Is Breaking The Law Ever Justified?

001I’ve been reading Lincoln’s Quest for Equality: The Road to Gettysburg, a book by Carl F. Wieck published in 2002. Wieck argues that Lincoln was greatly influenced by the Boston Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker. I’ve discussed Parker in previous posts (see here and here). Wieck wrote, “Although Lincoln cautiously preserved discreet public distance from avowed abolitionists like Parker, his private links to such men prove to have been closer than has generally been presumed, owing primarily to the vigilance he exercised in keeping the extent of his connections concealed.” In the case of Parker, that connection was facilitated by Lincoln’s Springfield law partner, William Herndon. Herndon and Parker maintained a steady correspondence from 1854 to 1859. Parker sent copies of his sermons, published in pamphlet form, and other writings to Herndon, and Herndon told Parker in his letters that he and Lincoln read and discussed them.

Wieck’s thesis is interesting, if not ultimately provable.  In a review in Civil War History, Dennis  K. Boman wrote that while Weick demonstrates the important influence Parker and other northern abolitionists and reformers had on Lincoln, “one suspects that if somehow he could be asked about his influence on Lincoln, Parker himself would have described it as marginal at best.”

Whatever the truth of Parker’s influence on Lincoln, Wieck raised another issue in his book that is well worth pondering. It is an issue Lincoln had to grapple with. It is an issue most Americans had to grapple with in Lincoln’s time, and which many Americans and others around the world have had to grapple with throughout history. It is the question of how much the law should be revered. Is there ever a time when breaking the law is justified? And, if so, when?  

Wieck notes that a youthful Lincoln tackled the question in his “Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois” on January 27, 1838. Lincoln complained of “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” Lincoln cited recent incidents in Mississippi and in Missouri where mobs had meted out vigilante justice with impunity. Lincoln argued that this kind of lawless action would result in innocent people suffering along with the guilty, and that a breakdown in the people’s affection for the government would follow. Lincoln declared:

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and the Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor.

Lincoln acknowledged, however, that not all laws were good laws:

Let me not be understood as saying that there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example they should be religiously observed.  

Lincoln’s views would seem to have been shared by his wartime accomplice, Ulysses S. Grant. In a letter to long time abolitionist Gerritt Smith, written in 1872, Grant wrote: “My oft expressed desire is that all citizens, white or black, native or foreign born, may be left free, in all parts of our common country, to vote, speak & act, in obedience to law, without intimidation or ostrasism on account of his views, color or nativity.”  Note the qualifier, “in obedience to law.” Grant’s desire for law and order was constant. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, and Grant re-entered military service, he made it abundantly clear that he was volunteering not to end slavery, whatever his private feelings on the subject might have been, but to defend the nation against dissolution and rebellious lawlessness as he perceived it.

In a letter written to his father in April, 1861 following the attack on Ft. Sumter, Grant wrote, “Whatever may have been my political opinions before I have but one sentiment now. That is we have a government, and laws and a flag and they must all be sustained.”  Early in the war, when forced to deal with the vexing issue of runaway slaves, Grant wrote to a subordinate officer: “I do not want the Army used as Negro catchers, but still less do I want to see it used as a cloak to cover their escape. No matter what our private views may be on this subject, there are in this Department positive orders on the subject, and these orders must be obeyed.” A generous interpretation of this statement would be that Grant’s private views included opposition to slavery, though that is by no means certain. He left no doubt, however, that the law must be adhered to.

To his sister, Mary, in April, 1861, he wrote, “I am convinced that if the South knew the entire unanimity of the North for the maintenance of the Union and the Law, and how freely men and money are offered to the cause, they would lay down their arms in humble submission.” Grant’s puffery aside, this statement unmistakably showed that his primary concerns in 1861 were the integrity of the United States and the preservation of law and order. In his First Inaugural Address in 1869, Grant would tell the entire country, “Laws are to govern all alike—those opposed as well as those who favor them. I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.”  

But, can there not come a time when the “stringent execution” of the law, or the “religious observance” of the law, becomes so odious that one is justified in disobeying it? Numerous examples throughout history are easily cited. See here. Were the enslaved people of Lincoln’s era not justified in their resistance to the law that enslaved them? Theodore Parker certainly thought so. Again, see here.

What about today? Are there laws that one can justify breaking? And, if so, by violent means? Where would you draw the line?  

One thought on “Is Breaking The Law Ever Justified?

  1. Very insightful questions.

    Clearly respect for the constitution entails respect for its laws and its means for challenging and repealing them (in my opinion the Confederacy showed a lack of respect for the U.S. constitution by not taking the question of the constitutionality of secession to the courts).

    In extreme cases where extant laws are causing great suffering (slavery, segregation and other forms of oppression), it would seem that orderly, non-violent protest is the most appropriate remedy. If local laws forbid such protests, one may be justified in non-violent public disobedience. If one respects the legal system, however, one must also respect the legal consequences of disobedience to the law, which often include arrest and/or jail time. Such were the attitudes of M.L. King, Nelson Mandela, and a little known Missouri minister, Rev. Dean.

    Bob, you likely know this, but for the benefit of your readers I’ll explain that Dean opposed an aspect of Missouri’s post Civil War “Drake” constitution, which (among other thing) required ministers to take an oath of allegiance to the Union in order to preach. Many Christian sects oppose the taking of oaths, so Rev. Dean went to jail rather than obey. George Caleb Bingham painted a picture “The Rev. Dean in Jai” in 1866. The Missouri law requiring oaths of ministers was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. courts. Then as now, a protester’s public willingness to go to prison rather than obey an unjust law reflects a respect for our legal system together with a commitment to justice.

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