The house of representatives...can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as the great mass of society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interest, and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny.
James Madison, Federalist No. 57, February 19, 1788
We can presume that Madison’s concept as expressed in Federalist No. 57 was a view that most of the Founding Fathers espoused. But none of them invented this noble idea. Its roots are embedded in a great book of law that has been handed down for thousands of reason, although rarely taken seriously as a law that applies to our modern world.
In this ancient book of law, the king was instructed to “write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:18-20 NIV)
In our historical context we think of the king as being the absolute ruler, the one who makes the rules and by extension one who can exclude himself from the rules he imposes on others. Israel was unique because any monarchy that might arise (notwithstanding that the scriptures sternly warned the nation against the dangers of monarchy) was to be a limited monarchy, limited by the rule of law. Indeed, even in our own day -- even in a nation founded on the rule of law as opposed to the rule of lawmakers -- our duly elected officials routinely exempt themselves from the burdens they impose on others. As Madison warned, such every such government eventually degenerates into tyranny.
A very minor example: In my state, we have a no-call list. Those of us who have placed ourselves on that list can be assured that we will not be bothered be telemarketers. However, the law does not apply to politicians, whose campaign people can call me even during dinner time any time they want. Why a call from them deserves greater consideration than one from a poor guy trying to earn an honest living is beyond me.
Implicit in both Madison’s comments and in Deuteronomy is the simple concept that no one is above the law, even the king. If European kings, who had access to that book of law, had honored it with more than their lips, Europe would have been saved a history of grief. A real leader does not “consider himself better than his brothers”, but the lures of power make that easy to forget.