Freedom: America's supreme law

It’s that time of the year, Fourth of July, when we get our annual reminder of what America is all about. Unfortunately, we may miss the message if we concentrate on how we celebrate, instead of what we celebrate.

Parades, picnics, fireworks and flag-waving in the breeze of early summer is all good and well, part of our great tradition… but it is not what America was, is, or we hope will continue to be about.

America is about freedom, an archetypal constitution that swells us with pride; and the painfully slow process of achieving equality, respect and brotherhood for all of us. At least, that’s what it is to me, and I hope and pray… to all other Americans as well.

Almost fifteen hundred years ago, Justinian, in his attempt to codify Roman laws, many which had existed for a millennium, declared that “the safety of the State is the highest law” (salus populi suprema lex). The first part, salus populi, has been translated to suit the many needs of the translators from “safety of the State,” to “safety of the people,” to “welfare of the people,” even to “the good of the people.” All, nonetheless, are justified variations to the same theme. Even Missouri claims it as its state motto.

To any reasonable person, the acceptance of any one of those terms as the supreme or highest law does not seem farfetched, or out of line. And therein is the danger. Ready acceptance by people of this “supreme law” has been, and apparently continues to be, the hoped-for answer to the plea of tyrants, dictators and even elected heads of state to control the minds and actions of the citizenry… putting it bluntly, to suffocate freedom.

History has shown us scoundrel after scoundrel in leadership positions using this maxim to achieve their goals. From the dark ages to these enlighten times, when people in democracies such as ours presumably rule, the political Ponzi scheme keeps popping up. Robbing Peter to pay Paul in political terms is no more than exchanging your freedom for what always ends up to be, not welfare or safety for the people, but a disappointing mirage.

It all started with Justinian himself. As great a contributor to our Western civilization as he was, in law, architecture, government administration and social reform, he used that “highest law” validation to deny great “pagan” and “heretic” scholars from teaching and contributing to the greatness of Byzantium. Canonical law and strict ecclesiastical adherence had to take pre-eminence, according to Justinian, for the good of the people.

Perhaps on this Independence Day, we can take a brief pause to reflect on the status of our freedom, and whether it’s being eroded by a government convinced that “the safety of the State is the highest law.” If we begin to suspect that it is so, let us proclaim to the four winds that “freedom is America ’s supreme law,” which in Justinian terms translate into “libertas populi suprema lex.” [Missourians… care to make a note of that?]