If You Can Keep It

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 07-06-2022
It isn’t easy to be an American. The sometimes contentious proceedings in 1787 that eventually yielded our Constitution were behind closed doors (and windows). But the people were very much interested. When the prolonged debate concluded and Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Philadelphia State House he was asked by Mrs. Elizabeth Powel: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin answered: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

(Independence Hall was first referred to as such by General Lafayette in 1824; prior to that it was the Philadelphia State House.)
All republics are servants of the people, and ours is particularly so. It requires effort, it requires participation, it requires informed debate. There is always a good deal of talk about rights - and in the past few weeks the amount of talk has been well above the norm. But one of the issues not discussed enough is that with the rights of citizenship comes the responsibilities of citizenship.

If you actually want this republic to work, you have a responsibility to be a good citizen, beginning at the local level. You need to know how your system of government works and you need to participate. Participation can be simple: pay your taxes and vote, or more complex: you may demonstrate, write articles on this or that issue, run for office, support a candidate or a cause, start a business and grow the economy. If you build a house you need to know a little bit about local laws and zoning issues, there will probably be some state laws you need to be aware of, and there are, increasingly, federal regulations that may impact your new house (consider the federal governments efforts in the last quarter century to control water on the farms and ranches of the Midwest and West). Many of these are issues you might want to challenge at Town Council meetings.

The point is, this isn’t a system rightly handled by someone else. We have a system of government that demands - if you want it to function properly - that you stay informed and involved. Town council and city council meetings are important, you need to attend.

And very much to the point, that local involvement is where, as much as is possible, real power should reside. A bureau far away in Washington should no more be deciding what to teach children in any given town then they should be deciding what health care you should receive or what car you should drive.
Which is why the Supreme Court decisions in the past week are of such importance, as they all speak to a single idea: power, and government, flows from the people, and therefore decisions need to be left to the people, at as low a level as practical, within the boundaries established by our country’s rule book, the Constitution.

246 years ago this country was founded by a group of men - representing the will of the majority - who saw that power was being taken from them and being concentrated in the hands of a distant bureaucracy. As the Declaration said, governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Eleven years after that Declaration they drafted a Constitution, detailing how such a government would be organized and function, with a clear, but deliberately meticulous, process to allow for changes.

Almost immediately a list of amendments were drafted, and most of them were soon approved, to enumerate certain rights that were deemed of such importance that they needed to be spelled out, so that future bureaucracies could know tread on certain rights.

At the time there was a serious debate as to whether there should be any enumerated rights. Hamilton (Federalist 84) wrote: “I go further, and affirm, that bill of rights, in the sense and to the extent they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done, which there is no power to do?” 

Thus, there should be no “Bill of Rights,” everything that wasn’t explicitly listed within the Constitution must be assumed to be off limits to the three branches of government. 

But others, led by James Madison (who had initially opposed the idea), argued successfully - thankfully - that without such a listing government would steadily encroach upon our rights. And that only with some sort of clear statement of rights might government be held in check.

The compromise was to list those few rights that were deemed essential to keeping the government within clear boundaries, that is, binding the bureaucracy, and then adding wording that would make it clear that all other rights were excluded from the purview of the federal government and were solely the concern of the people individually or of the states. Hence, the 9th and 10th Amendments. 

Which returns us to the issue of the responsibilities of citizenship. Some issues - freedom of speech and press, religion, the right to carry weapons, trial by jury, etc., are of such note that they would be explicitly listed. Others, also excluded from the federal government’s manipulations, would placed within purview of the states, where the citizens would be free to debate then and decide on their own, free from federal interference, just how those rights would be defined and exercised. 

Thus, the Supreme Court has pushed a major social issue back to the states where it will need to be thrashed out by the people and their representatives - probably repeatedly in many states; a federal bureaucracy has been stripped of powers it assumed it had but did not have in fact; and a right explicitly protected by Constitutional amendment was given equal standing as other explicitly stated rights.

All of which, in fact, reaffirms the rule of law and the central role of the people and the people’s representatives - at every echelon of government - in deciding the course of the country, rather than to be ruled by a few people in black robes, debating and deciding in secret and issuing proclamations as if from Mt. Olympus.

After all, wasn’t that what we declared our independence from, 246 year ago?