Monday, July 04, 2011

A Republic, If You Can Keep It

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. There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: "A republic, if you can keep it." The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: 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.

The full essay is here.

Since its founding, our republic has been both admirable and imperfect. Will Wilkinson has a good post over at the Economist on the insufficiently remembered minority of the founding fathers who truly worked tirelessly to end slavery.
Ms Bachmann can easily correct the record, and sound smart to boot, by insisting on a distinction between those founders who really did fight tirelessly to end slavery and those who fought tirelessly to tilt the young country's balance of power toward states filled with human chattel who could not vote. And she ought to stop name-checking John Quincy Adams and start agitating for the eternal glory of John Jay. Or Gouverneur Morris. He had a peg leg.

We should be proud of the truly admirable aspects of our republic and its history, but humble about the things we got wrong and continue to get wrong. And by we, I don't just mean the people in the other political coalition.

It's seductive to believe in the policies that inconvenience us the least: that the budget can best be balanced by raising taxes on someone else, or by cutting government spending that benefits someone else, or that magical tax cuts will always and everywhere increase revenue.

But more often, the right thing to do will inflict pain on us personally. As good citizens, we need to face that.

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