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Letter to the editor: Constitutionalism can save nation

For many Americans, perhaps even a majority of them, the great challenge of the next four years is to survive the presidency of Donald Trump, not as individuals — for that we need only take to the hills, which would be selfish and unworthy of us as citizens — but together as a nation. I believe that there is a way to accomplish this, not a certain way, but as sure as any can be in an uncertain universe and, all things considered, the best and noblest of ways, for it follows the path of civic virtue. We can become constitutionalists.
In fact, we Americans have been constitutionalists for nearly two and a half centuries, ever since 1787, when the people of the United States ordained and established our Constitution, and the states ratified it, and it became the supreme law of the land.
However, it seems that we have been constitutionalists without knowing it, and there’s the problem. To many, our government seems like a perpetual motion machine; a self-powered clock whose workings can be ignored except for an occasional rewinding, or, if it malfunctions, we can discard it and replace it with another, or do without it. But it is not that way.
Our government is a composite system inseparable from ourselves, whose working parts are frail and fallible albeit rational human beings, many of whom have not been adequately trained or taught the duties of the office that they have been authorized to carry out, who do not understand what a constitutional system is or how it works, and this applies not only to presidents, chief justices, senators and representatives, but also to citizens, and most of all to them, for it is the chief duty of citizens to elect and appoint to the offices of government those who in their best judgment are best qualified to fill them, and thereafter to hold them in respect, which is to say, always to remind them of the duties and dignities of office.
Constitutionalism is the principle that the authority of government derives from and is determined by a fundamental law. It is government by the rule of law, of a law that is not mystical or sacred, but rational and therefore discoverable to all rational beings, freely adopted and subject to revision. The idea of constitutionalism originated with Plato, Aristotle refined it, and Polybius, who wrote a history of the early Roman Republic, described it at work.
They contended that the most durable constitution is one that prescribes a mixed government: one that includes elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy: the rule of one, of the few, and of the many combined in a system where each is able to activate and counteract the other, a self regulating system. This notion was ancestor to the principle of separation of powers: executive, legislative, and judicial. A constitutional system of government so conceived is perfect only because it is able to negotiate conflict and difference.
James Madison said it correctly: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Government is necessary, because we are selfish and unruly. But we must rule ourselves. There is no other option. Hence, the rule of law established in a constitution must incorporate a principle of self-correction that applies equally both to the governed and their governors.
Now, Donald J. Trump has been constitutionally elected president of the United States, and on Jan. 20, he will assume the office. His public behavior has shown deficiencies in his character to carry out this office with the proper dignity and with wisdom and understanding. His rudeness suggests that he did not receive proper training as a child; perhaps his parents and governesses were too indulgent; he does not seem to have read the Constitution, let alone Plato, Aristotle and Polybius; he seems to prefer to twitter away his time rather than to contemplate the duties of governing.
But he is a rational human being, and therefore, not incorrigible or incapable of feeling the dignity of his high office. So, it is our duty as citizens to hold him in respect. To hold his feet to the fire of political responsibility, to remind him of the duties of his office, and of its dignity, so that it may find expression in his actions and his bearing.
To carry out this civic duty, each of us must assume the office of citizen and exercise it with deliberation and care. Begin with the fact that we are free and equal, although diverse in many ways, citizens of a nation whose motto, “e pluribus unum” — out of many one — defines the character of our unity.
And we must be ever mindful of the goals of our Constitution and diligent in promoting them: unity, justice, domestic tranquility, a common defense, public welfare, and the blessings of liberty for everyone now and always. In sum, we must study the Constitution and make it a living document.
Victor Nuovo
Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Middlebury College
Selectman, Town of Middlebury

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