“A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
So said the ever-quotable Benjamin Franklin upon emerging from the Constitutional Convention debates in 1787. Franklin’s now-famous statement to an inquisitive Philadelphian causes us today to pause and reflect. Have we kept the republic that Franklin and his contemporaries bequeathed us?
A recent poll answers this query with an emphatic “No!”. According to a Gallup survey, 71% of Americans believe that the Founders would be disappointed in the United States today. This comes on the heels of another Gallup survey showing that Congress’s approval rating has hit its lowest mark ever at 10%. President Obama doesn’t fare much better, garnering only 36% approval.
Are Americans beginning to realize that the government they have bears no resemblance to the one designed by the framers of the Constitution? If the 71% are correct in saying that the Founders would be embarrassed by America today, the next logical question we should ask is “Why?”.
Could it be because we’ve completely abandoned the structure of government that they fought the British for and then jealously guarded while debating the Constitution? Maybe we can find the answer in what some founders said about how American liberty would be preserved.
Gilbert Livingston: “I conceive the state governments are necessary as the barrier between the people’s liberties and any invasion which may be attempted on them by the general government.”
Edmund Pendleton: “(The power of the federal government) only extends to the general purposes of the Union. It does not intermeddle with the local, particular affairs of the states.”
Oliver Ellsworth: “I turn my eyes, therefore, for the preservation of (my son’s) rights to the state governments. From these alone he could derive the greatest happiness he expects in this life.”
Henry Lee: “When a question arises with respect to the legality of any power, exercised or assumed by Congress, it is plain on the side of the governed: Is it enumerated in the Constitution? If it be, it is legal and just. It is otherwise arbitrary and unconstitutional.”
Perhaps the best illustration of how our government was supposed to function comes, somewhat ironically, from Alexander Hamilton:
“We love our families more than our neighbors; we love our neighbors more than our countrymen in general. The human affections, like the solar heat, lose their intensity as they depart from the centre….On these principles, the attachment of the individual will be first and forever secured by the state governments. The states can never lose their powers till the whole people of America are robbed of their liberties. They must go together; they must support each other, or meet one common fate.”
The Founders would undeniably be disappointed in the course that the federal government has taken, but they would also be disappointed in us. The federal government has done what governments tend to do: grow. Meanwhile, the people, while possessing the authority to limit it, have become entirely enamored of centralized power, even as the government has eroded their liberties.
If we want to live up to the legacy of our forefathers, maybe instead of disapproving of Congress and the president we should just ignore them and focus our efforts closer to home. That would make the Founders proud.