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Wednesday, May 22, 2024
HomeCommunity“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”Benjamin Franklin, 1787

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”
Benjamin Franklin, 1787

The story goes that when Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Pennsylvania State House after the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Powel called out, “Doctor Franklin, what sort of government have you given us”? Franklin responded, “A republic madam, if you can keep it”.

The first account of what passed between Franklin and Powel was published in 1803 in the notes of James McHenry of Maryland, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Though historians have debated the details of this exchange, it has often been quoted and has risen to prominence recently in the wake of the January 6th attack on the Capitol in Washington DC. It is important, perhaps in these times, to consider the gravity of Franklin’s statement.

The United States is a democratic republic founded on Constitutional law. Historically, inclusion in America’s political system has not been open to all of its citizens and laws have not always been applied equally to all people. It falls then, for each generation of Americans to work toward the realization of the ideals of equality before the law and government by, for and of the people.

Our history is rife with examples of the struggle that generations who came before us have waged to hold this nation to account regarding our founding principles. Historically, our nation’s internal conflicts have chiefly been about who should have a voice and who should be silenced. Who should enjoy the rights of citizenship and who should be excluded from those rights. There will always be two sides to that history.

For example: The Civil War: Was it a conflict over federal authority vs State’s Rights, or over the idea that some believed they had the right to enrich themselves while enslaving people they deemed “less” than themselves. Those who think States Rights were the issue can read the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States to see what wealthy, powerful, landowning Southerners were worked up about in the 1860s.

The “Winning of the West”: Was it about Manifest Destiny or ethnic cleansing and genocide? One can believe that westward expansion was the will of God but one should also read official government policy toward Native tribes in the 1800s and then ponder the question, “Can’t God do better than that”?. The Indian Removal Act is one place to start.

The Labor Movement: Was the struggle for labor rights about greedy “socialist” workers trying to thwart capitalism or was it about wealthy industrialists who thought it was proper to enrich themselves while paying poverty wages to women and children who toiled for long hours in unsafe factories? Read accounts of the Triangle ShirtWaist Factory or the West Virginia Coal Mining strikes of the 1920s for reference.

The Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, The Voting Rights Movement and more recently, the movement for LGBTQ citizens to enjoy the full rights of citizenship and to be able to live without fear in the United States. All of these movements are about equality before the law and who matters in our society. These movements and events are an indelible part of our collective history. Perhaps they have something to teach all of us.

The growing hyper-partisanship that has been so much a part of our political culture for the past several decades has fanned divisive rhetoric, anger, violence and ineffective governance. The International IDEA Think Tank and other organizations that monitor the health of the world’s democracies have, in the past two years, listed the United States as a “backsliding” democracy. Backsliding toward what? Toward authoritarianism.

The events at the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021 are a prime example of our current slide away from the rule of law and toward authoritarianism. According to the Pew Research Center, 51.3% of the electorate voted for Joe Biden, totaling 81,283,098 votes. 46.8% of the electorate voted for Donald Trump, totaling 74,222,958 votes. Regardless of whether or not one liked the election’s outcome, the fact that more folks voted for Biden than Trump, plus the Electoral results, mean that Biden won and is our legitimate President. The peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next is fundamental to the idea of government by, for and of the people.

January 6th was not a protest that got out of hand. It was not staged by antifa activists to discredit the previous presidential administration. It was, in fact, a planned, armed attempt to subvert the will of the majority of the American electorate. 67 lawsuits have been brought before various courts by the previous administration in an attempt to claim that the election was fraudulent. No judge in any of those instances would consider the arguments because none of the previous administration’s lawyers were able to substantiate any of their claims with evidence of fraud. The judges, in each instance, were being asked to consider allegations, not actual evidence.

The result of all of this is that many among us do not trust our politics, we don’t trust our institutions and above all, we don’t trust each other. Benjamin Franklin’s statement, “A republic, if you can keep it”, seems to fit snugly into our current political reality.

One hears a lot these days about patriotism and adherence to the Constitution. Some claim to be Constitutional Originalists while others see the Constitution as a living document to be interpreted through the lens of our current time, experience and values. One almost never hears a detailed explanation about how either of these perspectives would apply to Franklin’s rejoinder, “A republic, if you can keep it”.

Perhaps our founders left us a clue. The preamble to the Constitution is actually a thesis statement for America. It reads, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.

Is it possible that in these simple ideas we can see a road map instituted by the Founders who themselves didn’t see the full scope and enormity of what they were proposing when the Constitution was adopted in 1787? Regardless of political affiliation, we must all consider the actions proposed in the preamble. How do we establish justice? Is justice the same thing as law and order or do we have to work to establish justice and keep it established in order to have law and order? What does it look like to ensure domestic tranquility? Is tranquility related to the idea that all of us are created equal and endowed with the gifts of life, liberty and the ability to pursue happiness? If so, can one enjoy tranquility while willfully denying it to others because they are different? What does providing for the common defense mean? Do military style assault rifles and high capacity magazines in the hands of more people with little or no common sense regulation make us safer or are we perhaps more endangered when going to church, school, the shopping mall or the local nightclub? How do we promote general welfare? Does having a very small number of very wealthy people who can use their money to influence both elections and public policy improve all of our lives or are many of us getting drowned out because we can’t buy influence? How can we secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves or our posterity if we don’t work together in our local communities and on the state and national level to actually form this more perfect union?

“A republic, if you can keep it”. Maybe if we stop seeing our republic through the eyes of mythological patriotism and acknowledge that we share a responsibility to work toward actually creating the social order as prescribed by our own thesis statement, then there is hope that we keep our republic.

Wouldn’t that be patriotic!

Rick Evans
Rick Evans
My wife, Marsha Kinzer (a proud DEHS Greyhound, class of ‘77) introduced me to the North Shore on vacation in 2012. It became our regular escape when the stress of our careers in education became overwhelming, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the breathtaking scenery, the nice people, and “salad” containing Jell-o and marshmallows. So you can either blame or thank my loving wife for my being here, because when we needed to choose a retirement hometown, Marsha advocated hard for her beloved Duluth, and here we are, six months later. Yes, this will be my first northern Minnesota winter. Yes, I welcome thoughts and prayers. Government, public policy, and social justice weighed heavily in the curriculums I taught at the high school level over a thirty-eight year career. In addition, we were a laboratory school focused on critical thinking in conjunction with technical and scientific writing. So when I found myself adrift on the great ocean of retirement and spied a raft, I jumped at the chance to take up what I’d left behind…minus the bad teachers’ lounge coffee. My position at the NSJ allows me to combine my passions for government and writing, and it’s helping me to feel less out of touch in new surroundings. When I’m not being “Cubby” (Marsha’s favorite new nickname for this green reporter) I enjoy pointing at eagles and saying, “Look, honey. There’s an eagle.” I’ve had an active side hustle as a professional musician for almost as many years as Charlie Parr. As a guitarist/singer/songwriter, I graced the stages of clubs and festivals around southern Wisconsin, including an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. Should I even mention A Prairie Home Companion, or am I the only one here old enough to remember what that is? Look! An eagle!
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