On Sept. 18, 1787, emerging from the four-month Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Dr. Franklin, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
According to the journal of James McHenry (Library of Congress), Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
What is a republic? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “republic” as a government whereby power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote. Elected officers and representatives are responsible to them. In other words, representatives are elected to govern in a manner entrusted to them by the majority vote of their constituents.
This was not our original form of government. The United States originated with the Articles of Confederation, which had to be replaced due to multiple weaknesses: too much power entrusted to states, lack of executive and judicial branches and severe limits on the federal government to regulate the economy or military. Without the executive and judicial branches of government, there were no checks and balances on acts of Congress.
The Articles did contain some worthwhile components, such as establishing a postal service and term limits for delegates. States also had the right to recall their delegates and send replacements for the remainder of the year.
Recognizing the myriad of weaknesses of the Articles, the Constitutional Convention was called to create a brand-new framework for government. A mere fix was rejected.
At the convention, the role of the executive branch was hotly debated, including how the president would be elected, the length of term, the number of allowable terms, what offenses should be impeachable and who should choose judges.
In the final days of the convention, the Bill of Rights was negotiated as protection for American citizens. Ostensibly, the Constitution was intended to be a living, breathing document.
James Madison entered the convention with a long list of warnings that the weaker Articles had failed to address. Many of these observations continue to be true, including why government officials at all levels need checks and balances and elections to hold them accountable. Numerous compromises were necessary to arrive at our Constitution as we know it.
Madison’s prophetic warnings reveal that for the United States to grow and prosper, participation of the governed is essential to drive the government and hold it accountable. When only a minority of eligible voters participate in elections, as is so often true (especially in West Virginia), we subject ourselves to minority rule over the rights of all citizens.
Today, it seems that many essential lessons from our history are ignored or manipulated, causing many Americans to become disinclined to vote.
How do we keep our republic, Dr. Franklin? We must participate and vote.
Come meet us!
The Community Coalition for Social Justice will be hosting a Social and Environmental Justice Fair at Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheater from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17.
The League of Women Voters of Morgantown-Monongalia County, as well as other local social and environmental groups, will be there with information tables. This event is in conjunction with WVU’s Diversity Week and will have free music and snacks.
Stop by and see us for more information about the league. If you’re not already registered to vote, we can assist you.