Lincoln left an invaluable legal legacy
By Nate Alder
Published: Friday, May 1, 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT
In 2009 we mark the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, regarded by many as our nation's greatest and most eloquent president. May 1 is Law Day, when we celebrate both the legacy of Lincoln and the rule of law.
Lincoln had great reverence for the principles which are at the foundation of our nation. That passion echoes throughout his speeches. He proclaimed, "Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs; — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young , the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasing upon its altars."
Today our society is held together by the rule of law and by our collective devotion to the order, comfort and reliability that it provides. Our stability as a nation is grounded in a representative democracy and a respected judiciary whose powers are, thankfully, not dependent on the whim or caprice of the current ruling junta, dictator or popular political party.
Lincoln praised the foresight of the Founding Fathers. "They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began."
He honored the reason and compassion of the Constitution with its promise of equal liberty under law, saying that it was made as a "frame to adorn and preserve" the Declaration of Independence.
The Constitution enacted a revolutionary philosophy of "checks and balances" by which three new branches of government — the legislative, judicial and executive — each has independent powers and dependent responsibilities. Our inherent individual freedoms are thus protected from unwarranted governmental intrusion and our collective power to govern remains free from manipulation by the rich and powerful. We elect our representatives in public elections. We can have our day in court. Each branch has limited rights to intrude on the duties of the others. Each branch is accountable to the people.
This Law Day we recognize Lincoln as an American president who united a nation and fought tirelessly for justice. We praise the passion of his Gettysburg Address and revel in the reminder that the nation was indeed, "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
By appealing to fundamental values of equality, justice and liberty under law and not liberty under man's own power, and by adhering to his own values, Lincoln became an inspirational leader whose legacy lives today. We honor his memory as we live his words. We admire the wise men and women who have followed in his steps. Let us also follow the inspired words of his amazing second inaugural address, including that we live "with malice toward none; with charity for all."
Nate Alder is president of the Utah State Bar.