A Republic, If You Can Keep It

The day was September 18, 1787, marking the close of Constitutional Convention of 1787 held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Because the deliberations of the convention were held in strict secrecy, crowds had gathered around Independence Hall waiting with bated breath to learn of the final outcome. As soon as Benjamin Franklin stepped outside Independence Hall, a woman, Mrs. Eliza Powell,  approached the eminent statesman and asked: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy? Franklin turned to the woman, and without any hesitation replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Were it not for the diary notes of a Maryland delegate, Dr. James McHenry, this pithy, insightful historical moment would have been lost for all time. McHenry’s notes were first published in The American Historical Review (1906) and then republished in the Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (1911). According to the Library of Congress that owns the original manuscript, there is reason to believe that this legendary story is fictitious. Nevertheless, it endures because it has been retold (and there are countless variations) for more than a century by politicians or historians who want to underscore the fragility of a republic. Dr. Richard Beeman, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, elaborates: “If there is a lesson in all of this it is that our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens… Democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.”

For further reading: http://www.bartleby.com/73/1593.html

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