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Clio's Temple

A nation by any other name

Today is the birthday of the U.S. Constitution. I know we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17, but to use a human analogy, that was the date of conception. Our basic law was actually born on this date in 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it.

When I was in the eighth grade, my American History class did a play on the Constitutional Convention. All the players wrote their own speeches and most were original, but one quoted Benjamin Franklin when asked what the Convention had given the new nation: "A republic, if you can keep it." This is one of those comments that still occasions angry debates today as to whether the U.S. is a republic or a democracy. If someone asked me, "Is the U.S. a republic or a democracy?" I would answer, "No, it's both." There are those who assert that it must be one or the other, since "democracy" is of Greek derivation, whereas "republic" is Latin. Such oversimplifications are a good example of the maxim, "Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer."

I don't mean to suggest that those who hold to one view or the other are necessarily stupid people. But anyone who thinks we can overlay our own political preoccupations on the past needs to go back and take some remedial history courses. When Franklin made his celebrated comment, he most likely had one of three past examples in mind: the Roman Republic, which ended in Caesarism; the Dutch Republic, which was worn down by getting in the quarrels of Habsburg and Bourbon; or the Protectorate under Cromwell, which ended up as a military dictatorship. These are not auspicious examples for those who believe in republican governments.

If we are not a democracy, then the first three words of the Constitution, "We the People," are a lie. Those words assert the proposition, "Power from the people," which is the plain meaning of the Greek words demos and kratos. The fact that in 1787, "we the people" meant in practice "white adult males of property" does not invalidate the assertion that power is the servant of the people, not the master. We are also a republic, because power is exercised through representative leaders who derive their power from the consent of "we the people."

We are unique, whether or not you believe in the doctrine of American exceptionalism. We are unique because our Founding Fathers strove to create something durable, a form of government that would not succumb to the temptations of power. Did they succeed? This is probably a question that cannot be answered in our lifetimes. Formulaic responses as to what our nation is are the refuge of the thoughtless. Whatever our founders left us, it was not intended to be a haven for the ignorant or the gullible.

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