It’s highly probable that you know the name Ben Franklin – Founding Father, polymath, writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher, and political philosopher.
During the American Revolution, Franklin (pictured) served in the Second Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He also negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War (1775-83).
In 1787, in his final significant act of public service, he was a delegate to the convention that produced the U.S. Constitution.
Franklin also graces our $100 bill.
Not bad for a guy who had only two years of formal education.
Says, “Franklin became a hit writer as a teenager,” and Franklin continued writing throughout his long life (1706-1790).
He had a way with words, and many of those words are still with us – in Franklin quotes – though we may not know it. If you ever heard these, you’re hearing Ben Franklin:
“Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“Honesty is the best policy.”
But it’s a less-well-known Franklin quote that resonated with me, one I heard only recently, and gave me much to think about:
“A republic, if you can keep it.”
Here’s the story behind the quote, from this article and other sources:
There are debates about the history of this quote, and here’s the version I’m going with:
It was 1787 and Franklin, along with the other Founding Fathers, was in the State House in Philadelphia hammering out what would become the U.S. Constitution. As Franklin was exiting the building, a lady spoke to him.
The lady was Elizabeth Willing Powel (pictured), a prominent society figure and the wife of Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Powel.
Mrs. Powell said, “Well, Doctor Franklin, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic,” replied Franklin, “if you can keep it.”
Franklin wasn’t being evasive – he said exactly what he meant.
This republic the Founding Fathers were creating was an experiment.
An experiment that would depend on solid, reliable, “for the people and by the people” government institutions.
And more importantly – solid, reliable, “for the people and by the people” government leaders.
It would also require the ongoing vigilance of citizens who were aware on a daily basis that this form of governing – like any form of governing – came with no guarantees of enduring.
To verify this, 18th-century citizens of this new United States had only to look back at 17th-century England.
England had been a monarchy for hundreds of years, and everyone assumed it would always be a monarchy.
Then civil war came to England in 1642, and the monarchy fell. England’s king, Charles I (pictured), was beheaded in 1649.
England became a king-less Commonwealth in 1649.
The Puritans were in power, and life in “Merry Olde England” changed dramatically. Puritans advocated an austere lifestyle, so Christmas and other holidays were banned, theatres were closed, and most sports were forbidden.
There were rules about what to wear, makeup was outlawed, men had to wear their hair short, and women had to cover their hair at all times. Dancing was taboo, and people who had sex outside of marriage were fined and publicly humiliated. Attending Sunday worship was mandatory, as was fasting for a full day once a month.
People were encouraged to report each other’s transgressions to the authorities, and many – some gleefully – did.
For the people of England, life as they’d known it was over.
It takes less than we think to topple a government and upend lives, no matter how long that government has been around.
It won’t happen here, in our republic…
If we can keep it.