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According to the Maryland delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was reportedly approached by a lady with a question as the convention drew to a close. The Constitutional Convention had been called to address several critical issues facing the fledgling confederacy of colonies. There were several domestic issues, involving among other things, national defense, taxes and commerce to be resolved. It must be understood that the 1777 Articles of Confederation (which served as the written document that established the functions of the national government) did not empower the new government to tax, control commerce or regulate many other domestic affairs.
For example, since Congress lacked the power to levy taxes, it depended on financial contributions from the states to repay foreign loans, as well as the soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. Several of the states would not participate, and since the former colonies (now states) themselves often engaged in economic discrimination against each other, the fledgling nation faced doubts as to its ability to survive. There were those, both at home and abroad, who wondered if any treaties with the new nation were valid. In point of fact, the young nation was essentially bankrupt and something had to be done.
The founders, via the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, convened 55 delegates to “devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”
There were a number of issues facing the delegates: the liberties of conscience, protection of creditors and debtors, and, of course, the issue of slaves and slave owners. While there were other issues, these were some of the major topics to be addressed.
The colonies had recently been subjected to rule by a monarch, by dictate, and had lacked the freedom to make decisions for themselves, by themselves. The overriding concern now was, how would they subsequently be governed?
The question posed by this lady to Franklin was rooted in the concerns of many: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Benjamin Franklin reportedly replied, “A republic Madame, if you can keep it.”
Two were two critical issues in Franklin’s short response and both are vitally important. Failure to grasp either of them would be extremely detrimental to the future of the 13 colonies then and our 50 states today.
“A republic”: The United States Constitution created what we now know as a representative republic, one of the few in the world. It is vital that we comprehend that America is not a democracy and was never intended to be one, no matter who calls it such. “Democracy” never once appears in the Constitution. This is why; in a democracy, the majority makes laws directly. Put another way, it can easily become, essentially, mob rule. However, in a representative republic, elected representatives, chosen by the people, make the laws and are subject to the laws according to the limited powers assigned them in a written document.
“… if you can keep it”: Prior to the American revolution, most nations were ruled by kings or dictators. The people were subject to them, had nothing to do with rulership and had no responsibility for, or say so in, their own destinies. The founders’ intent was clearly demonstrated by their assignment of the destiny of the people to the people. The people were to be responsible for their own future and the future of their children. “We the people” was more than merely a slogan or poetic phrase. It was indicative of the desire and intent of the founders for the people to become and remain active in their own destinies.
“… if you can keep it” was a dire warning. The liberties endowed by our Constitution were in the hands of the people themselves; they were not to be delegated, inherited or passed on by virtue of status. It was anticipated that the people themselves would become knowledgeable and remain actively involved in the defense and maintenance of their own liberties.
There was to be “liberty and justice for all” – not for a privileged few or the rioting many, but individual liberty secured by an informed citizenry participating in their own representative governance.
Is that what is presently taking place in America, or have we abandoned our republic to a privileged few professional politicians and political party hacks?
Who do/should/would we hold accountable for the loss of our republic? Us or them?
“Well, America, what have we got?”