I finally figured out what Ben Franklin tried to tell us, and it’s more scary now than at any time I can remember. At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation. In the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, a lady asked Franklin, “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.” I have used that quote numerous times, during the 2016 election and since. But the full import, the dispiriting and frightening truth behind Franklin’s words, didn’t become fully clear to me until today.
I was napping on the sofa, and struggled to consciousness through the hard to escape fog of a particularly realistic dream. You know, one of those that doesn’t want to let you go. It was a dream about a house of illusions, in which my companion and I pursued an illusory character through a series of rooms, each room a scene that presented a peril or a dilemma before the laughing villainous again revealed herself, taunting us and leading us on to the next scenario.
None of the scenes in that house of illusions was especially horrific. But when we exited through the final door, without ever catching up with our prey, we weren’t sure it was really over. For several moments, we looked around warily for another door, waiting for the minions of this particular scene to descend upon us. Such was the totality of the effect. At the end, you see, we weren’t sure the adventure was over, so firmly convinced we were that nothing was as it seemed.
My subconscious mind must have been quietly connecting synapses while I poured a cup of coffee. By the time I sat down at the computer, thinking to do some writing, the reality of Dr. Franklin’s statement overcame me. When we think of that comment we usually and appropriately connect it to the Constitution itself. But the subtle dangers inherent in our Constitution go all the way back to a phrase in the Declaration of Independence, the fundamental, foundational document at the root of America’s existence. Franklin said, on that final day of deliberations, “We have given you a republic, if you can keep it.” The second paragraph of the Declaration begins with “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
That statement is at the core of the Constitution. It means everybody, both good and bad, honorable and dishonorable, loving and bigoted, truthful and non-truthful. It grants equal voice and rights to those who embrace the Constitution, and the Republic, and the freedoms they represent for all Americans, as well as those who would manipulate the former and disassemble the latter for their own purposes.
Ben Franklin’s warning had nothing to do with threats to America from without. It warned us about the Republic’s vulnerability to attacks from within. He was telling us that our Constitution didn’t include the word ‘forever.’ It still doesn’t. Its existence is always vulnerable, subject to attack, due to its most fundamental principal. All men are created equal. The freedom promised to everyone by one of the most forward thinking documents of governance in the history of the world, is in constant peril, because in order to guarantee the freedom of all, it could not exclude any, including those who would commandeer that freedom for themselves and their followers.
The Bill of Rights reaffirmed that guarantee of freedom for all, free speech for all, the right to assemble and be heard and run for office and seek to control the government, for all. Bigots, have your go. White (or any other color) nationalists, take your shot. Religious extremists of any ilk, go for the gold ring. Control of this country is yours for the taking, if you can manage it.
“We gave you a republic, if you can keep it.” The subtle hidden message within that statement warns us that the scoundrels and thieves, tyrants and haters of others, religious extremists and greed mongers also have the right to take it away from us. Franklin warned us that they will, on the day that the rest of us, those of us who truly believe all men, and women, are created equal, give up; the day that those of us who believe ‘love your neighbor’ means everyone, not just the ones who are the same color as me, or have the same sexuality as me, or the same religion as me, are no longer the majority; the day those of us who believe that America is a nation of people, not corporations, lose the will to stand against those who would usurp our Constitution for their own personal agendas. Because the evil among us is always looking and hoping for the opportunity.
“We gave you a republic, if you can keep it.” Benjamin Franklin was warning us that in order to guarantee the rights of all, our forefathers had to take a terrible risk that the very freedoms they guaranteed to everyone might someday be relinquished, to those who were loud enough, and determined enough, and ruthless enough. He was warning us that our Republic would serve and stand for everyone only as long as we remained determined it would do so. The enemy is not out there, it is within us. And today it is stronger and more determined than I have seen within my lifetime, to take our country for all the people, away from everyone in favor of their chosen few.
May 14, 2017, 6:45pm. Just as nothing was as it seemed in my little dream, I’ve come to realize there was much more than there seemed to be in Ben Franklin’s statement. The Constitution we so treasure and the world admires, in guaranteeing the rights of all, also guarantees the right of those who would destroy it, to do so. We have to ask ourselves, are we strong enough, determined enough, to keep our Republic for all the people? ###