Keeping the Republic: Reflections on the American Constitution

There is an oft told story that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin told a curious group of Philadelphians that the men who assembled during the summer of 1787 had created “a Republic, if you can keep it.” With the events of recent years, it appears that the American people haven’t upheld their end of the bargain in keeping the Republic. Specific revisions to the Constitution of the United States have been so drastic that they barely resemble the Framers’ intent, leading to ruinous implications for national leadership and a lack of concern for what truly matters, state and local governance. 

Original Intent 

The Constitution provided the states with a specific role in electing senators and the president – a role that has long been forgotten.  

Senators were originally appointed by their respective state legislatures with the purpose of representing state interests and checking the impulses of the democratically-elected House of Representatives. The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, removed authority from state legislatures in appointing senators, granting it to the people. A noble idea, but one with ill effects. Senators are now forced to cater to the narrow interests of the people and their party in order to secure election, frequently fundraising from outside of their state and making campaign promises that do not resemble their states’ interests. The Senate has since lost all sense of deliberation and collegiality, transcending into the same partisan bickering and demagoguery that often characterizes the House.  

Election to the presidency has undergone similar alterations. The Framers assumed that presidential electors – also selected by their state legislatures – would be a deliberative group whose members were free to make independent decisions on their choice of president. Over time, states have made the unfortunate mistake of handing over the Electoral College to the popular vote, transitioning free-thinking electors into party VIPs who are pledged or legally bound to support their party’s nominee. Now, presidential candidates differentiate themselves through the primary process by appealing to the people’s worst fears and conduct their general election campaign as the de facto chief of their political party, instead of standing in front of the Electoral College on their qualifications as a symbol of national unity.

The world of politics is a dirty place

The Framers knew this and did not want the people caught in this arena with an unhealthy concern for their national leadership. These passions could easily devolve into popular violence, as the Framers had witnessed firsthand during the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, and as millions of Americans saw with the violence following Trump’s inauguration and the insurrection in the Capitol on January 6. That is not democracy, that is mob rule – and America is falling victim to it.

Local … or National 

The Constitution echoes the Framers’ belief that the American people should not be fixated on the national, but the local. School board members, town councilors, mayors, county executives, judges, state legislators, and if need be, their representative in the House – these are the officials who can effectively impact their lives to the greatest extent. Unlike presidents or senators, these officials know their kids, shop at their local supermarkets, and live in their communities. They are the ones that will respond to their calls and hear their appeals. Americans expect that their interests are best represented by a single president or one hundred senators in a sea of 331 million – a belief that is not only unreasonable, but downright illogical. 

Americans believe they should tend to their towns and communities with more devotion and dedication than the national events occurring hundreds or thousands of miles away. I couldn’t agree more; the local must replace the national. However, it’s naive to think that national headlines won’t consume the American people. If Americans are truly interested in replacing the national with the local and delivering more principled leadership to federal office, they need to have a frank and honest dialogue surrounding a repeal to the 17th Amendment and a return to the original intent of the Electoral College. State legislatures will regain the authority to appoint senators and electors and democratic participation in state and local elections, currently at an embarrassing 20-30%, will undoubtedly surge. Moreover, out-of-state fundraising for these political offices, a thorn in the side of republican spirit, will decrease significantly as politicians will be less reliant on interest groups for elected office. That is the arrangement the Framers agreed upon. That is the way Americans force the national to be subservient to the local, and in the process, keep the Republic. 

by Maurice P. Rapp

Maurice is a History Instructor at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, DE, and a History Fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a Ph.D. student in American History at Lehigh University. 

Image by Wynn Pointaux from Pixabay

Bibliography

Bump,  Philip. “Why the Senate is getting more polarized.” The Washington Post, December 22, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/12/22/why-the-senate-is-getting-more-polarized/.  

Geng, Lucia. “From South Carolina to Maine, out-of-state donors give big in Senate races.” Open Secrets, October 22, 2020. https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/senate-races-outstate-donors/ 

Hamilton, Alexander. “Federalist No. 68: The Mode of Electing the President.” The Avalon Project. Accessed January 8, 2021. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed68.asp 

Landay, Jonathan and Scott Malone. “Violence flares in Washington during Trump inauguration.” Reuters. January 21, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-trump-inauguration-protests/violence-flares-in-washington-during-trump-inauguration-idUKKBN1550CX 

Madison, James. “Federalist No. 62: The Senate.” The Avalon Project. Accessed January 8, 2021. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed62.asp 

Osnos, Evan. “Mob Rule in the Capitol.” The New Yorker. January 7, 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/mob-rule-in-the-capitol

Rauch, Jonathan. “How American Politics Went Insane.” The Atlantic, July/August 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/how-american-politics-went-insane/485570/.  

White, Adam J. “A Republic, If We Can Keep It.” The Atlantic, February 4, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/a-republic-if-we-can-keep-it/605887/.

Zywicki, Todd J. “The Original Senate and the Seventeenth Amendment.” National Constitution Center. Accessed January 8, 2021. https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-xvii/interps/147#the-original-senate-and-the-seventeenth-amendment-by-todd-zywicki.  

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