances.”

The phrase “no man is above the law” represents a fundamental concept of a constitutional democracy — that the law applies equally to all citizens in a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The concept is on the opposite end of the spectrum of a monarch or oligarchy where rulers are above the law. Interestingly, most people are familiar with the phrase and understand it, but few know the person who originated the phrase.

For the answer to that question, we must step into a time machine and travel back over a century to arrive in Washington, D.C. on December 7, 1903. On that date, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered his Third Annual Message to Congress. The complete phrase that Roosevelt used was “No man is above the law and no man is below it.” An excerpt appears below (paragraph breaks added for ease of reading):

“The consistent policy of the National Government, so far as it has the power, is to hold in check the unscrupulous man, whether employer or employee; but to refuse to weaken individual initiative or to hamper or cramp the industrial development of the country.

We recognize that this is an era of federation and combination, in which great capitalistic corporations and labor unions have become factors of tremendous importance in all industrial centers. Hearty recognition is given the far-reaching, beneficent work which has been accomplished through both corporations and unions, and the line as between different corporations, as between different unions, is drawn as it is between different individuals; that is, it is drawn on conduct, the effort being to treat both organized capital and organized labor alike; asking nothing save that the interest of each shall be brought into harmony with the interest of the general public, and that the conduct of each shall conform to the fundamental rules of obedience to law, of individual freedom, and of justice and fair dealing towards all.

Whenever either corporation, labor union, or individual disregards the law or acts in a spirit of arbitrary and tyrannous interference with the rights of others, whether corporations or individuals, then where the Federal Government has jurisdiction, it will see to it that the misconduct is stopped, paying not the slightest heed to the position or power of the corporation, the union or the individual, but only to one vital fact–that is, the question whether or not the conduct of the individual or aggregate of individuals is in accordance with the law of the land.

Every man must be guaranteed his liberty and his right to do as he likes with his property or his labor, so long as he does not infringe the rights of others. No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor.”

Roosevelt’s memorable maxim is based on the ancient concept of the “rule of law,” defined as “The authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behavior; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes” by the Oxford English Dictionary. The concept was introduced by the Ancient Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle. In his seminal work Politics (written circa 350 BC), Aristotle wrote: “It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens: upon the same principle, if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians, and the servants of the laws. (3.16)” Over two hundred years later, Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tulles Cicero (106-43 BC) who was instrumental in the establishment of the Roman Empire, argued that we are all servants of the laws in order to be free: “The magistrates who administer the law, the judges who act as its spokesmen, all the rest of us who live as its servants, grant it our allegiance as a guarantee of our freedom.” [from Murder Trial, speeches from his most celebrated murder trials between 80 and 45 BC.]

According to the OED, the phrase “rule of law” was first used in 1500 by English politician John Blount: “Lawes And constitutcions be ordeyned be cause the noysome Appetit of man maye be kepte vnder the Rewle of lawe by the wiche mankinde ys dewly enformed to lye honestly.” A century later the phrase appears in a petition from the House of Commons to James I of England in 1610: “Amongst many other points of happiness and freedom which your majesty’s subjects of this kingdom have enjoyed under your royal progenitors, kings and queens of this realm, there is none which they have accounted more dear and precious than this, to be guided and governed by the certain rule of the law which giveth both to the head and members that which of right belongeth to them, and not by any uncertain or arbitrary form of government. 

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For further reading: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/07/09/supreme-court-deals-blow-trumps-delusions-untrammeled-power/

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