“A republic, if you can keep it.”

4 July 2015


Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

The viability of political entities

There is a well-known story that Benjamin Franklin was asked as he left Independence Hall as the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were in their final day, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s famous response to this was, “A Republic, madam — if you can keep it.” (The source of this anecdote is from notes of Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Convention, first published in The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906.)

The qualification implies the difficulty of the task of keeping a republic together, and keeping it republican. If doing so were easy, Franklin would not have bothered to note that qualification. That he did note it, in the spirit of a witticism, reminds me of another witticism from the American Revolution — quite literally an instance of gallows humor: “Gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately.” This, too, was from Benjamin Franklin.

The men who fomented the American Revolution, and who went on to hold the Constitutional Convention, were no starry-eyed dreamers. They were tough-minded in the sense that William James used that phrase. They had no illusions about human nature and human society. Their decision to break with England, and their later decision to write the Constitution, was a calculated risk. They reasoned their way to revolution, and they well knew that all that all that they had done, and all that they had risked, could come to ruin.

And still that American project could come to ruin. It is a work in progress, and though it now has some history behind it, as long as it continues in existence it shares in the uncertainty of all human things.

Recently in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I wrote:

“If human freedom were something ideal and absolute, it would not be subject to revision as a consequence of technological change, or any change in contingent circumstances. But while we often think of freedom as an ideal, it is rather grounded in pragmatic realities of action. If a lever or an inclined plane make it possible for you to do something that it was impossible to do without them, then these machines have expanded the scope of human agency; more choices are available as a result, and the degrees of human freedom are multiplied.”

The same can be said of the social technologies of government: if you can do something with them that you cannot do without them, you have expanded the scope of human freedom. The hard-headed attitude of the founders of the republic understood that freedom is grounded in the pragmatic realities of action. It was because of this that the American project has enjoyed the success that it has realized to date. And the freedoms that it facilitates are always subject to revision as the machinery of government evolves. Again, this freedom is not an ideal, but a practical reality.

It is not enough merely to keep the republic, as though preserved under glass. The trajectory of its evolution must be managed, so that it continues to facilitate freedom under the changing conditions to which it is subject. Freedom is subject to contingencies as the fate of the republic is subject to contingencies, and it too can come to ruin just as the republic could yet come to ruin. The challenge remains the same challenge Franklin threw back at his questioner: “If you can keep it.”

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Happy 4th of July!

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Grand Strategy Annex

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