With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The 'law and order’ campaign that won Richard Nixon the White House 50 years ago

Law-and-order rhetoric has a long history in U.S. politics.

Julia Azari, a Marquette University professor of political science, said the phrase is “often a way to talk about race without talking about race. But its 1960s meaning also meant all people who were challenging the social order. As we’ve moved away from the era when politicians were making obvious racial appeals, the appeals have become more coded. The question becomes whose order, for whom does the law work. You saw a lot of that same rhetoric with ‘silent majority’ — though Nixon wanted to separate himself from Wallace’s populism, it was a backlash against the status quo, especially the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.”

“Tactics of fear or appeals to restore the old social order — those are usually successful,” she added.

The phrase “law and order” was used as the title of a 1919 speech given by Calvin Coolidge in response to a police strike in Boston. Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, had called in the National Guard to quell a weekend of lawlessness when the department attempted to unionize. The Boston papers characterized the cops as Bolsheviks who set out to destroy civil society.

“There are strident voices, urging resistance to law in the name of freedom,” Coolidge said. “They are not seeking freedom for themselves, they have it. They are seeking to enslave others. Their works are evil. They know it. They must be resisted.”

The future president added harshly, “Laws are not manufactured. They are not imposed. They are rules of action existing from everlasting to everlasting. He who resists them, resists himself. He commits suicide. … To obey is life. To disobey is death.”

Read entire article at The Washington Post