In the summer of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention when a Philadelphia matron named Mrs. Powell asked him a question. “What have you given us, Dr. Franklin,” she asked. “A monarchy or a republic?”
Did she really think a monarchy was still possible?
From where we sit today, it’s easy to dismiss the question as silly. After all, who can imagine a monarchy in America? But we have to remember that in 1787 no nation had ever managed — or dared — to attempt genuine self-government. It was a rather wild experiment, and it hadn’t been going so well, which is why the Founders had to gather again at Independence Hall eleven years after declaring independence. So the question was a real one. What had the Founders discovered in trying to come up with a new Constitution? Was a genuine republic simply not possible?
Franklin’s response to Mrs. Powell’s question has become famous. “A republic, Madam,” he said. “If you can keep it.”
Of course we know that the Constitution created that hot summer in Philadelphia gave us a republic. But what did Franklin mean by the second part of his answer? What does it mean to “keep” the republic?
The answer is actually quite simple. The very nature of freedom is that it cannot be compelled. Either we freely govern ourselves — and “keep” ourselves free — or freedom fades away over time. The ink was drying on the Constitution when Franklin spoke his famous words. As amazing as that document truly was and still it, it never had the power to compel us to be free. It was up to us — “we the people” — to understand what it said and to live that out in our lives. Franklin understood that. He honestly had no idea whether we would “keep the republic.” The Constitution could not guarantee it.
This is the great conundrum at the heart of self-government, or “freedom” or “liberty” as we know it. As the author Os Guinness puts it: “the greatest enemy of freedom… is freedom.” So how do we keep ourselves free? What’s the magic formula? Is there one?
First of all, we must marvel that we have “kept the republic” for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. Why did the Founders think this possible? The answer has to do with the peculiar nature of the American colonists who had been here for generations. Ever since they had sailed across the ocean to the New World they had essentially been free to govern themselves, with minimal interference from the distant British government. They had gotten accustomed to thinking for themselves, and to doing as they saw fit. You might say that they had developed the muscles necessary for freedom.
But tied to this was a general tendency toward certain attitudes and behaviors — toward what we might call “virtue.” This was largely due to the success of the Reverend George Whitefield, who had traveled throughout the colonies for several decades, preaching the basic Christian idea that each person could have a direct relationship with God. Eighty percent of all Americans heard him preaching at least once, and many read his sermons, which were widely printed. In the four decades of Whitefield’s ministry many revivals had broken out, and by 1776, many Americans were deeply serious about God. So they generally behaved well not because they were compelled by government, but because they were directly responsible to God for their behavior. They did what was right without being forced. This was the secret formula to liberty.
John Adams famously said: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He understood this, as did every single one of the founders. So mainly because of the outbreaks of revivals under the preaching of Whitefield, the colonists in 1776 were generally a remarkably virtuous and religious people. And their initial culture of virtue and self-government has continued through the centuries. So we did really keep the republic. But what has happened in recent decades, so that we have slowly ceased to keep it so?
First, we’ve ceased to understand the centrality of religious faith and virtue to our freedoms. So we have ceased to teach this in our public schools, and we have generally abandoned these ideas in the wider culture, with tragic results.
Secondly, we have gotten used to freedom. We have come to think of it as normal, and now essentially take it for granted. That is the downside of any blessing, to forget that it is a blessing. Many of us have never known anything else but freedom and have been so insulated from the brokenness of many other countries that we never think we could possibly slide in such directions.
So to regain what we had — if we can regain it — we must first understand that what we have is an extraordinary blessing. We must also understand how it has worked, and how it will cease to work. We must remind ourselves that what all the Founders knew has not changed.
We must not denigrate, but must celebrate religious faith and virtue, knowing that without a culture in which they are cherished and exercised, freedom will wither and die. We must also remember that what we have is not normal and must be taught and understood and preserved. Else it goes away. So we must understand that although no one can force anyone to cherish freedom, we must nonetheless work toward a culture in which people do cherish it.
And we must know that faith is inescapably a part of that freedom. So we need to understand that we call Religious Liberty and the “separation of church and state” are not mandates to push God and faith out of public life. On the contrary, these things were meant by the founders to create a free market of ideas in which faith could best thrive, but freely. There is no way around it, without faith in God, we cannot remain free much longer. No one can force anyone to believe in the God of the Bible. But we have to encourage people toward Him and His precepts. It is an historical fact that faith in the God of the Bible is what caused us to become free 250 years ago. And it is faith in Him that can keep us free today.
Eric Metaxas is a Senior Fellow of Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center. He is also the author of the NYT Bestseller IF YOU CAN KEEP IT: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, from which this essay is adapted. For a copy of that book, click here.