This is the first of twenty-five weekly articles in The Tennessee Star’s Constitution Series. Students in grades 8 through 12 can sign up here to participate in The Tennessee Star’s Constitution Bee, which will be held on September 23.
Minutes after the Constitutional Convention adjourned in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, Elizabeth Powel, a friend of George Washington who hosted many social events for the political class of the time, asked Benjamin Franklin if the convention had given us a republic or a monarchy.
“A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” the venerable 81-year-old delegate, ambassador, and inventor responded.
Fifty-five delegates, from all the states except Rhode Island, attended that convention, which began four months earlier in May of that year under the premise of forming a more perfect union by revising the Articles of Confederation.
You see, the United States of America was not officially formed as the republic of which we are currently citizens in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain acknowledged the independence and sovereignty of its former colonies, was signed.
The Continental Congress of the thirteen rebellious colonies, convening in York Town, Pennsylvania (now simply called York), adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777 as the contract between the thirteen colonies they used to unite in their efforts to win their freedom from Great Britain.
The Revolutionary War had already been in progress for two years, and a year earlier, the colonies had signed a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
It was not until 1781, however, that all thirteen rebellious colonies actually ratified the Articles of Confederation.
It became quickly apparent, however, that the Articles of Confederation was not the kind of contract–or covenant– that would keep the fledgling country in business.
The flaws in the document, in retrospect, were numerous, though it had been sufficient to bind the colonies together for them to win the American Revolution.
The most dramatic flaw was the weakness of the central government. The central government was so weak it was virtually incapable of acting on any matter of significance.
By 1787, it was clear to a number of Founding Fathers–Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in particular–that a new contract between the thirteen former colonies–who now called themselves states–was crucial to the survival of the young country.
So Hamilton, Madison, and a few others who wanted a new contract that gave more power to the central government–as a group known at the time as “Federalists”–persuaded leaders of the thirteen state governments to hold another convention for the purpose of reforming and revising the existing Articles of Confederation.
At least that was what the Federalists wanted the Anti-Federalists–a group who feared giving too much power away from the state governments to the central government– to believe.
The Federalists and Anti-Federalists in all thirteen states were in agreement on one main point: The Articles of Confederation as originally agreed to simply were not working.
So twelve of the thirteen colonies (tiny Rhode Island, surrounded by Connecticut on one side, Massachusetts on the other, and the ocean on a third side, was not interested) agreed to meet at a convention in Philadelphia that began in May of 1787.
Ultimately, the convention resulted in a brand new document that was signed by 39 of the 55 delegates which would become the Supreme Law of the Land; a document which would set forth a government of laws, not of men, whereas the power of the government is derived from the consent of the governed, or, rather, from the people.
The Articles of Confederation loosely bound the states together with no executive, no judiciary, no taxing power and no enforcement power.
One consequence of the Confederation’s lack of taxing power was that some American soldiers who served during the Revolutionary War suffered.
One of those soldiers was Daniel Shays, a 28-year old farmer with a wife and several young children from western Massachusetts who joined up in 1775. He fought the British for five years, and was promoted to captain until he was injured in 1780 and had to retire.
Shays served in the American Army for five years and never got paid. After he retired from the Army and returned home he learned that he was being sued for debts he couldn’t pay because he hadn’t been paid for five years.
This didn’t seem very fair to him, and he tried, unsuccessfully for six years to get paid for his years in his Army, but he never got a dime.
By the summer of 1786, he and a number of his neighbors, fellow veterans of the Revolutionary War who had never been paid, decided to get what they were owed.
Four thousand of them gathered together and attacked the Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts but were repelled by a larger force of the same Continental Army they had served in themselves for many years.
When the uprising–known as Shays’ Rebellion–ended in May, 1787, four “Shaysites” had been killed in battle. Two were later hanged. Shays himself was pardoned, moved to upstate New York, was granted a small pension for his service, and lived in poverty until his death in 1825.
The rebellion shocked many of the political leaders of the new country, and it gave Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike further reason to meet in Philadelphia to try and fix the Articles of Confederation.
The diminutive James Madison from Virginia – short in physical stature at 5 foot 4, but an intellectual giant – had the general outline of a plan to fix things. It was a very audacious thing for Madison, only 26 years old at the time, to even contemplate.
“The purpose of the Constitution is to restrict the majority’s ability to harm a minority,” he said after the document had been completed.
While the towering George Washington had led the troops for eight years, and his aide Alexander Hamilton had finally won glory on the battlefield by storming a British stronghold at Yorktown, and fellow Virginian James Monroe, just 19 years old took a bullet to the chest on Christmas Day 1777 at the Battle of Trenton, where he lay bleeding to death on the ground until Washington’s own surgeon intervened to save him, Madison, a Princeton graduate, studied Greek and Roman history.
Madison knew one thing about human nature: Every person sought to advance his or her own interests, and every person could be corrupted.
Studying the various forms of government deployed throughout history, Madison came to the conclusion–one that he thought should be obvious–that the only way to counteract the natural tendencies of human nature was to develop a system of checks and balances.
In a pure democracy, every citizen has one vote, and decisions are made by the vote of a majority.
That form of government, Madison and the other Founders knew, almost always led to a tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the minority were abused and trampled upon.
In a monarchy, citizens are ruled by a single ruler–a king or a queen–who inherits that role and, in some countries, exercises absolute power.
The country belongs to the monarch, rather than the citizens of that country. The “sovereignty” of the people–that is their right to choose their own form of government–is something completely missing from a monarchy.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” a famous British politician and professor by the name of Lord Acton would say almost a century later in an oft quoted phrase.
What most people forget about that phrase is the next sentence.
“Great men are almost always bad men,” Acton added.
So long as a country was ruled by a good king, the citizens were safe. But what happens when there is a bad king? One who arbitrarily steals the property of the citizens, or executes his subjects on a whim?
For these reasons, Madison and the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention, rejected both a democracy and a monarchy.
In 1787, there were about 500 countries in the world, which had a population about 500 million.
About 499 of these countries were some form of monarchy. Only one tiny country–Switzerland–had a form of government that was an early form of a republic at the time.
A republic is a form of government in which leaders are elected by those citizens who have the right to vote. Once elected, those leaders make the key decisions of government.
Disputes in a republic are settled by “the rule of law,” a system that involves courts, judges, advocacy, and precedent of earlier court rulings.
Early on in the convention, it became obvious to almost everyone that the Articles of Confederation were beyond repair. So a fresh new start was required.
Even great men–and great women, Madison and the other delegates knew, needed checks and balances in any form of government they might lead.
A republic offered those checks and balances.
“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government,” Patrick Henry, a preeminent Anti-Federalist, said.
The idea of The Constitution was, for the first time in history, to record in a single document the contractual terms to which all the citizens agreed, and to formalize a process by which they agreed to that system of government.
In the American republic, at its inception, the central government’s powers were few and defined; while the powers of the thirteen states were numerous and indefinite, thereby protecting the peoples’ lives, liberties and properties.
Key elements of the checks and balances contained in the final document that emerged from the Constitutional Convention were:
Federalism: Defined two distinct forms of government– the centralized federal government, which had certain specified and limited powers which could be applied to every citizen of the country, and the thirteen separate state governments, which had numerous and indefinite powers by which residents of those states agreed to be governed.
Separation of powers: The power of the federal government was to be distributed among three separate branches: The legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch, whereby each had specific powers that allowed it to “check” the other branches to ensure those branches were not usurping their given powers.
The legislative branch consisted of two houses– The House of Representatives, whose members were elected directly by citizens with the right to vote, and the Senate, whose members were elected by the Legislatures of each separate state. The role of the legislative branch was to make laws.
The executive branch consisted of the President, and the departments subsequently organized to implement his policies, within the laws established by Congress, the legislative branch.
The Constitution did not create the cabinet departments we currently have. It left that task to Congress, which acted during its first session in 1789 to create the first four departments–State, Treasury, War, and Justice.
The judicial branch heard disputes between the federal government and the state governments, as well as between citizens or companies of different states.
In Article IV, section 4, the Constitution even guarantees each state a “Republican Form of Government.”
At the Constitutional Convention, for example, large state delegates and small state delegates compromised on representation of the legislative branch by adopting Roger Sherman’s Connecticut Plan. According to the plan, the legislative branch was to be divided into two houses, one with representation according to population (House of Representatives) and the other having equal representation from each state (Senate).
The framers of the Constitution knew that in order to preserve our republic, there were caveats. They knew that education and virtue were the most necessary. The people were expected to be educated, informed, and engaged in order to elect proper civil servants.
James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution, understood that “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”
“The Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” John Adams, who would become the second president, said.
Thomas Jefferson summed it up this way – “It is in the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour . . . degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats into the heart of its laws and constitution.”
Ben Franklin and the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention understood the challenge that future generations would face in preserving, protecting and defending this republic.
More than two centuries ago, Franklin told Mrs. Powel we had a republic, if we can keep it.
Franklin, Mrs. Powel, and every one of their grandchildren are now long gone.
But we are their descendants, and 228 years after Franklin offered that cautionary phrase “if you can keep it” in his response to Mrs. Powel, the question seems more relevant now than ever.
Franklin was concerned about the natural tendency of any government towards centralization and control.
That was why, he thought, monarchies tended to move towards “absolutism,” as Louis XIV and his descendants had done in France.
That move towards centralization and control could occur in a republic as well. As a result, a republic could only survive with citizen participation and a healthy system of checks and balances.
Franklin knew all too well that such a participatory form of government was delicate and fragile, constantly in need of renewal.
What do you think?
Can we keep the American republic?
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Claudia Henneberry taught Social Studies and English in North Carolina, then retired to be a stay-at-home mom who raised her two daughters.
Since her retirement as a teacher, Claudia has substitute-taught and been involved in reviewing textbooks. She testified in Tennessee before the Textbook Commission and the State Senate Education Committee on inaccuracies, biases and omissions in the social studies texts.
Claudia started a ““Ladies for Liberty” group with a neighbor to encourage women to learn about the Constitution, and organized several summers of Camp Constitution held in Brentwood, Tennessee.
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