Sep 16 2016
Perhaps the most famous words spoken on the day we commemorate today – September 17, 1787 – were those of Benjamin Franklin. After the Constitution had been signed and the Convention adjourned, Franklin was asked by a group of curious Philadelphians gathered outside Independence Hall what type of government the delegates had created. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
This pithy response – more of a challenge than an answer – is so memorable and quotable that we tend to repeat it more often than we pause to reflect on its meaning. So today, on the 229th anniversary of Mr. Franklin’s famous proclamation, it’s worth asking ourselves: what exactly does it take to “keep” the American republic?
To my mind, one of the best answers to this question was given by Abraham Lincoln in an address he delivered in 1838, at the ripe old age of 28, to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The subject of the speech was “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” which he described as the central and perennial task of republican citizenship.
Lincoln said that every generation of Americans has the responsibility to pass along to its descendants the “political edifice of liberty and equal rights” that had been established by the nation’s founders – our “hardy, brave, and patriotic” ancestors. He insisted that this process of perpetuation – the project of “keeping” the republic – would succeed only if the American people respected the nation’s laws and viewed the government with affection, rather than suspicion or derision.
The “strongest bulwark of any Government” is “the attachment of the People,” Lincoln declared. If “the laws be continually despised and disregarded,” and if the people become estranged from their public institutions, losing trust in the officials charged with making and enforcing the law, “this Government cannot last.”
Lincoln was right. At the heart of the American republic is a social compact based on mutual trust between the people and their representatives in government who are obligated to govern on their behalf. Government officials are given power to make and enforce the laws on the condition that they respect and remain accountable to the interests and concerns of the people they represent.
But today, this mutual trust and respect that are necessary to bind the American people to their public institutions has been deeply corroded. The primary reason is that the vast majority of the federal government’s do’s and don’ts governing our lives are written not by the people’s elected representatives in Congress, but by unelected, anonymous bureaucrats in the Executive Branch.
No wonder only 22 percent of the country believes that most elected officials put the interests of the nation ahead of their own interests, and a mere 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government always or most of the time.
Following Abraham Lincoln, I believe this crisis of confidence in America today is a grave threat to our ability to preserve our public institutions for the next generation. That’s why, earlier this year, I launched the Article I Project – a new network of policymakers working together to develop a legislative agenda that will reclaim Congress’s constitutional lawmaking powers that today are being improperly exercised by the Executive Branch and thereby restore the democratic accountability on which our system of government depends.
If we are to “keep” our republic, as Benjamin Franklin challenged us to do 229 years ago, we must rebuild the American people’s trust in the nation’s public institutions. And the only way to do that is by finally making Congress responsible again – both in the sense of discharging its constitutional duties and making itself accountable for the consequences.