In 1787, America’s founders were deliberating over the formation of our government. Cloistered away in Independence Hall, their discussions were unheard by the cluster of anxious citizens awaiting the decision. The narrative commonly says that when Benjamin Franklin stepped out of the hall, one waiting woman was quick to ask, “Well doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin was equally quick in his answer, and it has lived on in time: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
What an extraordinary answer that we often take for granted. In 2020, it is important to hold tightly to this great American idea, because the two elements of Franklin’s answer reveal how truly astounding this experiment has been.
Up until the point of our founding, nations were commonly formed under two different banners: ethnic and cultural homogeneity or being drawn together under the rule of whoever was the strongest contender. Even well-known republics from history, like those of Athens or Rome, were deeply divided by class and had no checks and balances on power, enabling the state to wield strength and might as it wished.
Thus, our country was the first of its kind to be glued together with an idea, not ethnicity, nor culture, nor military might. Not only was this new nation brought together under the banner of an idea, but it was organized in a radically new way: self-government.
This leads to the second half of Franklin’s answer: “If you can keep it.”
Our nation is one that cannot afford the apathy of the majority if we wish it to continue. It doesn’t rest on the easy foundation of all looking and living alike, nor is it forcibly held together by a ruler with an iron fist.
No, if we wish this great American idea to continue, the idea that men and women are all equal under God, have inalienable rights, and are capable of governing themselves, it must be held onto. It must be fought for.
We forget how unique America is because we are now surrounded by countries that have exported some of our ideas. This is proof of our success but allows complacency in our defense.
So in 2020, let’s once again hold tightly to this great American idea. Let’s remember that we exist in the freest and most prosperous country the planet has ever known and that this was accomplished through self-government. Let us rejoice in the checks and balances and limited power that built our government.
And then let’s walk forward and do the hard work of keeping this great experiment alive.