On a humid September evening over 200 years ago, a tired Benjamin Franklin was asked “Well Doctor, what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin responded in one of his characteristically laconic quips: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Yes, the miracle in Philadelphia that summer was a nation conceived in liberty; and, of course, the somber challenge of protecting that liberty for generations to come.
Unfortunately, today, as government spending soars, bureaucracies expand and constitutional limitations erode, many believe that we may have lost that challenge. As Glenn Beck never fails to remind us, the Republic, he fears, may be lost.
Admittedly, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about our future: the public choice dilemma, a president and Congress intent on government solutions to all of our problems, two political parties that both have records of expanding government, and a massive administrative state that is similar to a tattoo: very tempting to put on, but very difficult to get off.
It may be true that we’ve lost tremendous amounts of personal liberty and economic freedom over the last decade. But of these are small speed bumps on a road that has let us out of the shackles of slavery and despotism to the closest we’ve ever been to a true regime of liberty. Today, I would argue, more than ever, is actually a time to be cautiously optimistic about our government, our nation and our future.
Consider, for example, minorities in the United States. Blacks, Hispanics, minorities of all sorts would doubtless choose to live in today’s America rather than the America of fifty, or one hundred years past. Remember that it was only a century and a half ago when Blacks were getting sold into slavery, mercilessly whipped and beaten at their hands of slave masters. And, it was mere decades ago when free-minded students launched sit-ins and boycotts across the American south. And, less than 50 years ago the brave Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream speech”—a dream that’s been largely realized, with the election of a black president.
Think of the advances we’ve made in women’s rights over the last century. A century ago, the women reading this column wouldn’t be able to vote. But today, not only have they earned suffrage, but they also can pursue a career and get a degree. Today, in fact, women outnumber men in American universities.
Moreover, consider what’s happening all around us. Thousands of Americans are marching in our streets to protest a growing government. This is a new phenomenon—something that didn’t happen when FDR radically transformed the American government or when LBJ launched his “Great Society” initiatives. If anyone wanted to make the case for American Exceptionalism, they could simply point to the people waving pocked constitutions and American flags in our streets.
There may be contradictions in the Tea Party movement (what movement doesn’t have a few bad eggs?); but that doesn’t change the fact that the entire movement is motivated by one single principle: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men….”
There is a moral to all of these stories, and it’s very simple: No despotism—soft nor hard—can possibly stand in the way of millions of voices screaming to be heard. Slavery, fascism, and communism— definitely the greatest threats to liberty in the last two centuries—have all fallen to the greater causes of liberty and justice.
If we were given the chance to respond to Ben Franklin’s quote, we would probably tell him that we have successfully, albeit imperfectly, maintained the Republic. In fact, if the success of the Republic can be measured by our relative liberty, then we have a better republic than we did in 1787. After all, most American citizens are freer today than they were when Franklin stepped out of Independence Hall. Based on what’s happening all around us—from the fact that Rand and Hayek have recently been on Amazon’s bestseller list to the people holding Gadsden flags in our streets—I’d tell Dr. Franklin that we haven’t just preserved the Republic, we’re making it better every day.
Charles Couger is a writer and freelance journalist from Hillsdale, MI.