A Republic, If You Can Keep It
by Jacob G. Hornberger, November 2001
At the close of the Constitutional Convention,
a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government the Constitution
was bringing into existence. Franklin replied, “A republic,
if you can keep it.”
Regardless of one’s judgment concerning the
type of government that the Constitution brought into existence
in 1787, no one can deny that it was truly the most unusual and
radical in history.
Consider: With the tragic and costly exception
of slavery, the United States was a society in which people could,
by and large, engage in any occupation or economic enterprise without
a government license, permit, or regulation.
Where people could travel anywhere in the world
without restriction (no passports) and trade with whomever they
pleased without the permission of their government officials.
Where people could accumulate unlimited amounts
of wealth without government interference, because the Constitution
did not permit the government to levy taxes on income.
Where people were free to do whatever they wanted
with their own money — save, spend, donate, invest, hoard,
or even destroy it.
Where government was not permitted to take care
of people — no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare,
education grants, or foreign aid.
With a few exceptions (e.g., 1850s Massachusetts),
there were no compulsory public (i.e., government) school systems.
No wars on drugs, poverty, or wealth.
And open borders for the free immigration of people
from anywhere in the world.
Like I say, regardless of how you might feel about
the political and economic philosophy of the Founders of our country,
no one can deny that the political and economic system that they
brought into existence was the most unusual and radical in history.
Our Founders’ philosophy toward foreign affairs
was also an unusual one. The primary responsibility of the U.S.
government, they believed, was to protect the nation from invasion
or attack and not involve itself in the affairs or conflicts of
The Founders clearly understood that horrible things
would be seen all over the world, such as brutal tyrannies and cruel
dictatorships — after all, they themselves had only recently
been the victims of the tyrannical British Empire.
But they believed that the best gift that America
could give to the world would be a model for a free, peaceful, harmonious,
and prosperous society — a beacon for the rest of the world
to follow. And they believed that that goal could be not be served
if their government had the imperial and military power to straighten
out messes all over the world.
Here’s what George Washington counseled to
all succeeding generations of Americans in his Farewell Address:
“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations
is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little
political connection as possible.... Europe has a set of primary
interests which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence
she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which
are essentially foreign to our concerns.... Why quit our own to
stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with
that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in
the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”
Celebrating American freedom on July 4, 1821, U.S.
Secretary of State John Quincy Adams delivered a speech to the U.S.
House of Representatives setting forth the vision of the American
republic: “She has abstained from interference in the concerns
of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she
clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.... She
goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher
to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and
vindicator only of her own.... She well knows that by once enlisting
under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of
foreign independence ... the fundamental maxims of her policy would
insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the
dictatress of the world.”
Thus, when our 18th- and 19th-century ancestors
celebrated the Fourth of July each year, the concept of freedom
that they were celebrating was totally different from the concept
of freedom that Americans today celebrate on the Fourth. The freedom
they celebrated involved a way of life in which government had little
power to take their money, regulate their peaceful activities, or
take care of them. It was also a freedom arising out of their government’s
noninterference in the conflicts of foreign nations.
No one can deny that somewhere along the way, America
changed direction, both domestically and internationally. How about
a national debate as to which vision — the vision of Washington,
Adams, Franklin, and Madison, or that of Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson,
and Nixon — should guide our nation into its third century
Mr. Hornberger is founder and president of The
Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va., which has published
seven books on domestic and foreign policy.