When asked by a Mrs. Powell, a woman in the gathered crowd following the Constitutional Convention in 1787 whether we had a Republic or a Monarchy, Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” This bit of historical banter is not apocryphal. It was actually recorded by Constitution signer James McHenry in his diary that very moment on that very day.
Oh, how we wish Ben Franklin or any of those other incredible thinkers were around today to shake us from our self-destructive complacency.
We leave partisanship at the proverbial door as we pen this essay. Our republic, more than anything else, is what is at stake in this, and every other midterm election. And that is what we will address today.
Our Founders really had three choices when they convened to construct a new order from the ashes of British colonialism on this continent. They could have constructed an American monarchy, a democracy or a republic. They wisely chose a republican form of government (not to be confused with the political party of the same name) because they understood that it was the only construct that had a chance of serving the new nation well into the future.
A monarchy, they knew, would be of no redeeming value in America (although there were those who supported such a notion). After all, we had just suffered at least 25,000 dead or wounded in the revolution (a toll that to this day is second only to the American Civil War relative to population). We hadn’t thrown off the shackles of British monarchy to create an American monarchy.
Democracies had been tried and had never succeeded. Indeed, pure democracies have had horribly unintended consequences. The Federalist papers, especially Federalist 10, strongly warn against the tyranny to which pure democracies are almost certain to evolve. Indeed, a lynch mob is a pretty good example of pure democracy.
What emerged at Philadelphia in 1787 was a fledging republican form of government that changed the world, as they knew it, and bequeathed to us a nation full of challenge and promise, as we know it.
But there is one catch. It was what Franklin was alluding to when he told Mrs. Powell that we had a republic if we could keep it. Under this new republic the people would not vote for or against a single law at the national level. Instead, they would vote for people who would do that for them. The quality of our republic, he was telling Mrs. Powell, would be no better than the quality of the people the nation sent to represent them. That’s the very essence of a republic.
Power in America was to reside in a body of citizens (us) who elect others to exercise that power, according to law, on our behalf. Indeed, our most fundamental law, our constitution, guarantees numerous individual rights (liberties, if you will) that cannot be taken away or abridged — not even by our elected representatives. Our individual States are also republican in nature as Article IV of the federal constitution “guarantees to every State in this union, a republican form of government.”
James Madison wrote in Federalist10: “… democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.” Fisher Ames who served in Congress during both of the Washington Administrations termed democracy “a government by the passions of the multitude, or, no less correctly, according to the vices and ambitions of their leaders.”
So our founders very wisely constructed a brilliant republican form of government that rested on a foundation of law embodied in the new and incredible Constitution of this very new nation. School children should probably be reminded of Franklin’s admonition to Mrs. Powell each and every day – “you have a republic, if you can keep it.”
So just what was Franklin’s point, or more succinctly, what is our point. Well, here’s the thing. There is nothing magic about our Constitution or its ability to protect our republic. It is just a piece of paper if we, as a people, are not devoted to, indeed insistent upon, caring fiercely about the quality of the thinking and the intelligence of the people we send to Washington every two years.
As American citizens we have only begun to discharge our responsibility when we vote. And if we don’t vote, we deserve the government we get. The health of this republic is largely dependent upon the people being both informed about, and involved in, the issues of the day.
The issues of the day, this day, are all but overwhelming. Statistically, the economy looks better than it did a year ago, but few people are breathing a sigh of relief. Americans, according to the Gallop Organization, are showing little confidence in the future. There seems to be an almost pervasive dissatisfaction, if not dislike, of our elected representatives by the people.
According to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and NPR, Americans want more effective government but a quarter of us believe that the federal government is a major threat to our personal rights and freedoms, half of us believe it is at least some threat and six out of 10 of us believe that the federal government does what is right only some of the time, and another 10 percent of us say it never does what is right. Indeed, we Americans give our elected representatives in Washington a meager 9% approval rating. Wow. Even Muammar Gaddafi, the butcher of Libya, did better with a 14% approval rating the last time we checked.
John Boehner, Speaker of House of Representatives seems unable to control the far right of his Party, which has resulted in the far right, in effect, controlling the House of Representatives. This is ironic, given that more moderate Republicans have pummeled Tea Party candidates in primary after primary this year. Republican voters turned their backs on Tea Party challengers in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas and Tennessee.
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid, does, indeed, control his party, but has used his power recklessly; refusing to allow the Senate to be the more deliberative body the Founders intended it to be — especially when those who wish to deliberate are Republicans. Reid has quashed open debate and deep-sixed the Senate’s long-standing amendment process to an extent that makes a joke of the Senate’s role as America’s essential deliberative body.
Even Democratic challenger Rick Weiland from South Dakota vowed to vote against Reid if he (Weiland) makes it to the Senate. “Harry Reid (and Mitch McConnell) have given us the most dysfunctional government in a generation and they need to step aside,” Weiland said during a recent debate. “They have both failed the American people and it’s time for new leadership,” the gutsy Democrat said.
Absolute control over the Congress of the United States will be determined in just a few days. Think about that. All 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be selected Tuesday as will 36 out of 100 Senators. If the last midterm election (2010) is prologue to what will happen Tuesday, less than 40% of us will show up to determine who in Washington will exercise power on our behalf. What in the world is wrong with us?
Such widespread and pervasive complacency – such failure to exercise our right and our responsibility to vote is, if we might borrow from President Obama’s lexicon, just doing stupid stuff.
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