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May Day! May Day!

Long before May 1 was Law Day, it was May Day, the international celebration of the working class and the labor movement. Some believe that when President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, it was a direct response to May Day -- meant to  emphasize that the rule of law would prevail over unruly workers' movements. In fact, on the same day that Eisenhower designated May 1 as Law Day, he also set it as Loyalty Day.

As it turns out, according to the the lawyer who came up with the idea of Law Day, it was very much a response to the Cold War and the Communist celebration of May Day. As the Library of Congress recounted for its 2000 Law Day commemoration, that lawyer was Charles S. Rhyne, then-president of the American Bar Association. In a speech to the LOC, Rhyne recalled:

"The immediate inspiration for a May 1 celebration of Law was directly related to the Cold War. For many years, the American news media gave front-page headlines and pictures to the Soviet Union's May Day Parade of new war weapons. I was distressed that so much attention was given to war-making rather than peacekeeping.

"My idea was to contrast the United States' reliance on the rule of law with the Soviet Union's rule by force. To that end, I drafted a U.S. Presidential Proclamation, which made its way from John Foster Dulles, secretary of state, to Sherman Adams, chief of staff to President Eisenhower, and stopped there."

When Rhyne heard nothing more of it, he went to the White House to see Adams, who pulled it out of his desk and said, "The President will not sign a proclamation praising lawyers!" Rhyne took it down the hall directly to Eisenhower, with Adams just behind him urging the president not to sign a document praising lawyers. Rhyne continues:

"The President held his hand up for silence until he had read the entire document. Then he said 'Sherm, this proclamation does not contain one word praising lawyers. It praises our constitutional system of government, our great heritage under the rule of law, and asks our people to stand up and praise what they have created. I like it and I am going to sign it.' And he did."

The proclamation was signed Feb. 3, 1958. Even in light of these "propagandistic beginnings," the New York Times notes today in an editorial, "a day set aside to honor the rule of law was not a bad idea." But as the Cold War waned, so did Law Day. In fact, the editorial says, the day has moved perilously close to becoming a celebration of lawyers -- precisely what Eisenhower's chief of staff feared most. That is unfortunate, the editorial says, because we live in a time when the rule of law is being undermined by the White House rather than celebrated. That makes this May 1, 49 years after the first, one where the need for Law Day may be even greater.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on May 1, 2007 at 05:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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