A republic well into its third century certainly worth celebrating
by Barbara Anderson


The Salem News
Wednesday, June 29, 2011


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 it."

Do you detect a slight lack of confidence in this response?

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 national debt.

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 property."

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 impossible."

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!


The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.


Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.


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