A Republic, If You Can Keep It | Tenth Amendment Center (2024)

During the fiery hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, a woman patiently waited in front of the locked doors at the Pennsylvania State House. Behind the shackles, a group of representatives of the states, meeting in secrecy, convened to debate and craft the United States Constitution. Many were left mystified as to which type of government would be proposed. By that time, most of the western world only knew monarchy.

The delegates decided upon a grand experiment of the ages: the proposition that man could govern himself. They decided upon a union of states rather than a national government, settling for “a more perfect union.” Throwing monarchy to the wayside, they employed the separation of powers doctrine to ensure that one center of power could not become too dominant over the others. They embraced federalism, and recognized that all powers not enumerated would be reserved to the states and the people.

Emerging from behind the doors, Benjamin Franklin, a man many knew as “Poor Richard Saunders” approached. When asked by the woman what form the new government would take, Franklin answered shrewdly: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Today, Franklin’s words seem especially prophetic. He realized that a vigilant populace was necessary to preserve liberty and the rigid boundaries of the Constitution. According to Franklin, this great experiment depended on maintaining the axioms decided upon in those summer days. Without such activism, the Constitution would read only as a dead letter.

Those who claim that the Constitution provided for democracy as the cornerstone to our political system are historically mistaken. A democracy is an assurance of mob rule, where minority factions lose their liberty through legislation, and when power is consolidated over the subdued masses. This arrangement was intentionally dismissed during the time of ratification. James Madison specifically addressed this issue in The Federalist #10:

“From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”[1]

Later in this essay, Madison illustrated the alternative: “the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic, — is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it.”[2] A republic, according to Madison, “promises the cure for which we are seeking.”[3]

Then serving as James Madison’s coadjutor, John Jay noted: “Pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries.”[4] In the Philadelphia Convention, Edmund Randolph said, “in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”[5]

Alexander Hamilton, the organizer of The Federalist essays, said the following of democracy at New York’s Ratifying Convention of 1788:

“It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”[6]

In opposition to democracy, a republic ensures that minority rights are protected. Individuals embody the smallest minority on earth, and are not exceptions to this creed. The individual was supposed to be superior to the collective. Individual rights were recognized, collectivized rights were not.

Franklin wisely understood that the value of liberty necessitated a republican form of government.

I sometimes run into people that have become disenfranchised with the constitutional system. They contend that the Constitution is ineffectual and completely unsuccessful, often basing their claims on the propensity of government to violate its restrictions. While their claims find merit, these individuals often fail to identify a key platitude that explains how the federal government has degenerated throughout the last two centuries.

The Constitution doesn’t enforce itself, and Franklin’s reply proves that he was keenly aware of this fact. Instead, it takes the dedication of individuals and localities acting as agitators to hold federal officials accountable. The founders realized that the document does not protrude fangs or grow a scorpion’s tail to bite or sting a violating offender. Instead, it requires the actions of individuals to reject this tendency. It often requires great losses in property, fortune, and reputation to do so. Constitutions are no more supernatural than the paper they are written on.

Considering this, what if Patrick Henry was right in objecting to the Constitution? What if George Mason correctly noted that the government which would rise from the plaster of its mold would be repugnant? What if Robert Yates and John Lansing astutely realized that dubious representatives were plotting to overpower the states through a national takeover?

Despite the seemingly accurate prognostication of these men, we cannot simply abandon the constitutional system because the figures currently in power don’t respect the Constitution. Their aims must be obstructed through creative and flagrant methods, sparked by individuals and states. Indeed, Madison wrote that states should “present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”[7] Pernicious tenacities can still be opposed today if an indignant and vexed populace makes sure of it.

The impeachment power notated in Article II, Section IV was no suggestion, and can be fully utilized with enough political pressure. Nullification can prevent the federal government from enforcing unconstitutional actions within a state, and acts to protect individual liberty. Strength in the people’s numbers sets us free, and even the lofty resources of the federal government can’t counteract all forces aligned against unconstitutional policy. The federal government simply can’t enforce all it desires to when confronted with enough organized resistance.

Despite the brevity of Franklin’s response to the woman in Philadelphia, his words proved his immaculate foresight and provided a lesson to us all. As Samuel Adams said, “The liberties of our Country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending at all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attack.” The continued health of our republic depends on it.

[1] The Federalist #10, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist, Edited by Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1961), 61.

[2] Ibid, 64.

[3] Ibid, 62.

[4] John Jay to Judge Peters, March 14, 1815, in George Pellew, American Statesmen: John Jay (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1890), 324.

[5] James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), 42.

[6] James Madison, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Volume II, Edited by Jonathan Elliot (Washington: Taylor & Maury, 1861), 250.

[7] The Federalist #46, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist, Edited by Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1961), 319-320.

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A Republic, If You Can Keep It | Tenth Amendment Center (1)

Dave Benner [website] speaks and writes on topics related to the United States Constitution, founding principles, and the early republic. Dave is also the author of Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism and Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution. See his blog archive here, his article archive here, and his patreon page here.

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