Robert Bolt (1924-1995) was an English playwright and screenwriter. His works received many awards, including Oscars for the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

July 1 marks the anniversary of the opening on the London stage in 1960 of the play that first earned Bolt notice as a writer: A Man for All Seasons. The play received critical acclaim and enjoyed commercial success in London and later on Broadway. In 1966, Bolt wrote the screenplay for a star-studded film version of the play which was also a critical and commercial success.

Bolt’s work depicts the final years of Sir Thomas More, the 16th century Lord Chancellor of England who was tried and executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to acknowledge, and thereby legitimize, the King’s separation from the Catholic Church and the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Pope Pius XI canonized More in 1935, and the Church established July 9 as More’s feast day.

More is widely revered for his principled convictions, personal courage, and steadfast refusal to bend to political pressure and subvert the rule of law. Bolt dramatically illustrates More’s dedication to the rule of law in a dialogue with William Roper, More’s son-in-law. In the scene, Roper presses More to arrest the disreputable and potentially dangerous Richard Rich, but More refuses, saying that Rich, although a bad person, has done nothing illegal. More emphasizes that even the devil must be given the protective benefit of law.

When Roper declares that he would cut down every law in England if that was necessary to get after the devil, More responds with an electrifying defense of the rule of law:

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast . . . And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Every age has its full share of William Ropers—officials and citizens who believe that established laws may be set aside for what they themselves view as a compelling purpose. Our age is certainly no exception, with its openly political lawfare and vote buying and so-sue-me form of government.

Too many of our public officials act as though they assume that the American people do not care if the government’s actions are legal so long as those actions provide benefits or punish unpopular individuals or groups.

Too much of our public discussion about the actions of government focuses on policy outcomes and political consequences, winners and losers, who benefits and who is hurt. Too little attention is paid to the vitally important question of whether the government action being discussed is lawful or not.

As a result of this focus on policy and politics and the lack of attention to questions of lawfulness, we are in danger of losing sight of how vitally important it is to pursue our objectives and settle our differences in accordance with the constitutional system we established to protect us against the threat of unrestrained power.

The use of unrestrained power to pursue objectives and punish enemies is a dangerous game that anyone can play, friend and foe alike. Because of that, in the end it is a game that no one can win. Sir Thomas More understood that, if William Roper did not.

Whatever our political and policy differences are at the moment, we all, in the long run, have a shared interest in preserving the rule of law. We all have an interest in giving our adversaries, even if we think them devils, the benefit of law, for our own safety’s sake. The rule of law protects each of us, and is good for all seasons.

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