Dear Ben (if I may),
I know it takes an article of faith to presume these words might reach you, but faith sustains much of the world, so I thought I would give it a try. You were one of the most celebrated and perceptive thinkers of your time. You were an internationally renowned scientist, inventor, and diplomat. You were also America’s greatest political philosopher, and the senior statesman at that extraordinary meeting in Philadelphia 234 years ago when you and 68 other patriots produced our most sacred document, the Constitution of the United States of America. Sadly, you were the first of your compatriots to pass away only twenty-one months after playing such an essential role in creating this most precious gift to all of us.
Ben, you may recall that Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of Philadelphia Mayor, Samuel Powel, was among those who were eagerly awaiting word of what had transpired at the just-concluded constitutional convention. She asked you, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got a republic or a monarchy?” According to notes of the exchange, you replied to Mrs. Powel, “A republic if you can keep it.” To which Mrs. Powel shot back, “And why not keep it?”
It was reported that you replied, “Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”
That probably sounded a bit cryptic when people first heard of your exchange with Mrs. Powel. Still, when George Washington was elected to be our first President in 1789 by all 69 electors who participated in that first vote for President, you elaborated, “The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterward.” Well, Ben, we’ve had a lot of good men at the helm, and as you presumed, some real clunkers too.
You were prescient when expressing your fears about the durability of our new democracy. I still marvel at what you said when the drafting was complete. “I agree to this Constitution,” you said, and you continued, “I believe, further, 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.” History recognizes you as a thinker for the ages, Ben, but I pray you were not a prophet as well.
Ben, I’ll get right to the point. The country you served for so long and in so many capacities is riven with dissension. I think you and most of your colleagues would be heartbroken at just how divided our country is today. The formation of political parties, or factions as they were referred to in your day, that you and George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison so dreaded did evolve almost immediately, as you knew they would.
Your concerns were well-founded, Ben. All of you were concerned that political parties, rather than becoming a rigorous source of competing ideas, would simply become strident opposing forces fighting for power. Our two main political parties are no longer simply advocates of differing ideas but rather antagonists in opposing camps primarily dedicated to defeating the other, almost at any cost.
Today, political discourse has grown contemptuous rather than contemplative. While you and the others at that remarkable constitutional convention didn’t always see eye-to-eye on the same issues, you were all pulling the same oar and shared a similar vision. It was a grand and audacious vision that changed the world, Ben. Today it seems as though every Democrat thinks every Republican is a fascist, and every Republican thinks every Democrat is a Marxist, at worst, and a socialist at best. These political philosophies, neither of which had gained currency in your day, are inimical to the American story. But that is how half the people in our country seem to view the other half.
Even when America is attacked and American servicemen are killed, our political parties, both of them, immediately grasp the opportunity to malign the leadership of the other. We had just such an example this week Ben; an awful example. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but thirteen American servicemen were killed, and over one hundred others died in a vicious bombing on the other side of the world. This was a horrible event that, at one time, would have had all Americans pulling together. Not this time though.
As one of America’s fine newspapers, The Arizona Republic, editorialized, “Republicans are using this moment, this failure to plan a complete and strategic retreat, to batter the Biden White House. Were the tables turned Democrats would do the same, unmercifully. There was a time when Americans believed our differences ended at the water’s edge, but there is so much internal strife in the country that we aren’t likely to see that again soon. Perhaps not in our lifetime.” There is no question that there will be a time for serious recriminations, but today one party literally couldn’t even wait until the smoke cleared. And as the editorial correctly observed, the other party would have behaved the same way.
Ben, the concerns you expressed about human nature, that man always seems to drift toward despotism, were prophetic concerning the rest of the world because that is what has happened at one time or another almost everywhere, but so far not here in America. So far, the institutions you and your colleagues created have kept our democracy intact. Our democracy has certainly been tested. So far, however, the guardrails you created with our other founders like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton have held, but, it seems, just barely.
The ruling monarchies you were worried about over in Europe pretty much died out during the twentieth century. Ten monarchies disappeared in one year between 1914 and 1915, a time of unspeakable carnage and bloodshed.
While those monarchies generally (but not always) gave way to democracies modeled after the one you and your colleagues created for us, we have seen democracy after democracy trashed by authoritarian strongmen who used democratic institutions to attain power and then destroyed those very same institutions to hold on to power. During the last one hundred years, we have seen many democracies descend into strong-arm authoritarian regimes. It happened in Poland from 1926 to 1989, Germany from 1933 to 1945, Austria from 1933 to 1945, and Spain from 1939 to 1976. It happened in Latin America too—in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, Chile from 1973 to 1990, Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 and then again from 2006 to the present, and even Venezuela from 2002 to the present.
The story has always been the same. Politicians gained power through democratic means and then schemed to keep control by dismantling the very democratic institutions that brought them to power. Even Hungary, which fought so hard for its democracy, has seen its democratic institutions enfeebled today, as has Poland and other countries in the Balkans.
Ben, our country, and a few other democratic countries recently funded a study through a non-governmental organization called Freedom House and found “a stunning democratic breakdown.” Specifically, fewer democracies were found among the twenty-nine countries studied than at any point since these studies began over twenty-five years ago.
Ben, we’ve seen democracies, time and time again, devolve into authoritarian regimes run by authoritarian strongmen just as you predicted they would. These authoritarian figures who enter the political arena invariably claim to be outsiders to the political establishment and vow to “get tough” on everyone they target as having sapped the nation’s strength, thereby saving the country. The technique is the same everywhere, and it seems to be very effective. Authoritarian strongmen often target many different groups; you know, minorities, immigrants, the political opposition, and, always, the established national leaders. Authoritarian strongmen tend to view these groups as both personal and national enemies. We’ve seen it so many times in the past, Ben, as you knew we would.
I will not be surprised if readers of this open letter to you comment by finding in it a reason to attack the current President or his predecessor. Among your many inventions Ben was the bifocal eyeglass to help those who were either farsighted or shortsighted to see more clearly. Perhaps, our best way to thank you would be for all of us who are the beneficiaries of your foresight to really work to see things more clearly. There is so much at stake.
I don’t know if my words will reach you, but I’ll try from time to time. Ben, I know you are pulling for us.
With heartfelt thanks for all you’ve given us.
Your steadfast admirer,
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