Among the many misperceptions of the American Revolution and the resulting constitutional order is the belief that these admittedly monumental achievements created a self-sustaining system of governance. Even in times of chaos and upheaval such as those we are living through today, we have always at some level convinced ourselves that ours is a system that can withstand most any assault, foreign or domestic. We lean on a legend – that the bundle of constitutional rights guaranteed us and our revolutionary system of checks and balances will be enough by themselves to sustain liberty over the fullness of time.
It’s been said, regarding any memorable occurrence, that if there’s truth and legend, go with the legend because it’s always a better story. But the truth is, while we expect that our institutions will hold under duress, Thomas Jefferson himself – among others in the founding generation – was doubtful the great experiment in liberty attained through blood, sweat, and tears would last more than a generation. He was skeptical of the sustainability of a system in which 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%. Jefferson was expanding on the sentiments of fellow founder Benjamin Franklin, who when asked what form of government the framers of the Constitution had settled on, famously replied, “a republic – if you can keep it.”
It’s that last part – if you can keep it – that is now seriously in question as we head into this third decade of the 21st century, approaching two and half centuries since the founding. Mr. Franklin realized, in his considerable wisdom, that the future of the republic would rest not on those in power, but on the people who put them there. It would be up to the everyday citizens of the new nation to demonstrate the belief, tolerance, and fortitude to uphold their new way of life and fend off the inevitable challenges to an experimental system of governance that seemed a contradiction in terms: ordered liberty.
Yes, we have always ultimately honored constitutionally mandated elections and the transfer of power, first made manifest when George Washington handed the reins of executive power to John Adams free from coercion. We have elected an unbroken chain of representatives to Congress and created an ever-growing body of law. We have been blessed with a functional court system to apply the rule of law. We believed enough in this republic to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents in a war amongst ourselves in order to preserve it.
But there are some things which a republic can not withstand.
It was Adams who wrote the words which may stir or haunt the soul when describing the efficacy of our form of government: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” Are we one, both, or neither of these circa 2021? Far from self-sustaining, our society is reliant on the voluntary adherence of its people to certain principles once widely held as unshakable – but now mired in a fog of doubt by the growing number who believe the system is a relic at best and evil at worst. These dissenters view the Constitution as more a roadblock to their own unbridled power than a highway to freedom.
In a more contemporary context, former President Bill Clinton burnished his appeal to the working class by declaring that he was all about those who “work hard and play by the rules.” Do those who do so today believe in the system as they once did? We know the left writ large wants to change the “rules” of the republic, but now millions on the right are doubting the integrity of the very cornerstone of democracy: free and fair elections. Are the rules as we know them even in play anymore?
When the system appears so transparently – to both left and right – to favor a virtually permanent elite, more distant than ever from the people, it can become the equivalent, as it has often been put, of two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Can the center hold when adherents of both warring tribes share a growing disdain for the system?
From rapidly growing censorship of dissenting voices to the retribution unleashed against those who voted a certain way, we are witnessing in real time how quickly the freedoms we thought unshakable can in fact be extinguished in short order. Ronald Reagan skipped the legend and went straight to the hard truth with his oft-quoted, and now ominously prescient declaration (for which Liberty Nation’s parent organization is named):
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Read more from Tim Donner.