The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Roots of American Law

It is frequently stated that the Ten Commandments appears in the United States Supreme Court Building and therefore the law of the United States is based on the Ten Commandments. Like many statements used in Separation arguments, it contains some partial truth. A brief look at the history of law and a review of information supplied by the Supreme Court about its physical home demonstrates the place that the Ten Commandments actually holds as a step in the development of law.

Research and writing by Jim Allison

The Timetable of World Legal History

The selections begin at the ancient beginnings, providing excerpts from law codes of the early societies of Sumer and Babylonia. Note that both are codifications of laws which had already been in effect, presumably, for a long time. The Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin dates from around 1850 BC, and the Code of Hammurabi from around 1780 BC Jewish law, as embodied in the Mosaic Code, dates from the 13th century BC.

Considerations of space permitted this volume to devote an all too brief span of pages to the vitally important Greco-Roman contribution to the development of Western law. By the seventh century BC, it is believed, most of the Greek city-states possessed written law codes, attributed either to a ruler or to a commissioned compiler. The Athenian politician Drakon (also Draco or Dracon; fl. 621 BC) is famous as a law codifier, Another noted Greek lawgiver, Solon (c. 639-c. 559 BC) reformed the Athenian law system around 594 BC.

It was Rome; with its more down-to-earth sensibility, that put the law on a practically structured footing. From Augustus Caesar on, Roman law reflected the growth of the Roman Empire, which lasted until about 476 AD and encompassed, at its height, the entire Mediterranean, most of Western Europe including Britain, and Asia Minor.

To order and organize this civilization, the Romans developed a systematic and comprehensive legal system whose impact is still felt in the modern world. Roman jurists studied, analyzed, discussed, and wrote about law as a serious intellectual discipline, and from these studies a new legal profession was created that concentrated on legal literature, thought, and education.

After the Western half of the Empire ended in AD 476, the Eastern Empire, centered in Constantinople, continued to develop Roman law. Justinian (who reigned AD 527 to 565), commissioned the collection, organization, and revision of the constitutions (the Codex) and the jurists' writings (the Digest). He also compiled a basic law manual for students (the Institutes). These efforts preserved much historical Roman law, which served as the basis for later legal systems throughout Europe.

The so-called Middle Ages saw Europe wracked by invasions and wars that divided it into numerous Germanic kingdoms, each possessing its own military and legal customs. As the kingdoms expanded and matured, Roman legal traditions were influenced by these tribal systems, to say the least. The Fuero Juzgo was a law code for both Visigoths and Romans, in which the territorial law of the Visigoth kingdom supplanted the personal law in Spain.

Clovis I (466-511) began as king of the Salian Franks, a Germanic tribe living along the lower and middle Rhine. By the time Clovis died, he had expanded Frankish rule to embrace almost all of Gaul (France) and southwest Germany. He united all the Frankish tribes, converted to Christianity, settled on Paris as the center of the kingdom, and had the warrior ways of the Franks written down and revised as the lex Salica.

In England, things were different. The Germanic Anglo-Saxons, who overcame the earlier Romanized Celts of the island, chose to preserve their own language and customary law and eliminated most of the Roman tradition that still existed. Over time, AngloSaxon kings compiled local customary laws into codes, promulgated them, and supplemented them from time to time by further royal enactments. These compilations come down to us as the purest statement of Germanic law as it existed then, for they were not influenced by Roman law, as were those of the Germanic tribes (like the Franks) on the Continent. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conquerer chose not to impose Norman law or other Roman-based law traditions on the Anglo-Saxons; rather, he opted for maintaining the existing laws. These he in fact strengthened, by erecting a more centralized and efficient government to carry them out. His concentration on a system of land tenure contributed to the development of common law in England, which assumed its basic characteristics during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189): Centralized courts of law had definite jurisdictional responsibilities; itinerant judges represented the King's justice throughout the country; a professional judiciary and bar had its beginnings; stronger procedures guided the administration of justice; trial by jury was instituted; and judicial decisions assumed growing importance as a source of law.

Magna Carta, to which King John was forced by his barons to fix his seal in 1215, fixed limitations on the king's power for the first time. The Inns of Court, another fascinating medieval creation, arose to serve the legal profession, especially in the training of lawyers, as legal doctrines, particularly in property, contract, and tort law, were becoming more refined and complicated.

On the Continent during this period, legal procedures, canon law, commercial and maritime law, and more, were developing as sophisticated and studiously written systems as the countries of Europe became more centralized. Fashioning their own bodies of law.

The thirteenth century saw the rediscovery and revival of the law of Justinian, especially in Bologna, increasing the influence of Roman law on existing legal systems. The legal profession itself expanded in most continental countries, creating a large community of judges, scholars, lawyers, and educators. Germariy, perceiving itself as the inheritor of the Roman Empire, aggressively adopted Roman law during the fifteenth century. France split into two regions, with the north relying mainly upon Germanic-based customary law and canon law, and the south upon Roman law. It would not have a unified legal system for the whole country until after the French Revolution.

Law engaged the talents of medieval artists. The Inquisition, which began around 1231 and lasted well into the 1800s, prompted numerous works; so did trials by combat and fire and medieval forms of punishment. . . . Eastern religions and philosophies (particularly Confucianism) stressed ethical behavior, or right conduct, and clearly enunciated rules of propriety for all social relationships. These rules were supplemented by written codes of penal law, in existence since at least the sixth century s. c.

The Confucian ideal of harmony between man and nature led to the concept that moral conduct consists in seeking harmony in situations of conflict. This in turn fostered an Asian preference for mediation and conciliation, rather than litigation, as a way for settling disputes.

Modern legal history begins with the Renaissance. Roman law still formed the basis of most European legal systems, except in England. The Reformation, however, weakened the influence of the pope and altered the roles of canon law and the ecclesiastical courts. Moreover, the invention of printing and the rediscovery of classical learning and art stimulated new ways of thinking in many fields, including law. Liberalized thought explored concepts like natural right and consent of the governed that challenged the old bases of jurisprudence. Across Europe new national legal structures took on a remarkably similar shape. In contrast, the common-law system in England concentrated on the development of judge-made law, basing its legal practice on the concepts of precedent and stare decisis.

English common law underwent a sea change on the trip across the Atlantic as the New World was settled. Adapted to the special needs of the individual colonies, the law was improvised upon by each colony to suit its own particular situation. The age of Enlightenment notwithstanding, the law proved, in Salem, Massachusetts, that irrationality can be its driving force. Subsequent events in human history have demonstrated that the tragic witch trials-which hardly epitomized colonial America's exercise of the law were no mere last-gasp of medieval darkness.

In the early days of the nation, there was a strong anti-lawyer campaign for the administration of justice without lawyers that led to legislation curtailing the activities of attorneys. In addition, there were few trained lawyers in the colonies and few books besides Blackstone's Commentaries from which to learn the complexities of the English legal system. As the eighteenth century progressed, more English legal materials were imported, more American lawyers were trained at the Inns of Court, and a more strict supervision of the colonies on the part of the English government was imposed. Nevertheless, the colonies continued to develop their own legal systems. They often refused to accept English laws-or laws from anywhere else, for that matter-unless they were specifically approved by their local governing bodies. They adapted whatever they borrowed to suit their less formal, less structured society. Of course, the American colonists developed a strong sense of independence, with a deep appreciation for the ideals of the rights of the individual, such as freedom of the press, speech, and assembly.

From the Declaration of Independence on, the American legal system was pretty much self-reliant in developing its own tradition.

Source of Information:

"Law": Excerpted from A Treasury of Art and Literature. Edited By Sara Robbins, Beaux Arts Edition, (1990) pp 14-16)


Our Legal History as Depicted in the Supreme Court Artwork

Descriptions of the Friezes in the Courtroom of the Supreme Court of the United States and of the East and West Pediments of the Building Exterior.

Historical Background

The Supreme Court building was erected during a period in which architects worked closely with artists to create monumental government buildings in Washington, DC, They relied heavily on the use of classical architecture, encompassing the Beaux-Arts principle that architecture and sculpture create the highest form of art.

Classical European study was customary for both architects and artists of this time. Those who did not attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the period's most influential school of architecture and design, were taught by someone who had. Cass Gilbert, architect of the Supreme Court building, received his architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's school of architecture, an institution founded on the principles of the Ecole des Beaus-Arts. Adolph A. Weinman, sculptor of the Courtroom friezes in the Supreme Court building, did not attend the Ecole directly, but was a student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of the first American sculptors to train at the Paris school. Likewise, Hermon A. MacNeil and Robert I. Aitken, designers and sculptors of the East and West Pediments, respectively, were influenced by the Beans-Arts tradition while perfecting their skills.

As a result of this classical training, architects and sculptors during this Period commanded an in-depth knowledge of historical figures and symbols, believing that sculpture should not only add to the building artistically, it should also communicate the function of the building. The Supreme Court Building Commission, like most building commissions of the 1930s, did not question what figures or symbols were to be used as embellishments. They understood that the architect had authority in this matter, with the architect usually deferring to the sculptor himself. Such was the case with Cass Gilbert and the embellishments on the Supreme Court building.

The Courtroom Friezes: The South Wall

Cass Gilbert (1867-1934), architect of the Supreme Court building (constructed between 1929 and 1935) selected Adolph A. Weinman (1870-1952), one of the most respected and accomplished Beaux-Arts architectural sculptors of the period, to design the friezes for the Courtroom during 1931 and 1932. Weinman's training emphasized a correlation between the sculptural subject and the function of the building and, because of this, Gilbert relied on him to choose the subjects and figures that best reflected the function of the Supreme Court building. Faithful to classical sources, Weinman designed for the Courtroom friezes a procession of "great lawgivers of history," from many civilizations, to portray the development of secular law. The procession of lawgivers begins on the south wall frieze and continues on the north wall. The east and west wall sculptural groups are representations of Majesty of Law and Justice.

On the south wall frieze, in chronological order, Weinman depicted, in larger than life size, nine ancient lawgivers.

Menes the uniter and ruler of Egypt, lived around 3200 BC and is considered the earliest lawgiver.

Hammurabi (c 2250 BC), founder of the Babylonian empire, is known as the author of a famous law code. Known as the Code of Hammurabi, it encompasses decisions involving crime, family and property which were used by the courts of Babylonia.

Moses was the lawgiver of the Israelites. His Mosaic Law, which is based on the tablets of Hebraic law, or the Ten Commandments, determined the criminal code and liturgical law.

Solomon (c 992-953 BC), the king of Israel, was also a royal judge. His name, meaning "figure of the wise man," has become synonymous with "judicial wisdom."

Lycurgus (c 800 BC), a legislator in Sparta, reformed its constitution.

Solon (c 638-559 BC), a lawgiver in Athens, codified the laws of the Greeks in order to move towards a more democratic form of government.

Drace (late 600s BC), a legislator in Athens, was the first to commit an Athenian code of laws to paper and included many death penalty offenses in this code. As a result, the word draconian has become synonymous with harshness.

Confucius (551-478 BC), a great Chinese lawgiver, was the Chief Justice of China circa 500 BC. He is best known for the creation of Confucianism, a moral system that produced a comprehensive system for government.

Octavian (or Augustus) (63 BC-14 AD), the first emperor of Rome, was Julius Caesar's grandnephew. Octavian began the principle of precedence, enabling judges to follow the decisions of former cases when determining a case.

The groups of allegorical figures on either end of the frieze represent "History" on the left and "Fame" on the right. The winged figures near the center symbolize "Authority" and "Light of Wisdom."

The Courtroom Friezes: The North Wall

Weinman depicted an additional nine lawgivers on the north wall, beginning in the front of the Courtroom.

Justinian (c 483-565), a Byzantine emperor, codified Roman law and published Corpus Juris Civiles. This work encompasses the Justinian Code, the main basis for modern civil law.

Mohammed (or Muhammad, Mahomet) (570-632) was the founder of Islam. His teachings, along with the Koran, comprise the law of Islam.

Charlemagne (Charles the Great) (c 742-814), a Roman emperor and king of the Franks, laid the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne was conscious of many social problems and promoted equal justice and fair treatment of the poor.

King John (1166-1216), king of England, signed and sealed the Magna Cart a, although under duress. This document, which lists the rights of the people, serves as the basis for asserting these rights and the importance of law over the power of a country's leader.

St. Louis (or Louis IX) (c 1214-1270), king of France, made the crown more accessible by expanding a person's right to appeal to it in all cases.

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch lawyer, wrote De jure belli ac Racis (Concerning the Law of War and Peace) in 1625, one of the first books on international law.

Blackstone, William (1723-1780), an English justice, wrote Commentaries on the Law of England (1765-1769). This book has had a major influence on English and American law.

Marshall, John (1755-1835) was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, from 1801-1835. His decision in Marbury v. Madison established the power of judicial review and stated that the Court was the ultimate authority on the constitutionality of a law.

Napoleon (1769-1821), emperor of France, proposed the Code Napoleon or Civil Code in 1804. This code, important in the evolution of civil law, included procedures on civil, criminal and commercial cases.

The groups of allegorical figures located on either end of the frieze represent "Philosophy" on the left and "Liberty and Peace" on the right. The winged figures near the center symbolize "Right of Man" and "Equity." Pamphlet Sent out by Curaor of Supreme Court Building

The Courtroom Friezes: The East and West Walls

In the frieze located directly above the Bench, on the East wall, two male figures in the center represent "Majesty of Law" and "Power of Government." The tablet between them symbolizes early written laws. The allegorical figures on either side symbolize "Wisdom" and "Justice." Grouped on the right side are figures that, according to sculptor Weinman, embody the "Safeguard of the Liberties and Rights of the People in their pursuit of Happiness," while those on the left side depict "The Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Innocence."

The theme of the West wall frieze located directly opposite the Bench is good versus evil. Its central motif depicts female figures of "Justice" and "Divine Inspiration," flanked by allegorical representations of "Truth" and "Wisdom." The struggle of good over evil is portrayed by "The Powers of Good" ("Defense of Virtue," "Charity," Peace," Harmony," and "Security") on the left and "The Powers of Evil" ("Corruption," "Slander," "Deception" and "Despotic Power") on the right.

Source of Information:

Descriptions of the Friezes in the Courtroom of the Supreme Court of the United States and of the East and West Pediments of the Building Exterior, a booklet sent out by the Curator of the Supreme Court Building whenever you write them asking for information concerning the artwork, etc in and on the building.

I see they have a made a change in the online version versus the booklet that we received from them in 96 or 97

I don't know which of the two versions, the one from the printed booklet:

In the frieze located directly above the Bench, on the East wall, two male figures in the center represent "Majesty of Law" and "Power of Government." The tablet between them symbolizes early written laws. The allegorical figures on either side symbolize "Wisdom" and "Justice." Grouped on the right side are figures that, according to sculptor Weinman, embody the "Safeguard of the Liberties and Rights of the People in their pursuit of Happiness," while those on the left side depict "The Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Innocence."

or this from the website at

The East wall frieze is located directly above the Bench and focuses on two male figures that represent the Majesty of Law and the Power of Government. According to a letter from Weinman to Gilbert, the tablet between them symbolizes the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. The allegorical figures standing on either side of the central figures symbolize Wisdom, on the left, and Justice, on the right. Weinman described the figures grouped to the right side as the Safeguard of the Liberties and Rights of the People in their pursuit of Happiness and those on the left side as The Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Innocence.

actually best represents what the letter from Weinman to Gilbert says.

The booklet version that we received back in the 90s gave a little more support to those who claimed it represented the 10 Commandments since it depicted Roman Numerals I-X and the BORs was not numbered that way as originally written

Originally it was Article the First, Article the Second, through Article the twelfth Now they are called Amendment I through Amendment X At any rate the online version is more secular leaning than the booklet sent out in the 90s The booklet version of ancient laws symbolized how ancient laws were originally written. Perhaps not on stone tablets, per se, but scrolls, parchment, etc. Thus, the depiction could symbolize all ancient laws or just the 10 Commandments. Nothing in the Supreme Court building highlights the 10 Commandments for special attention, etc.

Some Additional Comments with Regards to the Ten Commandments and the United States Supreme Court Building

The East Pediment is another target that the other side likes to use. In the very center are three figures which are suppose to be Moses Confucius and Solon. Of the three Moses is standing in the center and appears to stand out to the forefront of the other two. Well to the other side this is super important, for they claim it places Moses, who is depicted holding two tablets which they claim is Ten Commandments as being the all important person/figure. etc. BTW Moses is sitting while the other two stand one on either side of him.

What they don't tell you is this: The tablets are totally blank, not even Roman numerals; but since it is Moses, all one call say is "What else would he be carryng?" (Grocery list?) Ok, I can buy that; but neither do they point out that he is holding a tablet in each arm, with the bottom of each tablet resting on the thigh of each leg, and it is for that reason and only for that reason that he appears to be out ahead of the other two figures. In short, the artist did not place Moses in any position that would appear to make him more important than the other two because he felt he was more important. The Composition of the whole work required it to be that way because of the way he depicted the tablets. BTW both Confucious and Solon are also carrying tablets, but they are carrying them in one arm and is the outside arm in relation to the center of the work.

So we have Moses sitting in the center holding TWO blank tablets one on each side of him, and the other two fellows standing on either side of him each holding ONE tablet but holding it in the arm farthest from the figure is the center.

It is the fact that the two tablets that the center figure is holding and they come out in front of the other two figures that the center figure appears to be sitting in front of the other two figures, and they appear to be behind him.

Are the TEN COMMANDMENTS to be found in the United States Supreme Building? Yes.

Are they given any particular special importance? No.

They help to make up the overall theme -- the overall composition of the history of law. In that situation, the Ten Commandments were a important part of the laws of a culture that existed many thousand years ago.