Franklin warns congress: “A republic, if you can keep it”

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

December 14, 2014  – Ben Franklin is famous for uttering much wisdom.  His statement to an anxious American on September 18, 1787 in Philadelphia, in response to her question regarding what form of government the people could expect, seemed pessimistic in tone: “A republic if you can keep it.”

While not every member of the Continental Convention agreed on every detail of the proceedings, they all understood what it meant to reject monarchy, or any other form of governance, and pursue a republic.  From Franklin to Abe Lincoln and many other notably wise historical figures world wide, a warning has been repeated over and over to us fortunate sons and daughters of the American Revolution: decay and defeat of great nations comes from within.

The revolt against Great Britain in the 1770s, under the leadership of George Washington for sovereignty, freedom was embraced by all Americans, not just one class or race.  The reason this cause held such universal appeal is due primarily to the fact that they believed the English Crown and a corrupt and complicit Parliament were conspiring to subjugate them to tyranny.  They had much evidence throughout Europe, along side a rapid multiplication of new government officials in the colonies, and the build up of the Crown’s standing army.

Once the Crown and its loyalists had been defeated, Americans knew they had a unique, once in an eternity opportunity.  As Thomas Paine pointed out, the Revolution was intended to “form a new era and give a new turn to human affairs.”  All Americans knew that their republic was not simply an elimination of a king and the institution of an elective system.  “It added a moral dimension, a utopian depth, to the political separation from England – a depth that involved the very character of their society,” says Gordon Wood in The Creation of an American Republic.

Character was held in utmost respect and those traits most cherished were embodied in George Washington: restraint, temperance, fortitude, dignity, independence, frugality, industry, and simplicity.  It was not by faith alone that the character and spirit of a people came to mean so very much.  History told a repetitious story of what happens to a great people when they allow, as written by physician and founding father Benjamin Rush, a love of refinement and a desire for distinction and elegance to make them soft, lazy, apathetic, and too busy to fulfill their roles as citizens of a republic.  John Adams concurred and went on to say that before a nation is deprived of its freedom, “she must be fitted for slavery by her vices.”  With Greece and Rome as classical examples, republics died not from invasions from without but from decay from within.

Jumping forward nearly 100 years an earnest, young, Abe Lincoln in 1838 worried that Americans had lost respect for the Constitution and rule of law, “a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.”  He feared an approaching danger and so in words that sound simultaneously pleading, chastising, and today prescient, he spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! – All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined… could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge… At what point then is the danger to be expected?  I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.  It cannot come from abroad.  If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

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