The story goes that, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1789, Benjamin Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall in Philadelphia when a woman shouted to him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin’s often quoted reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
It was an ominous warning by one of the Founders after lengthy and often fractious debate over what the new country should look like.
Decades pass. One century gives way to another. The nation struggles with wars, notably a Civil War that nearly split the country in two, depressions and poverty, slavery and discrimination, impeachment, and political upheaval.
The fabric of the republic has been stretched and strained, but it has held for all these years. This longevity, which may have been a surprise to the Founders, contributes to the assumption that the Republic is perpetual.
That is not necessarily so. Gardens that are not tended will go to seed and be overtaken by weeds. Couples who fail to work on their relationship find one day they have grown too far apart to enjoy a life together. Businesses that do not innovate and adapt are destined to shutter.
The common theme of these failures and others is neglect, an unwillingness to devote the time and energy to care for something.
West Virginia’s Primary Election today comes at a most tumultuous time in the country. We are adjusting to the new normal thrust upon us by the pandemic and its devastating impact on the economy, while participating in a painful, but necessary, debate about race, police brutality, mistrust, and inequality.
We have a President who is wildly polarizing. Supporters admire Donald Trump’s willingness to punch back against critics, but the constant flow of invectives from the country’s highest office is divisive and exhausting.
The media are not off the hook. There is still a tremendous amount of fine journalism to be found. However, many in traditional media are drawn to conflict, while social media platforms are awash in ad hominem attacks and nutty conspiracy theories.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll finds that eighty percent of voters feel like the country is out of control.
I have heard references to this year being like 1968, one of the more tumultuous years of the last century with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the escalating war in Vietnam, student protests that followed, and the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Somehow, we were able to pull back from the brink after that terrible year, just as we have following other times of crisis. But will that always be so? What if, rather than challenging or even catastrophic individual events, we are witnessing a steady erosion?
During periods of peace and prosperity we can look at Franklin’s comment as an offhand remark that has been disproven by the endurance of the Republic.
But these days Franklin’s words serve as an ominous reminder of our fragility.