Etiamsi daremus non esse Deum (natural law would retain its validity, even if it comes to pass that God does not exist) – Hugo Grotius(1583-1645), creater of the International Maritime Law (mare liberum)
A section of the South Wall frieze in the US Supreme Court. Moses, clutching the Ten Commandments, is second from right.
Interspersed with the lawgivers are angels representing concepts such as philosophy, liberty and peace. Occupying nearly the highest point of the luminous, gold-edged room, above the 30-foot Ionic columns, the friezes inspire awe. When Sherman Minton, a Supreme Court justice from 1949 to 1956, pointed out the friezes to his grandson, the 10-year-old asked the predictable question, “Granddaddy! Where’s God?”
I started my last piece, The Anatomy of the Iblis (Part-3) – The Revelations by mentioning the friezes that are carved on the inner walls of the highest court in the world’s most powerful democracy – the United States Supreme Court. As I read about the friezes, I found them more and more ironic. Let me explain why.
In the white marble courtroom, the nine sitting justices are not the only presiding presence. High above the mahogany bench, are the figures of 18 historical lawgivers from different races and ethnicities, meant to depict diverse legal traditions and heritages from around the world that have directly or indirectly shaped the concept of law and justice in America.
The South Wall Frieze depicts personalities from the ancient pre-Christian world and includes Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, and Octavian.
The North Wall Frieze shows lawgivers from the Middle Ages on and includes representations of Justinian, Muhammad, Charlemagne, John of England, Louis IX of France, Hugo Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, John Marshall, and Napoleon.
The courtroom of the US Supreme Court. The two friezes with the 18 lawgivers, are on the left and right walls and not within the frame of this photo.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those dudes on the friezes…..
Menes (c. 3100 B.C.)
The first Pharaoh of Egypt’s first dynasty, Menes created single-handedly, the first nation-state. Centralized government, through a coherent set of laws, was born. Menes did many great things but, like all great men, Menes had his quirks. At his Temple of Ptah in Memphis, Menes liked to offer human sacrifices to the Gods on a pretty regular basis. Like once, maybe twice, a day. And who made the shortlist of the sacrificial suckers? Slaves, of course.
I am wondering that if a slave who’d had his goose cooked by Menes, came alive and traveled through time to the US Supreme Court, what would he really feel? Would he throw up his hands, awed, maybe inspired, by the ‘justice’ of it all and scream ecstatically ‘e pluribus unum! I’m so luckeeee! e pluribus unum!’
Hammurabi (c. 1792-1750 B.C.)
Reigning in Babylon, Hammurabi produced the first surviving set of laws. A compilation of legal procedure and penalties, the Code of Hammurabi covered all civil and criminal disputes and reflected the then-novel belief that law can be fixed and certain, rather than a series of random responses by political leaders to various forms of conduct.
And boy oh boy, were they laws. Here is a sampling….
If a man has stolen goods from a temple,or house,he shall be put to death;and he that received the stolen property shall be put to death.
If a boy does fight his father, his hands shall be hewn(cut) off
If the woman has not been careful but has gadded about, neglecting her house and belittling her husband, they shall throw that woman into the water
If a man be in debt and is unable to pay his creditors, he shall sell his wife, son, or daughter, or bind them over to service.
If bad characters gather in the house of a wine seller and she does not arrest those characters and bring them to the palace, that wine seller shall be put to death.
Phew! This guy sounds like Dick Cheney on steroids. Imagine Hammurabi as one of the nine Supreme Court justices. This would not be a courtroom then. It would look more like a body-parts wholesale business.
Moses (c. 1270 B.C.)
According to biblical accounts, the great Hebrew prophet delivered his people from slavery and received the Ten Commandments. His figure on the frieze is meant to suggest existence of a higher authority, beyond human control. There are just a few things that escape me…..
It is virtually certain that, had Moses chosen to remain in his position as Prince of Egypt, he would have succeeded the great Pharaoh, Seti I, to the Egyptian throne, since the old man had already chosen him, over his own biological son, Ramases II. From his position of power, Moses could have accomplished a great deal of good for his people, perhaps even made them equal citizens. Looking at Israel under a permanent pall of turmoil and tension, one gets the feeling that Moses ultimately failed.
Now let’s look at the Ten Commandments. Aside from the fact that most of the commandments are no longer considered cognizable offenses in most courts of law in the modern world, Moses can’t take credit for them, anyway – they were handed to him by God, for God’s sake.
Solomon (c. 992-953 B.C.)
Regarded as a great king of Israel, Solomon’s name is synonymous with judicial wisdom. When two women came to him, both claiming to be the mother of the same child, Solomon determined who was the mother by watching the women’s responses to his suggestion that he cut the baby in half and give each a share. One woman agreed to the proposal while the other yielded her claim, thereby proving through her concern, that she was the real mother.
Great, but here’s the thing – King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Any woman he took a fancy to, whether she was already married or not, had to be his. Some of them later turned him toward idol worship and orgiastic drinking parties. Being predisposed to debauchery, Solomon wholehearted took part in bacchanalian galas.
King Solomon’s descent into sin has been recorded in the Bible.
Lycurgus (c. 800 B.C.)
A leading statesman of Sparta in ancient Greece, Lycurgus guided reform of the Spartan constitution and instituted more efficient public administration. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality among citizens (slaves didn’t figure in the equality thing), austerity and military fitness. According to legend, he was another George W Bush – He believed that the most serious crime of all was retreat in a conflict, though he had never bloodied his own hands in battle. Still, to me, Lycy seems like the only one who deserves a place at the US Supreme Court frieze.
There is just one tiny little problem – Historians are still debating whether he really existed or was just part of a mythological legend, like Achilles and Hector.
Solon (c. 638-559 B.C.)
The Athenian, whose name survives as a synonym for “legislator,” codified the laws of the Greeks and is credited with laying the foundation for the world’s first ‘democracy’. Wait till you hear what that meant to him. Solon ended exclusive autocratic control of the government, substituting it for an elitist version of democracy in which a cabal of wealthy citizens governed.
Great, haven’t I heard something like this being called an oligarchy? So, where is the justice here?
Draco (late 600s B.C.)
Another prominent legislator in Athens, Draco was the first to write an Athenian code of laws. The problem is that Draco knew of only one punishment for all crimes, even the most trivial – death. You swiped your neighbor’s strawberries and the next thing you knew, you were sleeping with the fishes. It is not for nothing that harsh and cruel laws are called ‘Draconian’.
Draco sure does merit a permanent spot at any US court. He’d have loved to administer justice in the US. Cops randomly shooting unarmed folk would have warmed the cockles of his heart. Hey, I heard that the sculptor of the Supreme Court friezes got a crick in the neck and stopped, otherwise he had plans of fitting in Genghiz Khan, Lynndie England and the Saudi King too, in the frieze. If Draco could make it to the frieze, so could they.
Octavian (63 B.C.-14 A.D.)
The first dictator of Rome, Augustus Caesar single-handedly put an end to collective decision-making in the Roman Senate, killing what little democratic process there was. A singularly dour individual, he was a vainglorious man. Forever ready to go to war, like the Americans two millennia later, he chose ‘Imperator’ (victorious commander) as his first name – Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. As in the case of Solon, the laws that we lionize Octavian for, were meant to make life for the wealthy and well-connected easy. The slaves, who constituted 30% of the population inside the Roman Empire (and even Roman citizen commoners), did not figure in this Octavian dude’s jurisprudence.
Octavian might have made Dick Cheney the Chief Justice of his Supreme Court, I swear.
He was a loner, a man who liked to be by himself. I am such a man myself. Like him, I too like to find myself in a secluded hilltop, gazing down at my surroundings or staring up at the night sky. In fact, we do have a grassy knoll behind our backyard, where I like to spend late evenings sometimes. I am just plain unlucky that a descendant of the Angel Gabriel hasn’t appeared before me (so far). If in fact he does, surely I cannot take credit for what he asks me to note down and convey to my fellow humans, pretty much like an executive assistant to the CEO. As in the case of Moses, Mohammad too was just the messenger. And just like Moses, he was not the lawgiver, God was.
King John (1166-1216)
Ruler of England from 1199 to 1216, King John’s claim to fame was the Magna Carta, which is supposed to have elevated the importance of individual rights and the concept of due process – the idea that laws must be administered in the same way for all.
The only problem is that King John didn’t write the Magna Carta on his own. He had to be persuaded, with the threat of overthrow. I am amazed at how historians can twist the truth out of shape. Imagine a group of the richest and most powerful people in the country who are tired of paying high taxes, having their rights restricted by government, and who generally don’t like the president. Imagine they get together and agree to use their wealth to force the government to behave the way they want it to behave.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the way it has always been, and probably always will be. Wealth is power, even in governments supposedly of, by and for the people.
The document called Magna Carta is touted as the ‘incarnation of the rule of law’. Since then countless statesmen have waxed eloquent over this piece of paper. In his 1941 inaugural address, FDR was heard passionately proclaiming, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history … It was written in Magna Carta.”
Yeah, right. If you stretch the truth a bit, I guess. The document was actually a deal in 1215 imposed by the richest people in England, the barons, on King John. The wealthy threatened to withhold their money if King John didn’t ease up with his usurious taxes and arbitrary rules that restricted how the barons could run their estates. The rich “one percent” used their wealth to compel government to behave the way they wanted it to, which was not to serve the interest of the common citizen, but just the rich. The Magna Carta barons were analogous to wealthy donors, corporations or Super PACs using their wealth to gain special privileges.
Consider the one clause in this revered document so often cited as the foundation for the rule of law and ‘a jury of your peers’……
“… no freeman ought to be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”
Equal rights and the rule of law for all freemen. Cool, right? Except for another tiny fact. The word ‘freeman’ had a very narrow definition and meant the wealthy barons, no one else. Everybody else worked for them or was outright owned by them. Ha Ha Ha. Equal rights, my ass.
In any case, King John was a greedy and cruel monarch who was hated by 99.9% of his subjects. When your approval rating is 0.1%, should your likeness be on a frieze in the highest court of the land?
Louis IX (1213-1270)
King of France from 1226 to 1270, Louis IX led the seventh crusade and eighth crusades against the Muslims, in the process of which he came to hold, albeit temporarily, vast tracts of territory that belonged to the Muslims. He was known to exhort his troops on the battlefield not to take any prisoners. The King was even canonized as Saint Louis, for these acts of aggression. By that yardstick, I would think that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi today has a similar right to being accorded a place on that US Supreme Court frieze.
John Marshall (1755-1835)
In 1820, the U.S. Revenue Service cutter Dallas seized a slave ship that was carrying a ‘cargo’ of 281 African slaves, some of the claimed owners being Portuguese and Spanish. The U.S. Supreme Court heard five days of arguments before packed courtrooms. On the fifth day, the Chief Justice himself delivered the unanimous opinion, beginning by stating that he himself did not find any moral fault with slavery. He then went into some legal ‘spin’, declaring the slave trade a violation of natural law but not the law of nations, meaning that it may be wrong but is legal where protected by legislation.
Since the international slave trade was by then deemed illegal in the United States, slaves bound there were released, but since it was legal in Portugal and Spain, slaves of those owners were returned to bondage.
And guess who the Chief Justice was – John Marshall, a slave-owner himself. Oh yeah, John Marshall should definitely be up there in the frieze, no? The frieze sculptor had to be either drunk on the job or a practical joker.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Emperor of France, Napoleon is celebrated and demonized for his warfare. But his legacy in the law is an 1804 civil code that influenced laws in Europe, Latin America and, to a lesser degree, the United States. Louisiana’s unique civil code traces to the Napoleonic Code. Among its overriding principles were personal freedom, the ability to make contracts, equality among citizens and an end to church control of civilian institutions.
Too bad that those for whom his civil code was meant, didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of the legislation, thanks to his almost constant and naked impulse for raw unprovoked military aggression. Thousands upon thousands of his soldiers trusted in him and he simply rode them off the cliff on foolhardy invasions of neighboring countries who couldn’t even finish saying, ‘ugh, there he goes again.’
In fact, anybody who held a position of authority in a slave-holding, war-mongering society and did nothing to address the issue of slavery, does not deserve a place on any frieze in any courtroom, anywhere in the world.
The American Supreme Court is of course an exception. In America, the slave-holding mindset in the white majority is still alive and well. It has in fact grown worse. Now they have intellectuals who abhor racism with one side of their faces and with other, proclaim incomprehension as to why the blacks, almost all of whom fall under Mitt Romney’s infamous 47%, can’t stop sitting around on their butts, complaining and start earning a living, now that they are ‘free’….. (If they don’t get shot by a cop first, coming out the front door, that is.)
Guess what? A cursory glance at history will tell you that 9 of the 18 gents up there on the friezes, were either slave-holders themselves, actively abetted slavery or at best found ‘nothing wrong’ in the owning of slaves.
In a way, I can understand the friezes in the US Supreme Court. They are in fact quite apt, for an institution that has constantly lied to it’s black, latino and aboriginal citizens over the past century, making them believe that it’s justice was accessible to them all, quoting those flowery words of the constitution to tell them that they counted, that they were free.
I am not impressed by the cavernous room, the red carpets, the marble pillars and the grandiose friezes.
It takes more, to deliver true justice.