At the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Mrs. Powel asked Ben Franklin: “Well, Doctor Franklin, what do we have, a monarchy or a republic?”
To which he replied: “A republic, if you can keep it”.
But what kind of republic did they create? Republics have meant many different things over history ranging from national legislatures dominated by wealthy Senators to republics in name only where an autocrat ruled with an iron fist behind the scenes.
Ramon Lopez, a post-doctoral fellow in the Tocqueville Program at Furman University spoke to The Institute for the Public Trust which I run last weekend in Charlotte. He pointed out that America was first a “propositional republic” prior to being a democratic republic as established in the Constitution in 1787.
Our country was based on an idea first before the machinery of our current government was established by the Constitution. An idea of freedom and equality, not another government ruled by monarchs.
President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address said our new nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal” in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 long before the Constitution was written and adopted. All that followed rested upon that propositional phrase.
Professor Lopez pointed out that Rome was a “propositional idea” as well. To be truly “Roman” meant any conquered people could enjoy the freedoms of a Roman citizens regardless of race, creed or religion, as long as they adopted the rules of Roman citizenship while being protected from outside invaders by the Roman army, the most powerful fighting force on earth at the time.
The founding myth of Rome, he said, was that “they were descended from immigrants, exiles, and, criminals. The Romans claimed that a prince had escaped Troy when it was sacked by the Greeks, and that he found his way to central Italy. His descendants eventually founded the city of Rome, inviting anyone to settle it—anyone who was poor, or desperate, or in need of a new home….(T)o be a Roman became a civic designation, not an ethnic one.”
We have a direct intellectual and philosophical umbilical cord connecting modern-day America to the democracies of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic dating up to 2500 years ago. Unless we teach it to the next generations, we will forget it and the underlying principles of equality and fairness to all.
The birth of the United States of America was not tied to the Muslim tradition as President Obama tried to assert several years ago. The men who founded America were deeply ensconced in the history and tradition of both Greek and Roman civilizations. They learned to read by reading the Bible and Plutarch’s Lives; they relaxed by reading Thucydides and Euripides.
Without our collective understanding and embrace of that fundamental philosophical proposition underpinning of our nation, our democratic republic would have failed long ago. Without understanding Jefferson’s proposition as the most essential foundational principle to our government, America will fail as the ancient Greek democracies and Roman Republics failed when they forgot what proposition their nation was founded on in the beginning.
At North Carolina A&T several years ago, an African-American woman asked a simple question: “Mr. Hill, when are we going to stop calling ourselves African-Americans or Irish-Americans and just call ourselves “Americans”?
That is a good question. What is the propositional phrase we can all recognize and accept today and move ahead as if we are playing on the same team?
Perhaps it is a recommitment to the revolutionary idea that “all people are indeed created equal”. No one is better or worse than anyone else. We all have the same aspirations and hopes for a better life as free people.
Maybe then we can move ahead to solve the issues we face together. As equals.