At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, as the delegates filed out of the hall, a Mrs. Powell is reported to have asked Benjamin Franklin the following question: "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin’s oft quoted and terse reply was reported by fellow signer of the Constitution James McHenry to be “A republic, if you can keep it.”
For every American citizen from that day forward this simple, short phrase comprises both the promise and the challenge of the American Revolution: republican self-governance. The ability of a mass of people to govern themselves was an open question in the revolutionary era but the natural right of a people to do so was the animating passion of the revolutionary movement. As stated by James Madison in Federalist No. 39 concerning the “strictly republican” nature of the proposed plan of government: “no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America, with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”
What exactly was the understanding of a “republican” form of government that formed the basis for our Constitution? The first and foremost republican principle was that all authority, including legislative authority, rests with a free and sovereign people. Citizenship was seen as entailing obligations and duties more than rights including the all important duty of deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good or what we now call the public interest. Political officials were viewed as “attorneys, agents and trustees for the people“ whose authority to rule could be revoked when the public interest was “insidiously betrayed or wantonly trifled away” (John Adams). Justice was recognized as the ultimate purpose of government: “Justice is the end of government, it is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” (James Madison).
During the founding era, and for a long time afterward, it was understood that republican governance required more from its citizens than almost any other form of government and that structural methods for preserving individual liberties necessary for self rule and for minimizing the influence of private interests (or factions as Madison termed them) were necessary to maintaining the conditions for self-governance. Our constitution with its bill of rights is a result of this understanding. It is an elaborate and intricate weaving of powers, duties and prohibitions designed to preserve republican self rule. Individual rights of religion, speech and assembly and protections against the arbitrary use of government coercion are not only fundamental human rights but also the necessary prerequisites for a self-governing people. These provisions of the constitution are considered so important that they are not subject to majority or democratic rule.
Over the past several decades, the basic relationship between the American people and its government has been radically redefined from that of citizenship with its resultant duties and obligations to that of consumers with its consequent pile of rights and choices. We seem to have lost the language and attitudes required for self governing citizens and most importantly we have ceased to make or even to recognize the arguments in its support. Increasingly, citizens have traded their duty to deliberate over the public good and to hold elected officials accountable for legislating and governing in the public interests for perquisites of government whether it be direct tax benefits or transfer payments, programs that benefit special interests, or regulatory favoritism. Citizens have come to see advancing their private interest, even when directly opposed to the public interest, as entirely legitimate, an act which would have earned public scorn and shame up until recent decades. Elections have become bidding contests in which career elected officials vie for votes based on how much they promise to deliver to special interest groups.
As our most worldly founder, Franklin understood the difficulties of maintaining a system of self rule. He had seen and experienced in England the corrupting effects of a powerful and privileged ruling class. Tyranny and despotism has been the ordinary condition and lot of mankind throughout the ages. It is the American experiment, based on the idea that the human race is inherently capable of demonstrating sufficient intelligence and virtue to govern themselves in a just regime that has always been and remains today the truly revolutionary idea.
Today, the American people have ceded a substantial share of our sovereign rights to a ruling political elite that is largely unaccountable and we stand in danger of losing the very fruit of the American Revolution -- our right to govern ourselves. How “We the People” respond to the challenge to our republican principles posed by the current political climate will demonstrate whether the American experiment in self-government prospers or whether, as Benjamin Franklin warned, it …”can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”