After the 1789 Constitutional Convention adjourned and the exhausted delegates spilled into the streets of Philadelphia, someone asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got–a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s response, always wise and witty, was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Is that just an old-fashioned word…like “virtue” or “Presbyterian?” You don’t hear it much anymore. In fact, to describe America as a republic is to distinguish yourself as part of a well-informed elite. It is far more common for people to speak of our country as a “democracy.”
But when we press for democracy in developing nations, i.e., for free and fair elections and universal suffrage, are we making them just like us? Surely not. There is more to the genius of the American political experiment than the rule of a majority vote. But there is also less. When we moved to universal adult suffrage with the nineteenth amendment, did we take on a different form of government? Did we move from oligarchy to democracy? Only the cynical say so.
They don’t understand, however, what the authors of Keeping Our Republic understand, and what the Founders before them understood. America is a republic, a particular form of democratic self-government, and we forget this to our peril. So our Assistant Provost, Matthew Parks, and PPE Dean David Corbin have written this slender but important volume to take their fellow citizens through a crash course in who they need to be politically if their liberty is at all precious to them, republicanism 101 as it were. They offer the book in the hope of leading a twenty-first century “political reformation.”
The remedy we usually hear for the American decline is to “throw the bums out!” But if a healthy republic requires healthy republican citizens—people who understand what liberty is and what it requires, and who are vigilant in its defense—then the battle for our republic is in the citizens themselves. Popular government—government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln put it—is a delicate institution that depends on there being citizens who understand the principles of liberty and are disposed to sacrifice the immediate pleasures self-indulgence for the noble prospect of self-government.
So the focus of this book is not populist elite-bashing, much as the entitled Ivy Leaguers who think it their natural right to rule us surely deserve it. It is Joe American to whom the authors are speaking, and no doubt also José American, as well as any citizen legislators whose consciences turn them to learned patriotic books. “We have lost touch with what it means to be a citizen of a republic.” The task therefore, is that we all, regardless of political party, “relearn how to think and how to act as republicans.” This book is for making citizens once again out of the subjects we have become.
(This review appeared originally in the May 2011 issue of The Empire State Tribune, the student newspaper at The King’s College.)
David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).