As Benjamin Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a woman asked him what sort of government had been chosen for the new United States. With his characteristic wit, Franklin promptly responded, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” This story is not apocryphal; it was recorded by Dr. James McHenry, a delegate to the Convention, in his diaries. The wit of Franklin’s response should not distract us from the importance of his message.
This Fourth of July we all (well, perhaps not all; see this article) celebrated the adoption by the Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most consequential documents in history. The Declaration is unique in that it was not merely a document of secession from Britain but an ideological and even philosophical missive. The Declaration grounded the American revolution in the foundations of human dignity and the “unalienable Rights” granted to man by his Creator. Man’s rights formed a central part of American political culture and were enshrined about fifteen years later in the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution. Today, some two hundred and forty years later, “rights” continue to be a key part of our political discourse.
And yet, as Franklin reminds us, we are sorely lacking if our political vocabulary limits itself to “rights” and neglects the concept of “responsibilities.” Freedom, it has often been observed, is not free. As Thomas Sowell, one of America’s preeminent intellectuals, observes, “It requires, at a minimum, maturity and a sense of the realities of life.” It requires a level of mature personal responsibility. We cannot loudly demand our rights if we are not ready to fulfill our civic duties. If we do not educate ourselves in our nation’s history, if we do not do even a minimum of research on the candidates running in our elections, if we remain willfully ignorant of how our political system functions, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when all is not right with our Republic. If we do not engage in our community, if we don’t help one another, don’t volunteer when the cause needs us, don’t contribute when the local charity needs it most, then we fail to guard our community and our society. Liberty, said Jefferson, demands eternal vigilance. If we are unwilling to pay the price, we cannot complain if we lose the purchase.