As the aged Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall in Philadelphia at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was met by an otherwise unknown “Mrs. Powell.” According to Dr. James McHenry, who recorded the historic exchange for posterity, Mrs. Powell approached the eighty-one year old patriot and asked him: “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or monarchy?”
According to McHenry, Franklin responded immediately with his characteristic Poor Richard wit:
“A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”
What did the “First American” mean by that enigmatic reply? In his wonderful little book by that title, “If You Can Keep It, ” Eric Metaxes delivers an excellent and much more detailed answer than space permits here. You should read it.
Minimally, I think we can say that Franklin was telling Mrs. Powell: “We’ve got a good start.” The United States Constitution that emerged from that historic meeting began what George Washington called “the Great Experiment.” The Constitution entrusted the power of the republic squarely on the shoulders of “We the people.”
By placing power in the hands of the people, and not a monarch or oligarchy, our forefathers were entrusting us with the “keeping.” In fact, that parchment upon which the Constitution is written is of very little value if there is no keeping. It must have been unbelievably challenging for the delegates to imagine this great country – there were no other nations like it before or after. But we modern Americans are finding that the task of keeping is difficult, too.
Perhaps Mr. Franklin meant something more along the lines of: “We’ve got a promise.” And, as we all know, promises aren’t always easily kept. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the Constitution this way. In his “I Have a Dream” speech he called the Constitution a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
In his case, of course, he was speaking of the God-given equality and egality shared by all humans and recognized in this “promissory note.” Even though the promise had not yet been fulfilled in his life; even though the writers of the promissory note weren’t perfect themselves; even though the note itself wasn’t infallible, the power was in the promise itself.
Twenty-five years ago I made a promise to a young woman before God. I haven’t kept that promise perfectly, and haven’t fulfilled every vow I made to her, but the promise still stands. I am responsible to keep that promise. If the Constitution is a promise to our children, we the people have an obligation to keep it.
Self-government and liberty are wonderful ideals enshrined in the Constitution, but they don’t take place in a vacuum. There are bound to be clashes in agendas, values, and limitations of liberty. So how can we keep the republic and keep the promise in a nation with such diversity?
Maybe Franklin meant: “We’ve got an ideal.” John Winthrop, paraphrasing Jesus, intended something like this when he addressed the Massachusetts Bay Colony: “You are a city on a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” The ideal of America, symbolized in the Statue of Liberty, has beckoned men and women from all over the world to our shores. They are drawn by the aim and goal of our nation.
As Franklin left Independence Hall on September 17, 1787, the document was “perfect.” It perfectly espoused the nation’s ideals. But as it was disseminated to the various states, the rubber met the road. Challenges came quickly. There were disagreements. Amendments followed suit. Sometimes ideals and real life clash.
But ideals, however difficult to attain, are like the North Star – they remain constant and continually give direction. Part of the challenge we have in our country today is we’ve forgotten the ideal that is America. We have a hard time seeing past flaws and poor implementation to the point that it is difficult to appreciate what is right in the country.
“A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”
One thing is clear. If we want to keep the republic, we each have a role to play in the keeping. Whether we’re talking about keeping the “great experiment” going, keeping our promises to future Americans, or keeping the ideal alive, each of us is involved. It’s not the Executive’s job. It’s not Congress’s job. It’s not the Judges’ job. It is ours: We the people.
The nation is ours to keep. Jesus reminds us, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand (Mark 3:24).” Squelching free speech. Infringing the rights of others. Impinging dissent. Inhibiting religious liberty. Yelling. Screaming. Hatred. Violence. Disrespect. Division. These things we see in our nation today will not help us keep the republic.
Courage, not dissimilar to that of our revolutionary forefathers, is needed today. Founding father John Dickinson wrote then, but perhaps his wisdom is needed now:
“Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all! By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall!”