I’m writing this blog on July 4, the day on which our nation celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the revolution which followed.
The American Revolution was a watershed in history. It became the inspiration for other revolutions around the globe, beginning with the French Revolution. These revolutions often lifted language straight from our founding documents.
But none of these follow-on revolutions had the staying power of the American Revolution. Some collapsed within a generation, giving way to dictatorship. Others crumbled almost immediately after inception. Why were they so short-lived, while the American Revolution established a government which has endured for almost two and a half centuries?
The answer, I believe, is that none of these other revolutions understood what was truly revolutionary about the American Revolution. It wasn’t the brilliance of the deliberations in the Continental Congress. It wasn’t battlefield heroics against the world’s most powerful military. And it wasn’t the towering rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence.
Rather, it was an idea. A singular idea. So unprecedented that no other government in history had ever been founded on it.
This idea grew out of a fundamental reality. Namely, in the entire sweep of history, mankind has found only two ways to settle differences. We either appeal to principles which everyone respects. Or we resort to a contest of power, in which the victor dictates the settlement.
A Break with History
From the earliest days of civilization, appeals to principle took a back seat to the resort to power. Along the way there were rare, isolated efforts to limit the power of rulers and government. But none of these limitations obligated rulers to be bound by principle in their exercise of power.
Then, at the end of the eighteenth century, a band of upstart colonists in North America had the audacity to advance a revolutionary idea. In political and civic life, they held, power should always be subordinate to principle. They argued that everyone, even those in the most exalted positions of power, should be answerable to principle. That’s what made the American Revolution revolutionary.
We give credence to this idea whenever we say, “No one is above the law.” Law, in its purest form, is simply language which embodies vital principles. To call America a nation of laws is to affirm that we are a nation in which principles, not power, reign supreme.
That’s why respect for the courts and their decisions is so revered in American life. As envisioned in our Constitution, we do not settle our differences by resorting to violence, personal duels, or ruthlessness. Instead, we settle our differences by going before a court and making an appeal based on principles.
For this reason, Americans treasure the integrity of the judiciary. In a day when fewer and fewer things are viewed as immoral, there is no tolerance for efforts to bribe, intimidate, or corrupt officers of the court.
Moreover, we accept the court’s decisions, even when we vehemently disagree with them. Individually and collectively, we place greater value on preserving the court as an institution than on having it decide in our favor.
Elsewhere that’s not necessarily the way of the world. There are places where people who lose in court take vengeance against the judge. In America, such crimes are considered ghastly and abhorrent.
The Key to Enduring Success
When working overseas, I’m often been asked to explain the secret of America’s success. I’ve had this question from prime ministers and governors in Africa. From heads of powerful institutions in Russia. From cabinet members in Eastern Europe.
I always answer by describing our commitment to principle above power, adding that an honest court system is absolutely essential if such a political order is to endure. I also tell them this: if Americans ever lose their esteem for the courts, the intense competitive spirit of our culture will rip us apart and destroy us. The courts are what keep our power struggles in check.
Which leads me to one of my greatest concerns for America as we celebrate this Independence Day. During my lifetime, efforts to politicize the courts have become increasingly overt and determined. In making appointments to the court, we still claim that the jurist’s record of proven, careful jurisprudence is what matters most. Yet, when someone is nominated to a prominent judicial bench, the record of jurisprudence is largely marginalized. The public debate turns almost entirely on his or her political leanings and inclinations.
Thus, we speak of Republican judges and Democratic judges. Of Clinton judges, Bush judges, Obama judges, and now Trump judges. Can you imagine our early national leaders speaking of a “Jefferson judge” or a “Madison judge” or a “Lincoln judge”? It’s all but inconceivable.
Now, we can ever purge the courts entirely of political perspectives. I realize that. To one degree or another, politics have influenced the courts from the outset of our Republic. But neither do I believe that we are wise to sit by idly and allow a politicized court system to become the norm.
The Danger Before Us
Until relatively recent times, the ideal has always been for the courts to be apolitical. To be altogether impartial. To decide cases on the basis of principles equitably applied. Wherever we stood on the political spectrum, we endorsed this imperative.
Today, I fear, this ideal is in peril. Given our current political climate, one can readily imagine a day when courts no longer safeguard us against abuse of power, but are instead partisans of power themselves.
Should that happen, esteem for our courts will inevitably erode, and with it our willingness to defer to the court’s decisions. Dissatisfaction with specific court rulings will give way to general distrust of the judiciary itself. The one institution responsible for holding power answerable to principle will have abandoned its supreme calling.
And once our courts are no longer bulwarks against power at the expense of principle, the very underpinnings of our Republic easily become undone. Not immediately, perhaps, but eventually, we will join those failed revolutions which never grasped the importance of the singular idea which made the American Revolution truly revolutionary.