This impeachment inquiry (which I favor) has occasioned frequent reference to our Constitution, which has set me to thinking about that word. What does it mean to “constitute” something? Why do we say of someone that they have a “strong constitution”?
Trump took the most solemn of oaths at his inauguration: to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That’s a rather more important consideration than his crowd size.
I remember my college professor (in the ’60s) talking about how much change was going on; how the country needed to adapt; how the Constitution, with its checks and balances, was a document that needed updating. The Constitution was, he said, a product of the Enlightenment and had the 18th-century notion of Newtonian physics, where creation is like a watch — a well-balanced machine ticking along. Didn’t fit the Nuclear Age. Sounded smart to me at the time.
He was smart, but wrong. The image is actually way more organic than that. “Constitution” is from a medieval word meaning “the way a thing is made up.” It can also mean, “what a thing is made of.” You and I are made of blood and flesh and bone and brain. The way it all goes together is complex, so if the different constituent parts are working with each other as designed, we have “a strong constitution.” It’s all about the relationships between structure and function.
The question facing our founders as they gathered to create our Constitution was, “How should a government be structured to ensure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in an egalitarian nation?”
Time for a brief, great story: Madison was a skinny, sick young man, too frail to fight in the Revolution. A member of Princeton’s first graduating class, Madison was really bright. After the Revolution, while Jefferson was in Paris as our ambassador and we were clunking along with the Articles of Confederation, Madison wrote to Jefferson and asked him to go around Paris to the booksellers along the Seine and send him every book he could find about democracy.
So Jefferson shipped him, by boat and then by ox cart, all the volumes he could find on democracy — in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German and English.
When the ox cart ambled into the drive in front of his house, Madison, then in his mid 20s, left his sick bed and came to see all the books. He could read them all, and did.
Madison was searching for a way to solve the main objection to democracy up to that time — that it would always split apart, because if people were free to leave, when times got tough, they would. (Hence Lincoln’s great line that the Civil War was testing, “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”)
As Madison researched all the volumes in that ox cart, he found a passage in David Hume’s writing that turned on the light bulb for him. Up until Hume, all the studies of democracy had been of small units — city states. None of them lasted all that long. Defenders of royalty argued that if democracy couldn’t last in some little city state, it could never work in something as big as a country.
Hume, however, argued that if a much larger entity tried democracy and made sure the representatives could fiercely and safely contest each others’ conflicting interests, democracy would have a much better chance.
Madison drafted a set of proposals and went to Philadelphia, where, in one summer, representatives hammered out what is our Constitution. It was designed both to handle and to create lots of tension. That’s what makes it strong: the tensions between states and the federal government, the tensions within and between the creators of law and the enforcers of law, between the need for justice and struggle for equality. The whole scheme is designed to accommodate contest, to encourage contention, to discourage mindless compliance.
Then, with Hamilton and Jay, Madison laid this vision in front of the people in the Federalist Papers they co-wrote to persuade the people to vote for the Constitution. And the people read, and the people voted, and we the people birthed constitutional order. It’s not Holy Scripture. The Constitution is designed to be amended, and thank God it has been. And I hope it will be again. But its core structure has to remain.
While the Constitution is the highest law of the land, simply obeying or amending the Constitution does not cover the full meaning of “preserving, protecting and defending “ it. To get at that fuller meaning we need to inspect a related word: “constituent.”
Whatever is constituted — made, appointed, organized and adopted — consists of constituents. To be a free American is to be simultaneously a citizen and a constituent. As a citizen, you are not a subject but rather a source of the government’s power — free both to support and to remove an office holder. As a constituent you are, taken together with other citizens, what the country or the state or congressional district actually consists of.
This is what generations of people have sacrificed their lives to establish and protect. This is what Solomon Ballou was willing to die for, as we hear in his letter to his wife the night before he was killed in the Civil War. He called it “this form of government.”
When the president withholds necessary moneys authorized by a law of Congress to a struggling democracy because he wants to force this foreign government to interfere in our elections for his own benefit, he violates the Constitution on many levels. The Constitution forbids a president to receive anything of value from a foreign government; it stipulates that his primary duty is not to thwart but to execute (meaning to carry out), the acts of Congress. He is the only office holder charged with caring for all the constituents of the land. That is why his charge is not to admire Nazis or other domestic terrorists, nor to collude with foreign adversaries, but to defend us from all enemies foreign and domestic. I have lived under 12 presidents. Mr. Trump is the first in my lifetime, and as far as I know the first ever, to have neither understanding nor concern about our Constitution.
That is why I am persuaded that impeachment is warranted. We need our president to understand that his first responsibility is to cherish constitutional order. That oath is sacred.
The Rev. Jeff Black lives in Saranac Lake.