A Republic, and We Will Keep It

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

Today marks the 222nd anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

On September 17, 1787, 39 of 55 delegates attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed a document that when ratified by all thirteen states, established a form of government unlike anything the world had ever seen.

It did not come easily. Only 55 of the 74 delegates selected by their respective states attended the Convention. Rhode Island chose not to send delegates. The delegates to the Convention originally met to advise the Continental Congress on how “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the [Articles of Confederation] adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” They soon recognized the defects of the Articles were too great and too many to cure by amendment, and that a new form of government was needed.

On May 25, 1787, George Washington was unanimously chosen president of the convention and deliberations began. Over the next four months during a sweltering summer, a relatively young (average age 42) but experienced and brilliant group of political thinkers intensely debated questions about natural law, human nature, the proper scope and source of authority of government, the relationship between the national or federal government and the states, and the balance of power between larger and smaller states.

The Framers drew upon their vast wealth of shared experience living under the British Crown, upon deep insights into the lessons of history, and upon the best of classical and modern thought to create a document described by a good friend as a “masterpiece of minimalism.”

The English philosopher John Locke provided their shared belief in a natural law that entitled every person to life, liberty, and property, and that the proper role of government was to protect these rights. The French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu provided the framework for the system of separation of powers they adopted to prevent the undue concentration of power in a single person or body. Because the states were preexisting political entities and their concern about encroachments from the new national government, they invented a previously unheard of system in which the national and state governments would exercise dual sovereignty in separate and prescribed areas.

The Convention delegates met in secret throughout the long, brutal summer of 1787. Records of its proceedings were not reported to the public, who clamored for news of the deliberations. When the Convention finally finished its great work, a Mrs. Powel asked Benjamin Franklin as he was leaving the state capitol building in which the delegates met: “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.

Today, 222 years later, it’s worth asking ourselves Mrs. Powel’s question: “what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” But instead of asking our representatives in name only what government have we got, we must send them this message loud and clear:

We have a Republic, and we intend to keep it.

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