In his 7th “Novanglus” letter, published in the Boston Gazette in 1774, John Adams introduced this phrase to the American discourse. According to Quotes and Counter Quotes, the concept of “a government of laws, and not of men” reflects a political philosophy that dates back to the ancient Greeks. But the phrase itself was enshrined in history and quotation books by John Adams prior to the start of the American Revolution. The phrase is frequently used in modern times by both conservatives and liberals to justify their attacks on the way a law or constitutional provision has been interpreted or applied.
Recently, Bryan Fischer, a conservative activist and commentator, used the phrase to attack Federal Judge Susan Bolton’s decision to block implementation of Arizona’s new immigration law: “Judge Bolton…We can read the Constitution and federal law just like you can, and you’re just flat wrong…We are a nation of laws, not men, and we are going to exercise our right to follow duly enacted federal and state law and carry out our solemn duty to protect our citizens from harm whether you like it or not. We’re not going to allow a petty tyrant like you to deny us our right to govern ourselves and to rob us of our ability to enforce good laws.”
Florencio Mendiola, Jr., responding to criticism of the court’s judgment, said, “When every citizen is vulnerable to prosecution and prison, then there is no effective counterweight to reign in government overreaching in every sphere. The hallowed notion of a government of laws becomes a cruel and cynical joke.”