At the end of the 1787 constitutional convention, Benjamin
Franklin was asked," Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic
or a monarchy?"
"A republic," he replied, "if you can keep
Do you detect a slight lack of confidence in
I used to wonder what our Founding Fathers
would say if they came back for an Independence Day celebration
to see what their country has become; I've imagined collective
heart palpitations when they were told about the $14.5 trillion
But lately I've been thinking that they might
say to each other: "Hey, it lasted longer than we expected!"
It makes the loss of the American Dream,
should it be lost, easier, if one recognizes that freedom with
personal responsibility is not the default position for the
human race — but a rare achievement.
For some reason, I once assumed that human
beings by definition want freedom. When living in Greece, I
studied the early attempts at democracy, related to people of
another age who shared my freedom values.
From Moses leading his people out of bondage
to Iraqis flashing purple voting fingers at their first
post-Saddam election, I've cheered the freedom-seekers of
history. I didn't dwell overmuch on the kind of people they had
to seek freedom from over the centuries.
Because of the above mistaken belief in human
connectedness, I also believed in democracy. Of course I'd
learned the difference between democracy and a republic, and the
reasons why our Founding Fathers chose the latter.
As John Adams said, "Democracy never lasts
long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself."
James Madison considered democracies
"incompatible with personal security, or the rights of
So the founders chose a republic, in which
the nation is ruled by a constitution, by certain basic concepts
that overrule the impulsive urges of the majority. But George
Washington felt he had to make a point of saying during his
inauguration speech that he would dedicate himself to "the
preservation ... of the republican model of government," as if
he felt it already needed special dedication.
We often tend to call ourselves a democracy,
though, and I guess that works because the majority elects its
representatives, along with the president, who appoints the
justices who interpret the Constitution. In the end, it's "we
the people of the United States" who are responsible for
determining how long the republic endures.
A young French friend of the new country,
Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote a generally admiring 1835
best-seller, "Democracy in America" (note he didn't call it
"Republicanism in America"), so he too seemed to consider it an
entity run by the people themselves. However, he warned about
the "tyranny of the majority," too much equality, and too much
centralization; and expressed fear that "the people are more apt
to feel than to reason."
"To me," said de Tocqueville, "human
societies, like persons, become something worthwhile only
through their use of liberty." But though he believed that it's
"difficult to stabilize and to maintain liberty in our new
democratic societies ... I shall never dare to think it
Thomas Jefferson, whom de Tocqueville much
admired, seemed equally positive, yet found it necessary to warn
that "to preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers
load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between
economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude."
However, Jefferson predicted "future
happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from
wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking
care of them." Big "if" there, though, so he also warned,
"Government big enough to supply everything you need is big
enough to take everything you have. The course of history shows
us that as a government grows, liberty decreases."
OK, so here we are, on the brink of what
seems like predictable, maybe inevitable decline.
A Scotsman, Alexander Tytler, is often
credited with this statement made 200 years ago: "A democracy
cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only
exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess
out of the public treasury.
After that, the majority always votes for the
candidate promising the most benefits with the result the
democracy collapses because of loose fiscal policy, which is
always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the
world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has
been about 200 years."
So here we are, with Founding Fathers perhaps
surprised that we lasted 235.
The year I was born, a businessman named H.W.
Prentiss created an outline for nations that described a
progression "from bondage to spiritual faith, to courage, to
liberty, to abundance, to selfishness, to complacency, to
apathy, to dependence, back to bondage."
No. Let's refuse to accept that. Allow me one
more quote, from G.K. Chesterton: "It is not the pessimist who
changes the world, but the optimist."
Led out of apathy with tea-party principles,
we can replace selfishness with concern for future generations,
and stand up for liberty; and perhaps return not to abundance
that spoils us, but "enough to be happy and free" for at least
another 200 years.
This weekend, pass the visiting founders a
hot dog from the grill, and celebrate!