What can we do to keep it?
The Compass, August 2022
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At the close of the Constitutional convention, history reports that a woman stopped Benjamin Franklin in the streets of Philadelphia and asked, “Well Mr. Franklin, what kind of government do we have?” To which Mr. Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it!” (James McHenry’s journal.)
What were the conditions leading up to this convention that made the writing of the Constitution possible, and what were Mr. Franklin’s concerns about being able to maintain the Republic? The answers to these two questions are critical in understanding the “spirit” of the Constitution as well as the letter of the law.
As to the first question, the people of the American colonies were perfectly prepared to accept the principles of a free government. In his book, Burdens of Freedom, Lawrence Mead wrote about the changing societal norms that took place in western Europe, which laid the foundation for a growing desire for freedom and individualism in the people.
First, Mead advocates that from the fall of the Roman empire through the enlightenment period, many governments moved away from societies of order to societies of freedom. Societies of order were characterized by absolute power and control by the rulers with little regard for the interest and advancement of their citizens. They saw people as mere pawns of servitude. While societies of freedom prioritized the agency of man and the importance of the individual. Societies of freedom protected man’s rights and liberty.
Second, Mead asserts the growth of Christian faiths and teachings of religious leaders helped to alter man’s view of himself from mere servants of the state to one of divine individuals full of possibilities—both temporal and spiritual. This paradigm shift only strengthened man’s desire to be in control of his or her life. There were secular changes as well. These changes came about over centuries. The literature of philosophers, scientists, and physicians added to the education of everyday citizens. Writers, including Locke, Aristotle, Cicero, de Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Smith, added to people’s desire for more autonomy over their own lives and they became less willing to submit to strong, central governments that were often corrupt. Many people seeking freedom found refuge in Great Britain and the Netherlands, which became a springboard for a small group who fled northern Europe for the New World on the American continent in search of greater freedom and self-government.
Third, the Puritans and Pilgrims mustered the courage to leave Europe, and found in North America, a new world sparsely populated, with ample natural resources and a land with no formal government. The principles of self-governance that the Pilgrims put into the Mayflower Compact would have a lasting impact on the future regional governments in the colonies, ultimately leading to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson captured these beautiful and politically significant concepts in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The first concept is that these rights were given by our Creator—by whatever name one wants to use. Period writings from our nation’s founders, including personal letters, show that faith in a Divine Creator, religion, and religious principles played a large role in influencing the writing of our laws. The founders did not want religion to be a litmus test for office, but they did not intend the government to be devoid of faith. They prayed often for divine guidance as they worked through the writing of the Constitution. They knew no government could write laws to cover every evil and nefarious act. They expected citizens to live under an overarching umbrella of honesty, integrity, and reverence for their Creator.
The second concept is the right to life. Locke points out in his Second Treatise of Government, Chapter IX that if by natural law, man is free and the absolute lord of all his possessions, property, and life, it then follows that everyone can and should protect themselves from aggressive and threatening behavior on the part of another. If a man is equal to every other man and is not subserviate to any other man, it is consistent that no man has the right to terminate another’s life. To do so would be to suggest that one is greater than the other in the eyes of his Creator. Taking innocent life is a heinous crime and is severely punished in almost all modern societies.
The third concept is liberty, which is closely related to the pursuit of happiness. The right to choose one’s direction in life is a sacred right and is essential to self-progress and joy. The protection of possessions and property is essential for a free people. John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, gives guidance on the subject in Chapter V. Nature provides natural resources that are held in common by all men. However, Locke pointed out, that once a man adds to any one of the gifts of nature an element of his own labor, the gift in question changes in status from “held in common” to “private property” and is no longer able to be held by another. By way of example, a tree once held in common by all men, which is felled, milled, and cut for the purpose of making shelter, cannot be possessed or taken by another without the consent of the former. The tree becomes the sole possession of the man who added his labor to the tree. This possession is now protected, in a free society, from theft or confiscation by any person or authority. All possessions and property are, by natural law, an unalienable right. To be able to increase one’s wealth is an integral part of the pursuit of happiness, because having wealth facilitates freedom and liberty.
So, what were the conditions that lead to the convention that made the writing of the Constitution possible? First, recognizing that the God of Heaven gave us our rights and freedoms—not governments. Second, that government should protect those rights and be controlled by the people rather than government controlling people and making them subject to tyranny. Third, the terms Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness had overarching and timeless definitions and were not just general euphemisms. Finally, the people understood that living according to a moral compass where respect for others is present, liberty and prosperity are possible. All of these were present during the founding of our country.
Now for the second question. Why was Mr. Franklin concerned about maintaining the republic? Mr. Franklin’s first concern was federal government overreach. He, along with the others, understood the natural proclivity of all men, that as soon as they gain a little power, they begin to abuse that power. The founders wrote the Constitution in such a way as to limit the powers of the federal government, and to push the powers of government down to the lowest possible levels to help counteract this tendency. The Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights expresses the principle that undergirds the entire plan of the Constitution: which is the federal level of government only possesses the powers expressly given to it by the people and that all other powers reside with the local and state levels. The Tenth Amendment makes sure the states keep a significant amount of power for themselves, as a safeguard to the freedoms of everyone in the new government. Federal governments that constantly seek more power and control over the people are in direct opposition to the intent of the Constitution.
Second, the states should have sufficient power, both individually and collectively, to counter any attempt by the federal government to increase its power and control over the nation. Again, the Tenth Amendment and Federalist Paper #46 address this in detail. Most are familiar with the Tenth Amendment, giving most duties of government to the state and local governments. However, few are aware that in Federalist Paper #46, Madison clearly states that the people would give greater loyalty to their states in counteracting a grab for power by the federal government, further strengthening the intent of the Tenth Amendment. Also, present in Federalist Paper #46 is the rationale and justification for the Second Amendment, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, which is a final protection against central government abuses.
Third, was the need for the people to elect honest and moral representatives, senators, and presidents who were conversant with the ideals of the Constitution and had an absolute desire to protect the Constitution from people with evil and nefarious designs. They should live according to the natural law of the Creator, as discussed in Locke’s Second Treaty of Government.
Fourth, was that the average citizen must become familiar with the design, purpose, and operation of the Constitution and how it works to run the nation. Additionally, they needed to stay informed of the direction of the government at all levels to be able to thwart any attempt at abuse.
So how are we doing today? Just a few examples seem to suggest not very well. Career politicians who seem to be more interested in personal gain, which suggests a need for term limits, the 17th Amendment minimizing the voice of the states at the national debate, presidential executive orders by-passing the legislative processes, out-of-control spending by Congress, involvement in foreign wars, and failure to defend the rule of law all in opposition to the letter and spirit of the Constitution demonstrate a disturbing trend.
Mr. Franklin was profoundly serious when he said, “If you can keep it,” and it seems we haven’t done a good job of “keeping it.”
Fellow Americans, my plea for you is to become more educated about the Constitution and teach it to your families. Vote to preserve the freedoms and rights of the Republic. Elect representatives, senators, and presidents who will support and defend the Constitution. We need to return to the original intent. We need to be accountable for our own actions. Finally, what we need most is more morality, more faith, and more reverence for our Creator.
Long live the Republic!