One of my favorite books is Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, the story of the making of America’s constitution in 1787. It was indeed a miracle, especially since so many people had a hand in it. I dare say our constitution is the best work ever done by a committee – anytime, anywhere.
When the delegates left Independence Hall on September 17th after finishing their work, a woman in the crowd asked Benjamin Franklin, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
And Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Eight years later, in a speech to Congress, Fisher Ames talked about the difference between a monarchy and a republic: “A monarchy,” he said, “is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock and go to the bottom; a republic is like a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water.”
I like that – the image of our nation as a raft, all of us sitting on it together, all getting our feet wet. Ben Franklin and Fisher Ames were telling us this republic of ours isn’t a spectator sport. We grant ourselves great individual freedoms, but in return we assume great individual responsibility. The republic doesn’t work unless we debate and vote and participate in its business. Unless we get our feet wet.
It doesn’t work unless we all work at protecting its freedoms, even when – especially when – they make us uncomfortable. We insist on the right of people to say and write things we don’t like, to have ideas and religious beliefs and lifestyles we don’t agree with. In short, to be different.
We dare to be different in America, and that’s the great engine that drives our national vigor and creativity. We sometimes get things done by disturbing each other, by shaking each other out of ruts, by each of us contributing our diverse viewpoints to the whole.
If we ever stop that, if we ever insist that every American be the same, we’ll turn this raft of ours into a prison.