There is a story, often told, that on the last day of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, citizens of Philadelphia gathered outside Independence Hall to learn what form of national government the convention had produced during the closed-door meetings.
A woman approached Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic…if you can keep it.”
From our historical perspective – 229 years later – it may seem like an absurd question. After all, the colonists had just fought the Revolution to overthrow a monarch, so why would the Constitutional Convention produce another monarchy? But Americans had been raised as the subjects of a monarchy. Monarchies were the most dominant form of government throughout history, and they were still the prevalent form of government around much of the world at that time.
The notion that people could live in a free country with individual liberty was almost unheard of. Plus, in the 1780s, many Americans expected that George Washington might be president for life – a kind of elected monarch.
So the question wasn’t absurd. And Franklin wasn’t being flippant with his answer. Those five words – “if you can keep it” – held a deep meaning to him. Franklin, like most of the Founders, had been greatly influenced by the republics of antiquity, especially the ancient republic of Rome. And he knew – as did all the Founders – that it was difficult to keep a republic alive and well. (For the record, the dictionary definition of a “republic” is “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.” And – importantly – the head of state is not a monarch.)
Gordon S. Wood – an award-winning author and professor of history – has written extensively on the American founding and the differences between monarchies and republics. Monarchs, he says, possessed a number of means for holding their diverse and corrupt societies together. Republics, on the other hand, possessed few of the “adhesive attributes of monarchies. Therefore, order…would have to come from below, from the virtue or selflessness of the people themselves. Yet precisely because republics were so utterly dependent on the people, they were also the states most sensitive to changes in the moral character of their societies.
“In short, republics were the most delicate and fragile kinds of states. There was nothing but the moral quality of the people themselves to keep republics from being torn apart by factionalism and division. Republics were thus the states most likely to experience political death. Without virtue and self-sacrifice, republics would fall apart.”
Here, in 2016, we take it as a matter of faith that the colonists united, threw off an oppressive monarchy in a long, hard-fought war, then created a republic that grew to span the continent and became the greatest nation on earth. That outcome, however, was far from certain.
“After all,” Wood says, “those thirteen colonies made up an insignificant proportion of the Western world, numbering perhaps two million people, huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast, three thousand miles from the centers of civilization.”
But the Americans “began their Revolution in a spirit of high adventure. They knew they were embarking on a grand experiment in self-government. That experiment remained very much in doubt during the first half of the nineteenth century, especially during the Civil War, when monarchy still dominated all of Europe. Hence we can understand the importance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which he described the Civil War as a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty could long endure. This idea that republican government was a perilous experiment was part of America’s consciousness from the beginning.”
So Franklin well knew what he was saying that day outside Independence Hall. Many nations had lived and died before we began our grand experiment. The death of Rome was of particular interest. Reading about the fall of Rome from the great Latin writers of antiquity, people of the eighteenth century came to realize, Wood says, “that the Roman republic became great not simply by the force of its arms; nor was it destroyed by military might. Both Rome’s greatness and its eventual fall were caused by the character of its people.
“As long as the Roman people maintained their love of virtue, their simplicity and equality,” their scorn of great social distinctions, “and their willingness to fight for the state, they attained great heights of glory. But when they became too luxury-loving, too obsessed with refinements and social distinctions, too preoccupied with money,” and too self-indulgent to fight for the state, “their politics became corrupted, selfishness predominated, and the dissolution of the state had to follow. Rome fell not because of the invasions of the barbarians from without, but because of decay from within.”
In 1852, Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth, in a speech here in the United States, said that it was “America’s destiny to become the cornerstone of Liberty on earth. Should the Republic of America ever lose this consciousness of this destiny,” that moment would be the beginning of America’s decline.
It’s been 229 years since Franklin said, “a republic…if you can keep it.” America may not still have that “new-republic smell” like when it was first driven off the showroom floor. There may be some dents and dings and rips in the upholstery, but the republic is still here. Through good times and lean, we have somehow managed to survive. Perhaps against all odds, America – this grand experiment in self-government and freedom – is still the beacon of hope and the “cornerstone of Liberty on earth.”
Can we keep it alive? That depends on us, the citizens of this great nation. As with Rome, the republic relies on “our moral character, our virtue and self-sacrifice.” Let us be equal to the task so that in 200 years, it can be said, “a republic…and you have kept it.”
Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.