What Guides the Law

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The bronze above is a beautiful piece on display at the Freer Gallery on the National Mall.  Cast by Augustus Saint-Gaudens its title is “Law Supported by Strength and Love.”  Saint-Gardens was an American sculptor of the 19th century who engaged in serious study in Paris before returning to the U.S. to memorialize great achievements of the Civil War.  He was part of an entire American movement to bring knowledge of the arts and sciences from Paris to our still-new Republic (see David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey”) .  Over the course of the late 18th-19th centuries, both the U.S. and France underwent revolutionary changes that were taken by the rest of the western world to be shining lights of what government of, by and for the people could achieve.  Neither experiment was perfect.  But at their best these two newly democratic states discovered important truths. One of them is above.  “Law Supported by Strength and Love” shows a critical part of democratic government.  Most people can deduce that the coercive power of strength is essential to governance… but just as necessary, especially in a democratic system, is LOVE.

The concept isn’t new… it dates back to the earliest recollection of the Romans.  In his History of the Republic, Titus Livius (Livy) describes the camaraderie of the early settlers of Rome, their concern for each other overthrew the Tarquinian monarchy to establish the Republic.  It was founded on a love of country, concern for neighbor, service of family and piety before heaven.  The Romans discovered that such love is the basis of the self-regulating civil society essential to the functioning of a republic.  Why?  Because citizens inevitably tire of and rebel against coercive power.  States shouldn’t be in the business of intimidating their people, but rather inspiring them.  Likewise, citizens shouldn’t have to call on the power of the state to regulate their relations with each other, but rather they should serve each other.  Love has the power to move a nation without whipping it into submission.

This great advance in political thinking was not however the unique preserve of enlightenment philosophers.  In fact many of them would’ve readily discounted such a sentimental approach to democracy (Hobbs, Hume, even our own Alexander Hamilton, for example).  Nonetheless, mutual respect for human dignity became the basis of western democratic thought.  How?  Here we have to look with eyes of faith.  Faithful people (at that time of an almost entirely Christian background) exercising their religions brought New Testament LOVE and compassion to the nascent French and American democracies.  As a result the greatest achievements of those democracies (the American Constitution / Bill of Rights and the post-Napoleonic French Republic) liberated both countries’ citizens for the pursuit of happiness.

Stop in at the Freer and visit Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture in the central court.  It’ll make you think… it might even inspire you to love your neighbor… for his good, for your own, and for the good of our country.