“A Republic, If You Can Keep It!”

A famous Pennsylvanian was once asked what kind of government the Framers of the U. S. Constitution had given the American people. His reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That was Benjamin Franklin – known as the Sage of America – one of the Framers of that Constitution. There is an implied warning in his response because he knew that the history of republics was not all that encouraging. All of the Founders well knew that the lessons of history taught that republics have tended to fall into decadence and despotism.

The American regime is an experiment in self-government, seeking to answer the question of how a free people are to be governed. The Founders knew that you could not have freedom without a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, or virtue, in the people. George Washington warned, “Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness.”

The writings of the Founders are replete with references to the connection between freedom, democratic government, and virtue. John Adams said, with out virtue “there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty.” Civic virtue, to paraphrase Adams, meant a passion for the public good that was superior to private interests. Without something akin to this predisposition, over time people might come to realize that they could demand ever greater benefits from the government, which would grow in strength accordingly. And as James Madison noted, “The essence of government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”

If there is too much governing authority, if the state tries to control and provide for too much, freedom is diminished. The Founders had first-hand experience of what a large, powerful, and unrestrained government could do to the prosperity and freedom of the people. Among the many oppressive acts of King George listed in the Declaration of Independence was the charge that he had “erected a multitude of new Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

Thus, in order to have a free, democratic republic that might endure against the challenge of history, the American Founders understood that a government of limited powers would be required, and as a necessary pre-condition, a citizenry with a certain degree of virtue.

The Founders gave us a Constitution of limited government in order to, in the words of its preamble, “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Likewise, the first Article of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in language reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence, asserts that “All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.”

Our role at the Commonwealth Foundation is to help political leaders do the right thing with an eye toward the founding principles of the republic and Commonwealth. We are here to challenge the conventional outlook when it leads to ever more public expenditures, exactions and controls. And we are here to question established ways of doing things, when they protect vested interests at the expense of the common good and the freedom and independence of the people.

“A republic, if you can keep it” the wise man of Pennsylvania had said. The Commonwealth Foundation aims to help us keep it.

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T. William Boxx is Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.