“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

The legend has it that a crowd had gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia as the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention were concluding in 1787. As Benjamin Franklin exited the Hall, a woman called out, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  To which Franklin replied:  “A republic, if you can keep it.”

This story was told repeatedly by members of both parties during last year’s impeachment of President Trump.  Obviously, telling the story didn’t resolve the issue one way or the other.

Who cares about the Constitution anymore?  Many Americans still do.  And all Americans should.  Not the Constitution created out of various interpretations of the Bill of Rights, but the Constitution itself and the form of the Constitutional order it was written to create and protect.

Let there be no mistake:  Greater respect for the Constitutional order and a willingness to sacrifice our “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in its preservation are the only things standing between us and tyranny.  It might be the tyranny of chaos, the tyranny of a political party, or the tyranny of a political ideology, but tyranny is afoot in the land and tyranny there will be, unless we renew our dedication to the republican form of government bequeathed to us.

What I simply cannot understand is why every school, college, and university in the nation is not requiring courses on the Constitution and The Federalist Papers.  How does anyone graduate from high school or college without having a required level of understanding of the text of the Constitution?  I am not talking about some modern understanding of how the Bill of Rights should be applied — we can leave arguments about “incorporation” of rights through the Fourteenth Amendment and all discussions of the “penumbras” and “emanations” to a later date — but a solid, foundational course on the basic structure and form of the Constitution.


Could you build respect for Shakespeare without reading his texts?  So too, who would be so foolish as to imagine that young Americans (and our guest students from other countries) could learn to love and appreciate the Constitution if they have little or no understanding of it?

Comedian Jay Leno used to do a comedy bit on “The Tonight Show” asking young adults questions about some basic facts of American history and government.  How many branches of government?  Who is the Secretary of State?  How many Senators from each state?  Everyone would laugh uproariously as person after person failed to answer even the simplest questions.  This isn’t funny anymore.  It’s tragic.  And the tragedy is playing out across the nation every day.

So if a rich person or foundation wanted to “make a difference” (and they all say they do), might I suggest funding courses on the Constitution and the Founding documents in every high school, college, and university in the country.

Is anyone unclear on why we’re suffering so badly politically during the pandemic?  We’ve trained a lot of specialized technicians who have little or no idea how to evaluate the evidence they get in their specialized discipline in light of information and evidence supplied by the other disciplines.  And very few understand how these various bits of technocratic knowledge can be ordered so as to make prudent political judgments.  Each discipline has its own area, its own specialized methodology, and increasingly, its own reigning ideology.  What they lack is any sense of the common good.

Individually, Americans remain ingenious, creative, and generous, even heroic.  And yet, our political establishment and government institutions are increasingly dysfunctional.  Fewer and fewer people seem content to abide by the Constitutional restrictions on their governmental powers and activities.  They cloak themselves in the Constitution, and then act according to their own whims and will-to-power, suffering under the presumption that if, with a little power and control, I can do this much good (or good “as my group sees it”), then how much more good would I be able to do if I had even more power and control over even more things?

Respect for the particular genius of a republican form of government organized according to the principle of the separation of powers and a system of checks-and-balances is giving way each year to rule by the mob (often mistaken for “democracy”), control by “expert” bureaucratic agencies, or government by judicial fiat rather than legislative compromise.  We increasingly find ourselves subject to those we did not elect, polls we did not participate in, and a social media no one respects except those who have successfully monetized or manipulated it.

Too often foundations support particular political causes rather than supporting the even greater need for a citizenry schooled in the Constitution.  I could not get this appeal published in the usual venues for conservative political thought, so busy are they with back-logged articles on the most recent partisan dust-ups.  An appeal for courses on the Constitution is dull stuff to them.  Positions in political science departments are reserved for ideologues “of the right sort,” and those in “political science” see little or no benefit or prestige to be gained in supporting what they consider to be that “lesser step-child” over in “political theory.”

Would you donate for a STEM program or a course on conservative economics, but not for a program in the U.S. Constitution?  Why not?  Do you think our biggest problems are that we don’t have enough qualified technicians or that we don’t have enough people who understand and respect our Constitutional form of government?  Are you sending your son or daughter to a college or university without a requirement in the Constitution and Founding Documents?  Why?  Is more money more important than political freedom?  Are better technical gadgets more important than “ordered liberty”?

You get what you pay for.  And right now, people are paying large amounts for greater and more expansive forms of tyranny.  Ours is a republic for now, but only if we can keep it.


*Image: Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, c. 1785 [National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.