Letter to Founder Benjamin Franklin
In this season of celebration of the Declaration of Independence, most of us are grateful for your accomplishments in the Constitutional Convention.
I would recollect the incident in which you were walking down the streets of Philadelphia after the convention and a fellow citizen asked: “What kind of government did you give us” and you retorted: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Through the decades, we have had to overcome serious crises to keep this Republic. We fought England for the second time, put down a separatist movement in the New England states and absorbed hordes of newcomers, most of who contributed to our prosperity.
Of course, we didn’t like it when most of Ireland came to America. Not only did they compete for jobs but they were Catholics, for which reason we burned a few churches and convents and formed an anti-Catholic political party.
Even though unwanted, they stayed and contributed to making America great.
But in our midst, we tolerated a great sin that you folks in the Constitutional Convention kicked down the road for solution by later generations. The solution to slavery came as one of the causes of the Civil War among the states in which more young men were killed than were killed in all other American wars combined.
It was a blood bath but again we prevailed although the stain poisons our society to this day. We are slowly digesting the consequences of that fratricide and the hate it generated.
After confrontation and conflict, labor and management eventually resolved their differences and both prospered.
Then we experienced two world wars and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, all with the painful loss of thousands of young men and women.
So, Ben, we have struggled through the decades, keeping the Republic you created. We made it this far but how long can we continue? After all, the great Roman Empire collapsed. There is nothing in scripture that guarantees the existence of the United States of America.
As we look at the contributions of our Republic to people of the world, we find that we have set the bar for recognizing the dignity of each human being.
Our Constitution says that everyone should be heard so we guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Other amendments include civil and criminal rights. Later came recognition of equality by extending the right to vote to those without property, to African-Americans, to women, to youth and to Native-Americans.
This expansion of the right to vote has resulted in an increase in the number of citizens who neglect their duty to be informed and provide wise judgment at the polls. Consequently, our elections have become decided by slogans, misinformation and outright lies, all without the level of discernment a Republic needs to survive.
Appeals for votes have become calls for visceral rather than cognitive response to the problems of the Republic.
Because emotion has driven reason out of the arena, voters and their representatives have become polarized, freezing all progress in the status quo system.
We have now put a premium on intolerance. Instead of electing moderates who can work together, we choose the candidates that demonstrate uncompromising attitudes that result in polarization. Because the radicals in both parties have come to the fore, politics has become uncivil and mean-spirited. There can be no compromise.
Ben, we are in a fine state of affairs. Until every state and congressional district starts electing the kind of people that served in your Constitutional Convention, I’m afraid the Republic may not be kept.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.