I received a peculiar comment to the preceding commentary. It came from a well-known self-described “conservative” who ordinarily argues against government intrusion into individual rights. Yet, when it comes to the proposed Cordoba Center, the controversial Islamic cultural center planned a couple of blocks from the downed World Trade Center in New York City, this is what he wrote:
“And common sense, or sensitivity, is a law which ALSO should be equally distributed. The Constitution does not condone ‘up your ass!’ positions. That is, what is legal is not necessarily right. Only lawyers would believe otherwise.”
My correspondent is correct in saying that what is legal is not necessarily right. For example, many would argue that the civil law permits abortions contrary to moral law. But he’s dead wrong that the Constitution does not condone “up your ass” positions.
The civil rights movement was founded on moral authority but certainly whenever those who sought to enforce segregation were challenged they must have felt he protestors were taking an “up your ass” position. In fact the First Amendment guarantees those who wish to peacefully protest the right to advocate “up your ass” positions.
My correspondent also wrote that New York’s governor made the magnanimous gesture of offering to find another location for the cultural center. In no way, shape or form does this make the situation any better.
What if the members of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was blown up Ku Klux Klansmen in 1963, killing four girls inside the ladies room, wanted to rebuild it across from the courthouse. What if the city fathers told them, “We don’t want you to build it here” but offered to find another location? Would that be religious freedom?
And the lament that “only lawyers would believe otherwise” is a curious but all too typical knee-jerk reaction. At least it’s a little bit original and not the usual quote from Shakespeare vowing the “kill all the lawyers.”
“Let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Lay people and comics like to use this gag line. More often than not this Shakespearian “sound byte” is uttered without a basic understanding of the context or meaning of the quote. It’s like selectively quoting scripture. For instance, by selectively piecing quotes together, we can find biblical authority for committing suicide -- “And Judas went out and hanged himself . . . and Jesus said, go ye and do likewise.”
As we review Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part two, we find at this juncture in the story Jack Cade’s rebellion was picking up steam. Dick, the butcher, was a member of this rebellion. As Dick utters the famous words “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” he was referring to ways that the rebellion might be successful. They recognized that to succeed, they must get rid of those who knew and enforced a system of laws. They did not want any learned and informed opposition to the rebellion they had planned against the government. This makes sense.
If you are tempted to create anarchy through rebellion, the first objectives will be to get rid of legal process, individual rights, and the truth. The members of the rebellion realized it would be the lawyers that would stand up and identify how individual rights were being abused and due process was not being afforded. It was the lawyers who would recognize that rebellion sought to take away freedoms rather than grant them. This concept that the lawyers would recognize was later put in context by Daniel Webster who stated, “liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint.”
Regrettably, lawyers have not aided in the proper interpretation, particularly those hired guns who promise they’ll win your personal injury case. Lawyers, however, occupy a very important position in our society. As officers of the court, it is a lawyer’s responsibility to uphold the Constitution and be instrumental in ensuring our system of justice is efficient and effective. Without that kind of leadership, lawyers cannot live up to the accolade which Dick, the butcher, gave to the profession when he said, “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I say accolade because it was recognized that the law and those that were sworn to uphold it were direct obstacles and impediments to those who would seek to take away our freedoms and liberties.
As Americans we have the same responsibilities as a part of the stewardship of our citizenship. As Thomas Paine stated, “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must like men undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
As a nation, we have adopted and applied the rule of law as the foundation of our system of government and the vehicle through which individual rights are protected. We all have the responsibility of ensuring its continued existence.
So, the next time you hear someone offhandedly quote Shakespeare (maybe the only quote they know of Shakespeare) as stating “the first thing we do, is kill all the lawyers,” take the time to provide them the context of the statement and fill in with the rest of the story. And, give thanks when someone challenges the application of the law because that is a part of the meaning of freedom in this great nation.