By Tom Lamia
Rejuvenation is a word I seldom use, but it has come to mind today as I think of what I might write to honor a new season. Spring is not here yet, not fully in the West Village, and certainly not here in Maine, but it is near enough to inspire.
On March 1, I became a grandfather, an event of pure joy notwithstanding that I had little to do with it. Felix Thomas Williamson entered our world with quiet dignity, a pleasant state of equanimity. Felix’s new beginning is a step on a path he and I will share for a while. I hope to make the best of that time. I hope also to smooth his path while I can, and nudge him in a good direction. It is this wish and responsibility that provides rejuvenation for me.
Felix will get his start with his parents in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth College sits, reminding us all of the value in fighting for something we believe important, regardless of the odds. Dartmouth is an independent private college today because it took its resistance to state control to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1819 that our Constitution guaranteed its independence. Chief Justice John Marshall was moved by the argument of a young Daniel Webster, Dartmouth’s lawyer, that Dartmouth was “a small college… and yet there are those who love it.” Our country is not small, but there are plenty of us that love it. It needs that love today.
Generally, new life comes on the remains of something that has died. It gains from those remains. When winter ends, vegetation takes root in the rich soil created from the remains of dead plants. With business failure, new life comes with new capital spread among surviving assets. With peace, prosperous societies emerge from needs created by the destruction left by war. With death, the next generation gives new life to the family, the tribe and the nation. New life that builds from healthy remains will do better than that which has only sterile ground in which to take root. Our nation is not dead or dying, but it is in turmoil and needs to put its roots down into the fertile ground of our Constitution, laws, and traditions of governing for the common good. We owe this to ourselves.
Our politics and governing institutions are exhausted, it seems. They have been worked hard, pulled from within and without to force conformance with idealized notions of what is thought to be morally worthy, and economically and militarily effective. What is ideal to some is anathema to others. The conformance of all to any one notion of what is ideal cannot be forced; it must be shaped by give and take.
These nativist or populist movements now holding sway in our country, and in many others around the world, are the stirrings of old ideas that have failed repeatedly in the past. In moments of strength, the momentarily strong can do their will believing their strength is proof of their righteousness. When the strength is gone, replaced by age, ideas, events or other changes, which are inevitable, ruins remain in place of grandiosity. Our system has to-date sidestepped ruin by the rejuvenation allowed by our Constitution and traditions. That system does not permit an extended dictatorship by a demagogue. It was created to avoid just that, and it has been managed to build defenses against it. Vigilance is needed for the system to work.
How is it that we have the oldest existing democracy? Luck has been at work, and fear. The separation of powers and the right to bear arms are Constitutional protections that reflect a common concern: fear of autocracy. Most other nations are ethnically and racially homogeneous. That has not always served them well. We have the benefit of having reckoned with diversity through a system that is conscious of it. Still, problems arise. When they do, we must trust and reform our system to meet them as occasions for rejuvenation, for new growth, for improvement.
It will take not only resistance to autocracy and fidelity to the Constitution, but also fear and luck. Fear of the consequences of insincerity in our commitment to common principles, such as those embodied in the Constitution, and luck in producing and recognizing strong, capable, and selfless leaders to protect us from ourselves when necessary. Those like Washington, Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan, who combined strength of character with personal courage and selfless determination.
A good number of the rest of us must join in the fight whose goal is, frankly, national reconciliation. That is an idealistic, near- abstract vision, but a worthy goal, an inspiration for every new life welcomed among us, including that of Felix Thomas Williamson.