OPINION: “A Republic, Madam …”

Tuesday September 12, 2023

On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether the government being proposed for the new nation was to be a republic or a monarchy. His now-famous retort was, “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” Franklin knew how fragile this new union would be and how many conflicts and difficulties the separate states would confront on their way to becoming the United States of America.

Anyone who thinks governing is easy hasn’t actually tried it. And anyone who thinks the partisan bickering and divisive rhetoric of our present day are recent developments hasn’t learned our history – or at least the history surrounding the U.S. Constitution.

In the summer of 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia, with the stated purpose of revising the existing Articles of Confederation. But many delegates, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had a much wider vision; they wanted to create a new government rather than fix the old one. Their vision won the day, and a new form of government was established, with three separate but co-equal branches and a mechanism to preserve the balance among them – the system under which we operate even today.

Of the 13 original states, one (Rhode Island) did not participate at all. The remaining 12 states appointed a total of 74 delegates, but only 55 showed up to begin the deliberations. Some famous Americans were notable by their absence: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were out of the country; John Hancock and Samuel Adams did not participate, possibly because they were occupied with local affairs in their states. Patrick Henry refused to participate because he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”

The discussions were far from amicable. Sharp divisions arose over how best to structure the federal government, how to balance federal powers with those of individual states, and how to assure the proportional representation we have come to take for granted. Making matters worse, the delegates labored in Philadelphia’s sweltering and stifling heat, which caused tempers to flare and made progress excruciatingly slow. One delegate, William Richardson Davie of North Carolina, put it this way: “We move slowly in our business, it is indeed a work of great delicacy and difficulty, impeded at every step by jealousies and jarring interests.” At one point, the windows in the room were nailed shut to keep the proceedings secret, a secrecy that delegates pledged to keep for the rest of their lives.

In the course of the Convention, 13 delegates gave up and went home, convinced that no good outcome was possible. After nearly four months of difficult but determined negotiations, a workable document awaited the signatures of the 42 delegates who remained. Even then, agreement was not unanimous. Three delegates refused to sign the Constitution, and in the end, just 39 names appear on the document. Still, optimism ruled the day: Benjamin Franklin, who said he had often wondered whether the design on the president’s chair depicted a rising or a setting sun, could declare: “Now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

What lessons can we take from this singular moment in our nation’s history? I think there are several. First, in order to make a difference in your world, you need to show up. The Constitution was not the product of the people who refused to attend the Convention. Second, solving big problems often requires a team of dedicated individuals who may differ in their approaches but who share a common vision and a common goal – and who are willing to keep working until they reach it. Third, sometimes the only way to arrive at a solution is to gather all parties, close the door, and nail the windows shut until a workable compromise is hammered out.

“Keeping the Republic” will not happen by accident. It will require vigilance, diligence, and a concerted effort. If you find yourself discouraged by the increasing rancor and discord in our politics today, get involved! At the very least, register to vote – and then faithfully vote in every election and on every ballot measure. Apathy will kill our Republic.

Our Founding Fathers fought through rancor, discord, and dissent, setting aside their own personal interests for the sake of the greater good. And in the end, they handed us a gift of incredible value: the United States Constitution. Under its guidance, we live in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth. I am deeply devoted to making sure that my children and grandchildren will enjoy the same opportunities I have had. I hope you will join me, because every citizen of this country needs to be engaged in this effort.

As we observe Constitution Day on September 17, each of us should take a moment to reflect on this inspired document and on its importance. And we should utter a prayer of gratitude for those who labored in Independence Hall in the summer heat of 1787 to set the course for this nation’s future.