chapter  1
21 Pages


In order to understand the American legal system one must rst come to terms with the question: What is law? Americans have always had ambivalent feelings about law. Our rhetoric is full of noble ideals such as “equal justice under law” and the “rule of law.” We pride ourselves on having a “government of laws, not men,” and on the assertion that “no one is above the law.” At the same time, disregard for the rule of law has been part of our political tradition. We are a nation born of violent revolution, and during our frontier period, vigilante groups sometimes took the law into their own hands.1 Between the time the rst organized vigilante group made its appearance in South Carolina in the 1760s and the early 1900s, 729 people were executed by such groups.2 Civil disobedience is the belief that a person has a moral right to disregard an unjust law. Recent history has seen Americans debate the role of civil disobedience in the civil rights, animal rights, abortion, and anti-nuclear movements. In the 1960s, some elements of the radical left believed that ending the war in Vietnam or achieving civil rights for African Americans justied the use of violence. More recently, the more extreme members of the radical right have used similar arguments to justify violence against abortion clinics. A recent manifestation of vigilantism is the border militia groups’ anger and frustration at the U.S. government’s inability to stem the tide of illegal immigration into the country.