A republic, if you can keep it

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By Rob Witwer

As the Constitutional Convention wrapped up in September 1786, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “Well, doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

In a very few words, Franklin conveyed the promise and peril of self-government. The word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, literally meaning “a thing of the people.” In 1786, the concept of a government deriving its powers from citizens, rather than the other way around, was so novel as to be revolutionary. 

Franklin recognized the fragility of a republic. For people to govern themselves, they must affirmatively embrace the task of self-government. Specifically, that means civic engagement, running for office, studying the actions of government, expressing dissent and participating in any manner of act that helps you, as a citizen, influence government.

(Incidentally, several years ago a bumper sticker was in vogue that read: “Dissent is the Highest Form of Patriotism.” I disagree that dissent is a higher form of patriotism than giving one’s life for his or her country, but it is true that the importance of lawful dissent was understood by our Founders. That understanding flows from the character of self-government. Interestingly, that bumper sticker seems more rare these days.)

The most basic expression of self government is voting, an indication of the citizens’ consent to those who would govern.

Which brings us to a question: If we don’t vote, or if our votes aren’t informed by an understanding of issues and candidates, are we carrying forward the duty and privilege of living in a republic? 

We’re at no loss for political messages. Many are agenda-driven; some have kernels of truth. But without a measure of skepticism, we’ll never sort truth from propaganda.

If Dr. Franklin were here today, I suspect he would have a simple message for us: Pay attention. Pay attention to what’s happening in Washington. Pay attention to what’s happening at the state Capitol. Pay attention to the character and integrity of those who serve us. And pay close attention to the political messages you hear during an election year. 

And, don’t just pay attention — question. It’s the duty of a self-governing people.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and is the co-author of the upcoming book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).” He lives in Genesee.