The Federalist Papers has posted a PDF copy of an Elementary Catechism on the Constitution from 1828 written by Arthur J. Stansbury. I’m publishing it on Mondays in a series of posts. Because the date of publication was 1828, some content has been changed by later Constitutional amendments. There are no sections in the book, so I’m dividing it into any natural breaks of topics and the posts will vary in length. Any emphases within the text are Stansbury’s.
VIII. Impeachment of the President & The Rule of Law
Q. May ever the President of the United States be thus impeached and punished?
A. Yes. In this free and happy country no man is so great as to be above the law. The laws are supreme; to them all persons, from the President of the United States to the poorest and the meanest beggar, must alike submit. This is our glory. Let every youthful American exult that he has no master but the law; let him mark the man who would change this happy state of things as the enemy of his country; and above all let him remember that as soon as he himself breaks the law, he becomes himself that enemy. Whoever violates the law helps to weaken its force, and, as far as he disobeys, does what in him lies to destroy it: but he who honors and obeys the law strengthens the law, and thereby helps to preserve the freedom and happiness of his country. In some governments it is held that “the king can do no wrong;” here we know no king but the law, no monarch but the constitution: we hold that every man may do wrong; that the higher he is in office, the more reason there is that he be obliged to answer for his conduct; and that as a great officer, if treacherous, is a great criminal, so he ought to be made to suffer a great and exemplary punishment.
The title, Lex, Rex, is a play on the words that conveys the meaning the law is king. When theologian Samuel Rutherford published the book in 1644, on the eve of the revolutions that rocked the English nation from 1645 through 1688, it caused a sensation, and provoked a great deal of controversy. It is ostensibly an argument for limited monarchy and against absolute monarchy, but its arguments were quickly perceived as subversive of monarchy altogether, and in context, we can perceive that it provided a bridge between the earlier natural law philoso- phers and those who would further develop their ideas: the Leveller movement and such men as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney, which laid the basis for the American Republic.
This book has long been undeservedly neglected by scholars, probably because it is written as a polemic in the political and sectarian controversies that are distasteful to later generations, and many of its references are somewhat ob- scure, but a closer reading reveals how it laid the foundation for the contrac- tarian and libertarian ideas that came to be embodied in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Rutherford’s main idea is that in the politic realm the real sovereign is the people, and that all officials, including monarchs, are subject to the rule of law, a phrase Rutherford uses only once, in Question 26, “Whether the King be above the Law or no”, but this is the book that developed the contrast between the rule of law and the rule of men….
Elementary Catechism on the Constitution posts:
Elementary Catechism on the Constitution (Preface)
I. The Necessity of Government and Its Forms
II. The American Revolution
III. The Occasion and Purpose of the Constitution
IV. State and National Laws
V. The House of Representatives
VI. The Senate
Book image from The Federalist Papers. Other reading formats of the Elementary Catechism on the Constitution can be found here.