Advice for Keeping Your Republic

Constitution Day Address

By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.

Presented for the 2011 Constitution Day Picnic, an educational event sponsored by the Blue Earth County and Nicollet County Republicans, North Mankato, MN, 17 Sept. 2011.



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Today marks 224 years since the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 finished drafting the Constitution. It was a revolutionary document for its time. It remains a radical document today. The principles the Constitution embodies run deep in the human spirit.

Congress and the state legislatures had charged the Philadelphia Convention with recommending amendments to the current system of government, known as the Articles of Confederation. But even before the convention met in May of 1787, delegates were drafting plans for a complete overhaul of America’s government. For the next four months, the convention conducted its business in a closed chamber, sealing the windows for secrecy. Just imagine: fifty-five men of portly stature gathered in a small room all summer long without ever opening a window for fresh air.

Tempers sometimes ran hot, but several crucial compromises prevented the assembly from dissolving. At last, it was finished. The delegates had produced a new constitution for the largest republic in world history. The delegates also had invented the first political system in which the courts would be reserved in a special branch separate from the legislature and the executive. Gleaning all they could from the musings of political philosophers and the lessons of history, the delegates had established, as they phrased it, “a more perfect union.”

But what kind of union was it? Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland, recorded the following exchange in his notes from the convention. A lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got: a republic or a monarchy?” To this Franklin replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

This conversation begs two important questions. First, what is a republic? Second, how can you go about keeping it?


What a Republic Is

A republic, to imperial officials and colonists who had been loyal to the Crown, was a terrifying idea. It reminded them of the chaos England had experience a century earlier during the bloody English Civil War and the short-lived Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Society must be orderly to sustain itself, and the monarch—thought many learned men—provided that necessary stability.

Britain was proud to have a mixed constitution, consisting of a monarchy (the king), an aristocracy (the House of Lords), and a democracy (the House of Commons). In theory, those three layers of government balanced each other out for the good of the empire.

Even as late as December of 1775, most American colonists, no matter how disgruntled they were over taxation without representation, still treasured the concept of a monarchy. Their complaint was not so much with Britain’s form of government, but with the failure of King George III to listen to their pleas for colonial representation. Although Parliament had turned a deaf ear to the colonists’ concerns, they had been hoping that at least the king would listen.

But in January 1776 American sentiments quickly shifted. The change was prompted by the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Paine ridiculed the very idea of monarchy and in its place cast before the American colonists a vision of government by elected representatives. Six months later came the Declaration of Independence, by which the American colonists forever severed their ties to the British crown.

Even so, the stability afforded by a monarchy still appealed to many American patriots. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton feared that in rejecting monarchy America would drift too far in the direction of democracy, resulting in mob rule. Hamilton, in fact, had proposed that the U.S. Constitution establish long, monarch-like terms for the presidency, rather than the four-year terms that the majority of the convention favored.

Fearing the tyranny of a monarch at one extreme and the tyranny of the masses at the other, the framers of the Constitution chartered what Franklin aptly identified as a republic. The term derives from the Latin phrase res publica, which often is translated “commonwealth”—the good of the people. Representation by elected officials is the first ingredient of a republic; balance of power among multiple portions of the government is the second.

The republican principle of representative government rests upon a foundation of popular sovereignty. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had asserted that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The purpose of government was to secure people’s “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—or, to borrow John Locke’s phrasing in place of Jefferson’s: life, liberty, and property. The Declaration of Independence offered a justification for popular rebellion with these words:

whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Consistent with the Declaration’s assertion of popular sovereignty, the Constitution began with three key words: “We the People.” As Ronald Reagan later would say, “Let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the earth.” But in 1787, the words “We the People” meant more than “popular sovereignty,” or what Abraham Lincoln later described as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In 1787, “We the People” also meant that the people within the states, and not merely their state legislatures, had the authority to change the form of government by which those states were joined into a confederation.

Virginia’s Patrick Henry smelled a rat. Patrick Henry—who on the eve of the American Revolution had cried, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”—now spoke against the Constitution with vehemence. Under the existing Articles of Confederation, the state legislatures held most of the reigns of government, especially that power which the people feared the most: taxation. The American Revolution had been waged under the banner of “No Taxation without Representation,” and Henry believed that the state legislatures represented the people better than any federal government ever could. Therefore, Henry wanted power to stay where the Articles of Confederation had kept it: with the states.

But Henry lost that debate, and the Constitution won acceptance in all thirteen states. The Constitution’s supporters argued that a stronger federal government was necessary in order to protect both the people and their states. Whereas the Constitution’s opponents feared that the federal government would have too much power, the Constitution’s supporters thought the Constitution itself would prevent the federal government from abusing its power. An intricate system of checks and balances and a regular schedule of elections would ensure that no single person or group of people would wield too much power for too long.

James Madison was among the chief architects of those checks and balances, and also one of the Constitution’s most eloquent supporters. “What is government itself,” he asked in Federalist No. 51, “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Madison knew as well as you do that people are not angels. Government is necessary.

But governments are not angelic, either. In politics, it seems that no one can be trusted; everyone is prone to selfish ambition. How, then, to prevent the corruption in government that craves and abuses power? Madison’s answer was brilliant: distribute a limited amount of authority from the people and their states to the federal government, and divide the federal government into three distinct branches, each with separate powers (the legislative, the executive, and the judicial).

Thus emerged the American republic—a representative form of government in which powers were balanced to minimize corruption and avoid tyranny. At least that is how it looked on paper. But what about in practice? Had not Franklin himself alluded to danger when saying, “a republic, if you can keep it”?


How to Keep a Republic

Republics foster liberty, and that is what makes them vulnerable to political sabotage by one faction seeking to dominate others. Madison admitted as much in Federalist No. 10, where he wrote, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” Abolishing liberty would eliminate the threat of factions, but, of course, it also would eradicate the republic itself. Rather than eliminate faction, Madison concluded that a republic must instead limit its effects.

There are two basic ways to limit the effects of faction. The first is to balance one faction against the other. That is why the Constitution established a Congress consisting of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. That is why any law must be adopted in like form by both the House and the Senate, and usually also signed by the President. That is why a law can nonetheless be passed over the President’s veto if a two-thirds majority in each chamber of Congress agrees. And that is why all of these government officials are subject to popular approval through a regular schedule of elections. In short, the rules of the game are designed to prevent any one person or group of people from wielding too much power for too long.

Some political theorists believe that a balancing of interests suffices to preserve a republic. In a free market of ideas, whatever wins general approval deserves to carry the day. This democratic doctrine once was known as “liberalism,” but, as that word now has new connotations, it generally is called “libertarianism” today.

“Republicanism,” by contrast, traditionally has held that the nation requires something more than checks and balances within an environment of free speech. In order to serve the public good, a republic must also limit faction by a second means: virtue.

George Washington, in his first inaugural address, acknowledged that “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” Or, as King Solomon expressed it, “Righteousness exalts a nation.”

Civic virtue includes a willingness of each citizen to answer the call that President John F. Kennedy sounded in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Civic virtue means that citizens live their lives not demanding what they can get, but asking what they can offer to others. Civic virtue keeps government small and efficient by sustaining communities through the voluntarism of the private sector. Civic virtue therefore safeguards both the people and their government from corruption and its bitter fruit: tyranny.

Civic virtue, unfortunately, does not come naturally. Recall that men are not angels. That is why Congress adopted, in the Northwest Land Ordinance of 1787, the following provision: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, similarly identified the connection between education and civic virtue. He promoted schools that would shape young ladies into republican mothers who, he said, “should be qualified to a certain degree, by a peculiar and suitable education, to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government.”

Pause for a moment to ponder Rush’s image of a woman instructing her child in civic virtue. For any civilization to remain stable, it must rest upon the natural bedrock of society: the family. For nowhere but the natural family—a man and a woman united for life, together with their children, whether begotten or adopted—nowhere but the natural family are the basic lessons of life more effectively taught. The home is both a person’s first schoolhouse and first statehouse.

And the family cultivates civic virtue like nothing else can. Nowhere are the weak more securely protected, the hungry more efficiently fed, or the wealthy more compassionately directed to the needs of others than in the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister. The trust, cooperation, and friendship germinated in the home later blossom into civic virtues that sustain the state. President Barack Obama rightly said in his 2009 inaugural address that it is “a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

How, then, to keep your republic? It begins with you. It begins in your home and your neighborhood. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once observed, “all politics is local.” Examine where your feet are planted and begin to take ownership of your homeland.

So I encourage you today to learn your nation’s history. Educate yourselves in the principles of liberty and statecraft. Form a political science book club. Start a blog to stir up conversation of current events. I encourage you to mentor your children by example, remembering that the opposite of civic virtue is not vice but apathy. Therefore, call or write your elected officials. Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Assist in a political campaign. Keep your republic and pass it on to the rising generation.

If you choose not to keep your republic, then know this: alternatives are available. This past century we have witnessed several of them. Communism. Fascism. Totalitarianism. Terrorism. Pork barrelism.

Those alternatives, and others beside them, all succeed or fail according to the degree to which they understand who we are and why we need government. As our Declaration of Independence recognizes, human nature is not of our own making. Rather, we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” No government, nor even We the People acting collectively, can create or destroy an inalienable right to life, liberty, or property. A just government will protect these rights; an unjust government will trample upon them. But these rights remain ours for the claiming either way. As for governments, they remain good only as long as the people whom they serve remain vigilant and virtuous.

Therefore, keep watch.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 78, portrayed the Supreme Court as “the least dangerous” branch of our government. If you suspect that the Supreme Court has become more dangerous than Hamilton foresaw, then encourage the young people in your midst to study hard and go to law school.

The Constitution authorizes Congress to enact any laws “necessary and proper” to the powers explicitly delegated to Congress. If you find some of our laws today to be unnecessary or improper, then it is high time you have a conversation with your legislators—and with your neighbors who voted them into office.

The Constitution requires the President to take an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” As you consider the candidates seeking that office in 2012, hold them to that standard.

But if you find the Constitution itself to be inadequate, then campaign for its amendment. A change in regime, when it becomes necessary, best begins in the hearts and minds of We the People—that means you and your fellow Americans.

“Freedom,” said President George W. Bush, “is the hope of every human heart, the right of every person, and the future of every nation.” This does not come easily. Battles must be fought—sometimes in the fields of operation overseas, but always and especially in the classrooms, cafés, and courthouses of this nation. And I understand some of you are in the habit of attending tea parties where no one actually drinks tea.

Our history has demonstrated time and again that ideas have consequences. In the twenty-first century we have discovered that the text message and the tweet, like the pens of olden days, are mightier than the sword. Our nation, like our home towns and our families, has always depended upon ordinary people dreaming and doing extraordinary things.

But if you discover that the generation before you has neglected any of these responsibilities, then it falls to you to pick up the pieces and carry on. History provides you with many examples. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr., who in the last speech of his life said:

Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.

Yes, these rights belong to you. To preserve these rights for your children and your children’s children, you have a republic—if you can keep it.

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