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Rants & Reason

Thoughts from the Founders on ‘We the people’

2/6/2019

Can we keep it?

Given the Trump phenomenon, the question “Could it happen here?” keeps popping up in political commentary.

Such commentary often refers to the 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, “It Can’t Happen Here” — written when Hitler was in control in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Stalin in Russia and the U.S. in the throes of the Great Depression.

Amazon.com says the novel is “A cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy…an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America.”

There is a better question, however: “Will democracy take hold in America?” If the answer is “Yes,” we need not worry about Lewis’ fears.

We’ve been at it for some 250 years now, and one should wonder what it will take for the Jefferson/Madison experiment in self-government to really take hold.

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The questions go back at least to the 18th century and concerns of our founding fathers. As the account goes, when our 1787 constitutional convention ended, a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The founding fathers had concerns about how to “keep it.”

John Adams worried that disparity in wealth would work against self-government. In “AMERICAN DIALOGUE, The Founders and Us,” historian Joseph J. Ellis contrasts Thomas Jefferson’s view that equality would be the natural order of American life with Adams’ concern that “as long as property exists, it will accumulate in individuals and families… The snowball will grow as it rolls.” In a book review, historian Jeff Shesol wrote, “Adams saw no way to prevent the consolidation of wealth and power by American oligarchs, but he did believe it could and must be moderated — regulated — by a strong national government.”

Also, James Madison feared powerful minority factions could lead to ends contrary to the goals of self- governance. The electoral college was devised to counter those fears, as was the election of U.S. Senators by state legislatures. We still have the electoral college, but direct election of senators was provided by the 17th amendment (1913). Neither the electoral college or the 17th amendment has been a panacea.                                                                           

That’s why “Can we keep it?” is a better question than “Could it happen here?” The “keep” question puts the burden on us — “We the people,” in the opening words of our Constitution.

Our track record in “keeping it” is mixed.  Racism, bigotry, greed, corruption, the Civil War and other human failings continue to thwart the Jefferson/Madison experiment. Our aspirations have been sidetracked, almost derailed, and that should haunt us when we proclaim the U.S. the “greatest” nation ever. 

Winston Churchill was more on point in 1947 when he quoted an unknown predecessor in Parliament with the observation, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried… No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.…”

So we keep trying, and the efforts need to be sustained as the Iowa caucuses are now less than a year away. The month of February with President’s Day also prompts reflection, particularly when we have a person in the Oval Office who ranks himself among the best presidents ever.

Consider this exchange with Chris Wallace of Fox News:

“Where do you rank yourself in the pantheon of great presidents? There’s Lincoln and Washington…Do you make the top 10?” 

Trump: “I think I’m doing a great job….“I would give myself, I would — look, I hate to do it, but I will do it — I would give myself an A plus. Is that enough? Can I go higher than that?”

Since we are in President’s month, contrast Trump’s self-glorification with that of Washington’s self-assessment in his 1796 farewell address: “I will only say that I have…contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications…”

And Trump arrogantly puts a reverse spin on Lincoln’s vow in his 1865 inaugural address to “strive on”… “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

“We the people” need to keep our republic, remembering Franklin’s response to Mrs. Powell. ♦

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