A Republic, if you can keep it.
We’ve all heard this phrase – it’s almost legendary. People have used it in campaigns, slogans, as a book title, in support or against all kinds of things.
First of all, considering the fact that we live under the largest government in history, it should be obvious the Republic wasn’t kept. But there’s a lot more to the story – and Benjamin Franklin’s speech in the Philadelphia convention on the first “Constitution Day” – September 17, 1787 – has a lot more.
“Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.
There’s certainly a historical debate over whether it even happened – or if the conversation with the highly influential Elizabeth Willing Powel was elsewhere.
But all that is far less important than the message, which is part of what Dr. Franklin gave in the first speech of the last day of the Philadelphia Convention.
In the opening words of his speech, Franklin laments that “there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve.”
He didn’t mention – at that point – any structural problems he had with the Constitution. Delegates were already well-aware of his areas of concern, such as his warning on June 4th that “The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”
While we don’t live under an hereditary monarchy, we certainly see an executive branch with an extremely dangerous amount of power today. It’s just what other founders, such as Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee called “an elective despotism”
Back to Franklin’s speech. He did express his chief worry – that the people wouldn’t do their part to support it. His words were eerily prophetic.
“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
Franklin understood human nature. He suspected the government created by the Constitution would eventually fail. But not because of any specific structural defect that may exist in the document itself. He said that the Constitution would be “well administered for a course of years.”
But he predicted it would go off the rails if the people did not do their job in keeping that government within its limits. At that point, it would become incapable of operating under anything other than despotism.
Franklin wasn’t alone in his concerns about the people holding the government within its constitutional limits. Roger Sherman argued during the ratification debates that no document “ever yet bound the supreme power longer than the honey moon of a new married couple, unless the rulers were interested in preserving the rights.”
Despite his concerns, which focused heavily on issues like executive power, representation, and the structure of the legislative branch, Franklin pushed for unanimous support.
But he urged delegates to “turn our future Thoughts and Endeavours to the Means of having it well administered.”
Ultimately, for Franklin – who actually submitted the first proposal for an Articles of Confederation in 1775 – it would be up to the people to defend and protect their own constitution and their own liberty, whether the government did its job, or not.
John Dickinson pushed that kind of message forward during the ratification debates as well. He argued that enforcement of the Constitution ultimately comes down to the “supreme sovereignty of the people.”
“It is their duty to watch, and their right to take care, that the Constitution be preserved; or in the Roman phrase on perilous occasions – to provide that the Republic receive no damage.”
That’s a “Constitution Day” message we all need to be aware of. And nothing helps us get this kind of information out to more and more people – more than the financial faith and support of our members.
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