In 1787 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention completed their work and as they filed out of the building into a beautiful sunny September day, one of them overhead Benjamin Franklin use these words in response to a bystander’s question. A woman, it is said, had tugged at his cape and asked, “What kind of government have you given us?” Franklin was the much revered and oldest of the fifty-five delegates who had participated in the closed-door convention since the previous May. Republics were then as now widely understood to be a form of government in which all power derives from the people; they shared that essential characteristic with democracies and differed from them by being so structured that the people rule indirectly rather than directly as in genuine democracies. The challenge in the phrase “if you can keep it” reflected for Franklin and most of his fellow Framers an uneasiness about the stability and thus chances for a long life of either type of popular government. They found in history a sobering lesson about this matter, and they clearly thought that the character of the people, above all their morality and religiosity, would be the chief factor in whether a republic could succeed in this central part of the Americas.
The Constitution they created was to be the supreme law of the land. After approval by the people in nine of the colony-states, it was seen as the legitimate will of the people and derived its authority from that fact. In so grounding the Constitution, the Framers actualized a primary principle of the Declaration of Independence, this nation’s moral creed with respect to politics. This Constitution grew to be an often-imitated marvel of the post-Enlightenment world. Simple and brief, with relatively few amendments, it now approaches a life-time of two and a half centuries, making it the oldest living written Constitution in the world, surpassed in age only by Britain’s constitution, an unwritten one and thus foggy at its lines and edges.
This Constitution did more than survive; it came to unify the diverse peoples who settled on this land. These peoples, like all of humankind, were not without their failures, among these being moral failures in how they treated others. The Constitution, nonetheless, provided the framework not only for checking abuses of power but also for holding us all together, bringing slavery to an end while reducing poverty and cultivating prosperity to levels unmatched in human history.
We of the United States now find ourselves at an important if not critical point. If we are to keep our republic, the natural respect of the good citizen and decent person for duly passed laws must be front and center in our thoughts and actions. The Constitution is the chief among those laws, and our Federal courts are therein authorized to apply those laws. Interpretation is necessary to application while settling specific cases brought to court, and the Supreme Court has become the ultimate authority in applying these laws and thus the final forum of appeal in interpreting laws including that foundational law, the Constitution. Consequently, the law-abiding citizen gives support to the decisions of the courts and to those officers of the law, the police and others, entrusted with enforcement. Some readers, I suspect, will say that I am rehearsing elemental civics. That is true. My hope however is to let this simple description evoke an admiration and even love for this government of laws, a disposition that Abraham Lincoln urged on his fellow citizens at another difficult time. Such a disposition makes it easier to embrace the moral imperative to obey our laws and respect our procedures under those laws even as we seek to improve them. We must be mindful of that as we move into a period of possibly uncertain election results and protests that blend into violence.
I can hear now the voice of the person who reminds us that our ordinary laws are not the higher law to which our consciences are rightly bound. We are reminded that there are times when appeal must be made to the higher moral grounds such as the law of God, or natural rights or natural law. However, appeals to stand above or outside our ordinary laws or physically to resist them should not be made when those laws are overall good; rather, only when their evil nature is serious and prolonged. That lesson was taught by great champions of the higher law in our tradition. Martin Luther King Jr. revered the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence even as he sought greater justice under them and measured them and all law against a higher law. His appeal would be made with loving respect for those legal achievements and with non-violence. St. Thomas More counseled all to respect the fabric of ordinary law even if it should give protection at times to the devil himself. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine emphasized our responsibility to ordinary laws even in cases where they were defective. It is good moral sense that acknowledges the fragility of even great political achievements like our Constitution and the responsibility to treasure what we have even as we seek to make it better. As long as we are also seeking to make ourselves better, we likely have the key to “keeping our republic.”
Walter Nicgorski is a professor emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at Walter.J.Nicgorski.firstname.lastname@example.org.