John Adams’ description of the ideal form of government as “a government of laws, not of men” refers to a situation in which all citizens have to be regarded as equals by the government, endowed with equal opportunity, and equally held accountable for their actions, regardless of class, race, wealth and other personal characteristics. In other words, it refers to the objectivity of the law as opposed to its subjective interpretation and arbitrary decision-making.
John Adams himself reveals in part his vision on how this should be accomplished. In the text from which the quotation by Adams is taken, it is preceded by a statement concerning the separation of powers, namely stating that “the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers“. Thus, according to John Adams and the original writers of the U.S. Constitution, this document ensures a “government of laws” by means of a system of checks and balances. In the specific case of the United States, this means separated yet partially shared. No singular branch has all power within its sphere of authority and thus one of the other branches can step in when a branch oversteps its constitutional authority. In addition, government only has the rights that are specifically mandated to it, meaning it is not allowed to leap beyond the boundaries set to its authority by the U.S. Constitution.
Amendments to the U.S. Constitution contribute to a “government of laws” by introducing the element of time to an otherwise static expression of political philosophy. Amendments allow for corrections to the original document in cases where the passing of time and the occurrence of events has given us new insights – in the context of objectivity pertaining specifically to equal rights -, and to reevaluate the fundamental rules by which we choose to live whilst preserving the original spirit of the U.S. Constitution. For example, it was through a process of amending the original text that slavery was abolished 76 years after the original text was brought in use (13th Amendment), and that women were granted the right to vote after 130 years (19th Amendment). Though these provisions were not included by the Constitution’s original authors, they are an important part of our present day system of beliefs.
In my opinion, the most important feature of the U.S. Constitution in providing a “government of laws” is the concept of limited government in which powers are separated yet never under single authority. This is the argument John Adams refers to in the extended quotation above. My main argument for supporting this view is that at the core of any law and provision written into the constitution – be it the original text or the amendments – must necessarily be a system that divides the responsibilities for upholding these laws. And, this must be done in such a way that everyone – individual and institution – can be held accountable equally, even those who govern. In a system of multiple branches, each with their own responsibilities, each can hold the others accountable, and, partial sharing of responsibilities ensures there is an incentive for the respective branches to actively pursue this goal.
* For the EdX course “American Government”, courtesy of Harvard University.