John Adams, in humility, had “firmness in the right as God [gave] him to see the right,” and he submitted his political future to choosing right.
Even the severely abridged version of history taught in most elementary and high schools generally includes the story of how Adams agreed to lead the legal defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. It’s cited, accurately, as a defining moment in the development of American jurisprudence, establishing the principle that everyone is entitled to adequate representation when standing accused of a crime before a court of law.
Adams made a robust and thorough defense that helped his clients successfully escape the most significant charges against them. It was a victory for the rule of law over popular passions.
American belief in the rule of law at this nascent stage was yet sufficiently vigorous to allow Adams to advocate for “the enemy,” and not be canceled by his fellow revolutionaries. After this country secured its independence, Adams was not hounded by the newly established government—instead, he was elected to lead it as the second president.
It is difficult to imagine a similar scenario playing out today. Taking a principled stand in defiance of mainstream opinion is no longer regarded as a virtue, but as an act of perfidy—even, in some quarters, as a potential crime.
Virtue Signaling for Vengeance
In Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Governor Gretchen Whitmer have openly threatened to pursue “sanctions” against attorneys who challenged the results of the 2020 election, arguing that these lawyers should be disbarred.
Former bar association presidents are circulating letters demanding that lawyers involved in election integrity issues should have their professional licenses challenged. It seems that preventing others from fully participating in this “free” society is the prime method of “virtue” casting.
But it is not virtuous. Rather, it is merely intolerance repackaged as tolerance and hate masquerading as righteousness. The leftist mobs that pursued violence as speech this summer and are now calling speech violence have precipitated a shameful race towards intolerance that is unbecoming to America.
No one can deny that the 2020 election witnessed unprecedented local decisions to suspend, ignore, or alter laws managing the election process. Moreover, no one can deny that the election witnessed an unparalleled infusion of private monies dictating the management of the election process in the urban core of presidential swing states.
This raises questions to which Americans deserve answers. It also raised significant legal issues, many of which are still being litigated. Now, many in the legal profession are arguing and threatening that raising these questions should place one in professional peril.
A Nation of Lawlessness
Fact is, but America is one of the most regulated societies in human history. Government regulates virtually all professions and many trades. We have so many federal criminal laws that the Congressional Research Service is unable to count them all. During COVID-19, governors issued edicts proscribing businesses from operating, detailing how far we stood apart, and whether we could visit the doctor or a dying loved one.
The result is that America is more lawless than ever.
There is not a police force in the world large enough to enforce such all-encompassing government dictates, so the laws are arbitrarily and capriciously enforced against those who challenge the authority of those in power. This even while those in power violate the laws they issue for the little people.
We have shown such flawed tendencies in the past and overcome these injustices by having the discipline to not repeat the same mistakes, not by “canceling” people. If we claim to be the world’s leading democratic republic, we must be strong enough to stand for the rights and freedoms of those with whom we disagree most.
Cancel culture and identity politics do not broker such nuances. In identity politics, your rights are not granted by God, nor should they be protected by government, unless you are part of the correct group, think the correct things, and speak in the correct fashion.
My refusal to ignore my duty and bend to the wishes of the powerful cost me my career in Kansas. It now appears the success of cancel culture on the state and local level has encouraged its national presence today.
The threat that identity politics presents to speech, thought, and liberty is real. The dominant emotion in America today is fear—fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people.
This assault on the rule of law and liberty will continue so long as Americans refuse to have faith that others will exercise their freedom responsibly, and so long as those who are comfortable at present refuse to stand for those whose freedom is threatened. Honorable leadership always involves submitting to a cause greater than oneself.
Is it not time for all civil libertarians—whether they identify with the Left or the Right—to stand for the liberty of all citizens?
John Adams did not represent the British soldiers for money, nor due to some political calculus about his future political viability. Adams decided to do what was right.
So must we all if freedom is to stand.
By Phill Kline
Phill Kline is the former attorney general of Kansas. He currently serves as Pulpit Pastor of Amherst Baptist Church, a law school professor, and director of the Amistad Project of the Thomas More Society.