Lincoln Day 2020: Standing Up for the Rule of Law
Remarks by United States Attorney William M. McSwain at the Union League of Philadelphia's annual Lincoln Day Celebration
PHILADELPHIA – U.S. Attorney McSwain was the keynote speaker at the Union League of Philadelphia’s annual Lincoln Day celebration. In his remarks, U.S. Attorney McSwain discussed the importance of the rule of law, President Lincoln’s almost religious devotion to it, and how the rule of law is under attack today in Philadelphia on a number of fronts. Finally, he offered his thoughts on what should be done in response and encouraged his fellow patriots to fight back against the City’s lawlessness. His remarks as prepared for delivery are below.
Thank you, Charlie [Davidson], for that very kind introduction and for your leadership of the Union League. Thank you, Ed Turzanski, for emcee-ing today and for being the Chair of these wonderful Lincoln Day festivities. Thank you, Joan Carter, for your work as Chair of the Union League Legacy Foundation, which hosts and presents today’s program. Thank you, John Meko, for your important work as the Executive Director of the Union League Legacy Foundation. And a few final thank-yous to others at my table: thank you, Bob and Darlene Cavalier, for the invitation to speak here today; thank you, Frank and Dottie Giordano, for your many years of dedication to the Union League; and thank you, Bruce Meyer, Tom Pappas and Jim Straw, for your leadership. I also want to acknowledge and thank my Senior Advisor, Clare Putnam Pozos, for her help in crafting today’s message and for her wise counsel, which I benefit from daily.
When I look out over this crowd of fellow patriots, I feel joy, I feel optimism, I feel solidarity, I feel strength, but most of all, I feel the blessings of God. One of those blessings was the life of Abraham Lincoln.
I invite you to take a trip with me. A trip through some of the streets and monuments of Washington D.C. Whenever I make an overnight visit to our nation’s capital, I always stay at the Army-Navy Club on Farragut Square, just a few blocks from the White House. My favorite thing to do in Washington – and one of my favorite things in life – is to rise early, step outside the Army-Navy Club, and run.
I run along Farragut Square and make a left onto 17th Street. It’s flat for a bit, and then it slopes downward. I run by the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and the White House on my left – feeling pretty good at this point, mostly because I’m running downhill. I pass the American Red Cross Headquarters on my right, and the ground flattens out. I cross Constitution Avenue and see the World War II Memorial straight ahead. As I approach, I briefly think about the Greatest Generation, and then I hang a right. I wind my way around the World War II Memorial and I emerge onto the beauty of the Reflecting Pool.
It’s still mostly dark out, but the sun is starting to rise, and as I run with the Pool on my left, I can see the huge edifice of the Lincoln Memorial looming ahead of me. At this point, I’ve found my stride. I run with a purpose – to get to that Memorial as fast as possible. Sometimes I even think to myself: I had better not slow down, President Lincoln is watching and he would not be impressed.
As I approach the Memorial, I hop over the series of stairs that lead to the plaza, and I reach the foot of the Memorial, pausing for a second to stare up at the 58 steps that lead to the chamber, where President Lincoln sits. (Yes, I have counted those steps, many times). And then I run up those steps, greet the President, and turn around so that I’m now facing east, looking down along the Reflecting Pool towards the Washington Monument, pointing to the sky, with the sun rising behind it. As I take in this remarkable vista, I say a silent prayer, thanking God for the blessing of America.
I like being at the top. For the purpose of my workout, I should probably get going down the stairs and along the Reflecting Pool again. But sometimes I linger. I turn around and I look at President Lincoln. And I look at the words of the Gettysburg Address inscribed in the wall. Staring at those words never gets old. They are, in my opinion, the 10 greatest sentences ever spoken or written in the English language:
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
I can’t see, read, or say those words without feeling a jolt go through my body. Having had my time with President Lincoln, I run down the steps of the Memorial and back along the Reflecting Pool, past the World War II Monument again, and up a slight rise to the Washington Monument. After pausing there briefly, I turn back towards the Army-Navy Club – down the hill, across Constitution Avenue, up the hill along 17th Street, past the White House on my right, through Farragut Square, and finally, I arrive where I started. My body is tired, but my heart is full.
So what did President Lincoln mean when he uttered those famous words – what was he really getting at? President Lincoln was addressing the beauty and the promise of the law. And he was addressing the will of the people. In America, it is the law that is the will of the people. The law is the manifestation of government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is the law that gives birth to freedom.
Moreover, it is federal law that reigns supreme: it is federal law that expresses the will of the nation. But that federal law will only have lasting legitimacy – and will only live up to the potential that the Framers could see in it – if it protects all Americans, and does not exclude and subjugate an entire race.
But the law is not self-enforcing. It is the rule of law – namely, the enforcement of the law in an impartial, consistent manner – that gives the will of the people its power and its meaning. President Lincoln held the rule of law in such high esteem that it almost had a spiritual quality to him. The rule of law is literally the foundation of this nation and the foundation of everything that we hold dear as Americans.
Sadly, today, the rule of law is under attack, right here in Philadelphia. The examples are all around us. Presently, we have two of the most powerful members of City Council under federal indictment for allegations of selling their office. The Mayor’s reaction to this is utter indifference. But the City Council president’s reaction is even worse: he has rewarded both of these Councilmen with a promotion – handing them plum committee assignments and chairmanships. Yes, these Councilmen are entitled to their day in court, and they will have it. But these are grave allegations that should not elicit a shrug of the shoulders from our City leaders – especially given the City’s sorry track record of political corruption. Just to name a few, one of the City’s recent U.S. Congressmen, the City’s previous District Attorney, and the City’s previous Sheriff are all currently sitting in federal prison. And not too long ago, the most powerful state senator in the City’s history finished serving his federal sentence for 137 felony convictions.
Our City is also subjected to a District Attorney who willfully – even gleefully – ignores entire sections of the criminal code. This District Attorney’s stated priority is “decarceration,” or in other words, emptying the jails in service of his radical, anti-law enforcement, political ideology. An ideology which has nothing to do with guilt or innocence, or accountability, or public safety, or justice, or the rule of law.
Our City is further subjected to the radical concept of a so-called “safe injection site,” for the injection of illegal drugs, like heroin. Any use of heroin for any purpose, anywhere, by anybody, in this country is illegal under federal law – there are no exceptions. It should be self-evident that setting up a place for the purpose of injecting heroin is a grievous affront to the rule of law. But we have a Mayor, and a District Attorney, and a handful of loud, misguided activists in our City who think otherwise – because to them, the rule of law is not the foundation of our nation, but rather something to be ignored when it suits their purposes.
But the most flagrant affront to the rule of law in Philadelphia is its status as a so-called “sanctuary city.” This is such an absurd concept that it’s hard to even wrap one’s head around it. A sanctuary city? Sanctuary from what, exactly? A sanctuary from the enforcement of federal law. Yes, a sanctuary from the supreme law of the land, the law that binds our nation together, enacted by our democratically-elected Congress, exercising its authority in our constitutional republic.
What an amazing concept – one that would have elated those who opposed the desegregation of lunch counters in the Deep South, or those who told Rosa Parks to go to the back of the bus, or those who stood in the schoolhouse doorway to prevent African-American children from entering.
And this concept would have absolutely thrilled Southern slave owners. A sanctuary from federal law, where they could continue their practice of human bondage. They might have even been willing to fight a war in defense of that concept. They lost that war. And thank God for that.
The secessionists who defied federal authority during our nation’s Civil War are gone but not forgotten. They did not fight in vain. No, their spirit lives on, right here in Philadelphia, in the Cradle of Liberty. Their spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of those who declare Philadelphia a “sanctuary city.”
President Lincoln would have been appalled by all of this. Even at the young age of 28, he knew where he stood on the rule of law. Here are his words from his Lyceum Address in Springfield, Illinois:
Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of this country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor – let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap – let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs – let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
So what should we do – what can we do – when the rule of law is under attack? Come with me again to the National Mall. I’ve thought about this question while running along the Reflecting Pool, while bounding up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and while standing at the top, looking back at the Washington Monument. There’s a cleansing quality to exercise, a purity that comes with the physical exertion, as the noise from the outside world falls away. It provides a mental clarity that answers our question.
And the answer is this: we . . . must . . . fight. We must fight for our nation’s founding values and we must fight for the rule of law. When the rule of law is under attack, we must be willing to stand up and say – not in my neighborhood, not in my City, not in America, not on my watch. We must fight for the principles that Abraham Lincoln lived and died for.
I am a son of Lincoln. Everybody in this room is a son or daughter of Lincoln. We are all children of Lincoln. From this day forward, my friends, let us go forth together – and make him proud.
God bless you, God bless the Union League and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.