Carole Owens: Franklin's timely warning

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

STOCBRIDGE — Today, many quote Benjamin Franklin's statement "A republic if you can keep it."

The quote is found in notes made by Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Congress 1787. The quote prompts the question: what is a republic? On the day the words were spoken, what was Franklin thinking?

On Sept. 15, 1787 all 55 Constitutional Congress delegates attended a dinner at City Tavern. They ate and drank and argued. Compromise after compromise enabled a rough agreement. Even so there was dissension.

In the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall today), they sat from May to September. Now, in the eleventh hour, it might come to naught. They risked leaving without a final document. It was Sept. 17, 1787 and Franklin rose.

Just standing was not easy for the 81-year-old. There were days when Franklin was carried to the meetings. Still he rose and said, "I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present [however] the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgments and pay more respect to the judgments of others our enemies are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded [and we] only meet to cut each other's throats Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution."

The motion passed unanimously. The deliberations were over. There was a Constitution of the United States of America. Leaving, Franklin was stopped by a Maryland delegate.

"Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a monarchy?"

Over the centuries, the story changed. In one version a man-on-the-street stopped Franklin; in another it was a woman. Whoever asked the question, the answer remained the same, "A republic if you can keep it."

Until that day, both questioner and the man who answered lived in a monarchy. As did every delegate, and none liked it. The colonists tried to negotiate terms with an absolute ruler and failed. They took up arms. Now they sat down with pen in hand. The Constitution was a radical shift of power.

According to the dictionary, a republic is "a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch."


Article Continues After These Ads

The Constitution was carefully thought out after a lifetime of monarchical rule. Yet the men who deliberated, who wrote the words, and who sold the Constitution through the Federalist Papers, were informed by more than their experience. They were well-read and guided by the greatest thinkers from the Greeks to the moderns.

Based on knowledge and experience, the delegates believed the best way to lay power in the laps of the people was to divide it among the three branches of government. Then give to each branch the power to check the actions of the other two in order to maintain the balance between the three.

No delegate was na ve. They all assumed the words would be challenged by greedy and power-hungry men. Franklin was sounding the alarm, and that alarm has reverberated for centuries. Against all who wished to do as they pleased without consequence, all who thought position would protect them, and all who thought money would buy power, the Constitution helped the people to keep it.

A republic is by definition a representative democracy. It rests on the assumption that the elected officials will represent the will of the people or the people will vote them out. Thereby, "supreme power is held by the people."

What if money — the funding of campaigns — comes between the people and the candidate? What if the elected official represents the monied class? What if the balance between the three branches is corrupted and one branch, say the executive branch, seizes extra power? What if that executive demands loyalty so while 72 percent of the people want this, and the executive wants that, the people are ignored? What if 60,000,000 voters support that executive while there are 179,000,000 eligible voters, but that executive encourages voter suppression or international interference, so the majority's voice is not heard?

It is a "necessity for judges to do the right thing even when unpopular, to dispense justice dispassionately, to promote consistency in the law, and to be content serving in anonymity."

Who said that? Was it a bi-coastal liberal? No, it was Trump appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

"[Trump defenders] move from the ridiculous to the embarrassing and do violence to the Constitution."

Did an east coast intellectual or a west coast socialist write that? No, it is a quote from the conservative National Review founded by Republican William F. Buckley Jr.     

Franklin sounded the alarm: "A republic if you can keep it."

Franklin also said, "A nation of well-informed men cannot be enslaved."

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions