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Stephen Gottlieb: An Author Of Our Constitution On Risks From How We Choose The President

Those of you who are regular listeners to my commentary may have guessed that I’ve been working on a study of the American Constitutional Convention. So, going systematically through some of the records, I happened on a statement by Gouverneur Morris – that’s his name, not a title. He and his family were quite wealthy – they owned much of what is now the Bronx – but he had good friends in Pennsylvania and his friends there invited him to join the Pennsylvania delegation to the Constitutional Convention, in which he played a prominent role. A few years later, he wrote a letter to the President of the New York State Senate about the method of choosing the President of the United States, a subject which drew a lot of discussion in the Convention, both for and against. Morris wrote:

"[E]very mode of electing the chief magistrate of a powerful nation hitherto adopted is liable to objection. The instances where violence has been used, and murders committed, are numerous; those, in which artifice and fraud have succeeded against the general wish and will, are innumerable. And hence it was inferred, that the mode least favorable to intrigue and corruption, that in which the unbiassed voice of the people will be most attended to, and that which is least likely to terminate in violence and usurpation, ought to be adopted. To impress conviction on this subject, the case of Poland was not unaptly cited. Great and ambitious Princes took part in the election of a Polish King. Money, threats, and force were employed; violence, bloodshed, and oppression ensued; and now that country is parcelled [sic] out among the neighboring Potentates, one of whom was but a petty Prince two centuries ago."

No method is perfect. As George Washington wrote in a letter I quoted a couple of weeks ago, little can protect a country “in the last stage of corrupted morals and political depravity.” No matter how they see themselves, those who tried or supported the effort to take the presidency by intimidation, violence and force of arms, came close to laying this country open to violence from every quarter – marauders, gangs, thugs and civil war – which can only result in despotism. No one can know who will be on top or for how long. Stalin did a systematic job of executing those who helped the Communists take over. Putin and similar dictators around the world seem to be doing the same thing.

I don’t know if any of the various gun-toting, white supremacists and extremists who think of themselves as conservatives or patriots ever hear or give my commentary a moment’s thought. Nevertheless, reaching them seems to me one of the most important things a commentator can attempt. Somehow, I wish I could get across the notion that resolving our disagreements with guns is the most dangerous thing any of us can do to our country and the least likely to end up creating the world they or any of us want to believe in. If they think of themselves as supporting the little guy, look at Columbia or El Salvador – the very places people are desperately trying to flee. The likelihood is strong that those who live by the gun, not only die by the gun but turn themselves into thieves and crooks along the way. There is no patriotism in that, no way to make America great again, better or greater in the future. It is universally self-destructive.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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