I am the law

“I am the law” is a phrase attributed to Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City from 1917 until he retired in 1947. He is remembered as the ultimate political boss, in an era when bosses ruled local politics.

Hague was famous for bending the law to his own purposes and wielding absolute power of his small corner of the world. In one famous story, he declared, “I am the law.” There are a few different variations of the “I am the law” story, but they all boil down to the same rough idea: 

A boy, not yet 16 years old, was caught skipping school. The truant officer hauled him in again and again, but the boy refused to go to class. Eventually, the boy was brought to Hague, who asked him why he wasn’t going to school. The boy explained that he wanted to get a job so that he could help his mother make ends meet. 

Hague was understanding. He turned and asked one of his aides to get the boy a job so that he could earn some money. The aide explained that since the boy wasn’t yet 16, it was against the law for him to work full time.

“Against the law?” Hague is supposed to have hollered. “In this case, I AM THE LAW! Now get this young man a job!” 

Hague himself was expelled from school at the age of 13 for bad behavior. The son of poor Irish Catholic immigrants, he grew up in the rough streets of Jersey City’s “Horseshoe” neighborhood, an area which had been carefully gerrymandered to maximize the Democratic vote. 

Hague won his first election at age 21, when he became a constable. His campaigning style was telling; Hague borrowed 75 dollars from a local bar owner and used it to win friends and votes. Hague’s years as mayor were marked by both a reform-minded agenda, aimed at helping the city’s many immigrants, and also a general disregard for the niceties of the law.

Of course, Hague was not the only politician to set himself above the law. His famous declaration, “I am the law,” is a nice echo of the French absolutist king, Louis XVI. Louis once announced, “l’etat, c’est moi,” or, “the state is me,” as a way of describing his oneness with the law and the government.

A few decades after Hague’s time, President Richard Nixon expressed a similar sentiment, reasoning that the president had an executive prerogative that allowed him to break the law, or rather to change the definition of the law, at least in wartime or in the case of a national security crisis. “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Nixon told the journalist David Frost. Nixon went on to explain,

I do not mean to suggest the president is above the law … what I am suggesting, however, what we have to understand, is, in wartime particularly, war abroad, and virtually revolution in certain concentrated areas at home, that a president does have under the Constitution extraordinary powers…