An open letter to Benjamin Franklin

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,

Hal

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26 thoughts on “An open letter to Benjamin Franklin”

  1. Hal, In my opinion, this is the most brilliant essay of the many brilliant essays you have written! The loss of our democracy is evolving before our very eyes. Where are the Ben Franklins of our world today? It certainly does not appear to be in the adult population of our nation…..we are lost. Perhaps the youth of the next generation can provide our salvation as a CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY!

  2. It is a sad state that the bifocals are rose colored rather the clear lensed view you provide.There are too many who wish to pretend your words are far too negative and dare I say biased to which I proclaim NUTZ—Hal keep on keeping on

  3. This is a great post, Hal — and a dire warning to all of us. What I don’t understand is why. We all have a vote — at least for the moment, as we have seen, Congresspersons can be voted out of office and autocratic Presidential candidates can lose an election. So far, our institutions have protected us from the worst nightmare scenario- a deadly insurrection – but as you mentioned, just barely. It is the people who support and vote for the laws which allow an autocratic candidate to take power, knowing the consequences. All of the warning signals are there for everyone to see — scapegoating rhetoric, fear mongering, threats to imprision political rivals, tendencies toward violence, very often, a power-hungry demagogue or cult-like leader who has no sense of history, no interest in the rule of law, no philosophical headlights or braking system– only a pure, raw lust for power.

    So, why would anyone give up the freedoms provided by a democratic republic to vote for a strongman candidate or his acolytes who will destroy the institutions that provide the freedoms? If we allow this to happen in our country, today, it is on all of us who failed to protect our elections and the coming the collapse of our great country.

  4. Certainly this blog raised the standard of quality to a new high. But of the entire American population under age 18 how many would even know about Ben Franklin, George Washington,Alexander Hamilton, or James Madison or what they wrote,discussed and accomplished? True history classes have become history. Your article today should be In The NY Times today instead of their run of the mill garbage.

  5. Your open letter to Ben might be as close as you will get to him. But, your readers were reminded as well.
    With appreciation,
    Susan Duman

  6. To clarify — I was referring above to the vote for redistricting and for laws that allow an autocrat to rise – specifically, the laws which make voting access more difficult. Free and fair elections are the beating heart of our democracy — we have seen forms of voting suppression in our 2020 election — and now again, legislated in 18 states. I don’t understand why the people of our country would vote to replace our democratic institutions with an autocrat who would destroy them, but I have to agree with other comments – unless these significant trends can be reversed, our country is lost.

  7. A wonderful essay to be sure.
    We of course all feel the same today as we see a Federal
    Government never intended to be so powerful over the people.
    As Lincoln demanded throw the Lobbyists out and we will again enjoy a republic.
    The fall of America which is so evident has many root causes
    least of which is the younger generation,lack of religious tolerance, understanding the value of individual rights, and
    entrenched politicians in local and state and federal power.
    The bureaucrats power and the people’s lowered voices today
    contribute to our decline in liberty and independence.
    Once again the stilling of opposition voices is chilling to the
    power and force of our country.

    Sadly there is little debate over legislation and information is
    so difficult to ascertain.

    Congratulations on a great essay. Thank you

  8. Hal, an outstanding letter to Ben. I hope it reaches him and many others. Term limits for Congress and the Supreme Court, and the revocation of Citizens United would be beneficial to our Country in avoiding authoritarianism.

  9. Good morning Hal,
    Your Weekly writings are more than articulate articles , they are frequently “political poetry “ to me .
    Your perceptions, your unique perspectives ,your scholarly accounts of our history, and your weekly descriptions of our increasingly shattered democracy , all painful truths,
    often bring tears to my Sunday Morning breakfast …today included.. warmly, Jo

  10. If the founders could read your brilliant essay they would be both astonished and sad at how far and fast our republic has moved off its moorings. I weep for our children, their children, and generations to come.

  11. I wonder, Hal, how many of your readers and contributors see themselves described in this compelling, brilliant essay

  12. Hal, Thank you for this clearly written and thought out essay. Your perspective, cleverly used by a letter
    To “Ben” made your opinion clear and
    especially understandable.
    Thank you
    Sandy Swirnoff

  13. As Bob Borns says, no children under the age of 18 have no clue who Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, orJames Madison. Boards of Education have dropped history, math, music, the arts and substituted with Critical Race Theory, 1619 Theory, or some other poppycock.

    Oregon just signed a bill that their children need not graduate with any knowledge of math, reading, or writing. Why send children to public schools? We are educating mental pygmies.
    Maybe we deserve a dictatorship.

  14. This was a brilliant essay…One that everyone should save and show to others. I never thought in a million years, that our country could become the contentious and vitriolic atmosphere that we are seeing today. I fear for the future and, wish there were more in congress who would stand up for our country and not just follow the party line which has become mired in “doing nothing..except saying no to any forward looking ideas for all; not just the privileged.

  15. Beautifully written about a very scary and sad
    State of affairs. Is this the USA?
    Thank you for this essay

  16. Incredibly written ! We are so fortunate to
    Receive your thought provoking articles. The press has much to learn from you. Thanks, Hal

  17. This was a splendid all encompassing article which should be read on the floor of the House and Senate.
    Please forward to the WSJ to publish .Keep up the great work
    Proud of your analysis.

  18. This was the best Hal! it choked me up.I don’t have the words, however I’m thankful that you do. I sent this to everyone I know, and they had the same reaction..keep ’em comin’

  19. Hal, you did it again! This was an exceptional piece of writing. As Robert Borns suggested, this should be sent to The NY Times, and other major newspapers. Your essays don’t get to enough people. I’m going to make sure some I know who don’t get them get this one.
    Congrats.

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