One of the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, James McHenry of Maryland, recorded in his journal a singular incident he observed at its conclusion. “A lady asked Dr. Franklin, Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy? A republic, replied the Doctor, if you can keep it.” McHenry then decided to identify the woman by adding a footnote: “The lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia.”
It seems fitting that the question eliciting Franklin’s timeless insight would have come from such a patriot as Elizabeth Willing Powel, wife of Samuel Powel (“Patriot Mayor,” he would be called, for his service as Philadelphia’s last Colonial mayor from 1775-1776). Renowned for her “wit and knowledge,” Elizabeth hosted lavish dinner parties and gatherings at their exquisite Philadelphia home during the summer of 1787, providing an important venue for delegates and others to informally work through the great issues being addressed in the Convention.
The Powels became good friends with George and Martha Washington, and according to the official website of the Powel House, Elizabeth “had a strong voice and became one of Washington’s closest confidants during his presidency, advising him on issues both personal and political.” One such issue was whether he would serve a second term as president. As Washington struggled with the decision, Elizabeth wrote to him urging the importance of his continued leadership for the fledgling nation. “Your Resignation would elate the enemies of good Government and cause a lasting regret to the Friend of humanity.”
America owes much to Elizabeth Powel, but her simple question to Franklin and the response it brought is what she is most remembered for, inviting every generation of Americans to ask a follow-up question: Can we keep our republic? The answer may well depend on the answer to the question posed by Matthew Spalding: “Do we still hold these truths?” The reference is, of course, to the immutable verities proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In his superlative book We Still Hold These Truths, published over a decade ago but now more timely than ever, Spalding explains, “Of the many influences that shaped the American concept of liberty, the first and most formative was faith. From the earliest settlements, Americans were a strongly religious people. More than anything else, religion formed the backbone of colonial culture and defined its moral horizon.”
What the Founders’ wrought by their faith was unprecedented, as Spalding’s quote from Madison emphasizes. “They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society,” and “reared the fabrics of government which have no model on the face of the globe.” That government, says Spalding, was “built on the great foundational principle of the rule of law,” which “may be the most significant and influential accomplishment of Western constitutional thinking….The creation of the United States Constitution—John Adams described the Constitutional Convention as ‘the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen’—was one of the greatest events in the history of human liberty. The result of the convention’s work has been the most enduring, successful, enviable, and imitated constitution man has ever known.”
But even this greatest of all political documents cannot ensure America’s liberty without her virtue, notes Spalding as he quotes Adams: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Nor is this the only paramount principle unexpressed but implied in our Constitution. “The Founders did not write much about the family; it is not mentioned in the Constitution or other core documents of the era,” says Spalding. “That is because the family was the universally acknowledged cornerstone of society, and its centrality could be taken for granted.” Built on “the intimate and natural bond of husband and wife, and parent and child,” the family was understood to be “the critical link between the private moral and religious instruction that restrains the passions and nourishes good character, on the one hand, and the inculcation of the public virtue required for republican government, on the other.”
And here we might add to Spalding’s treatise what Elizabeth Powel wrote to a friend: “To educate a child in such a manner as to fit her for receiving & communicating happiness is certainly the most arduous task that can devolve on the female character. Yet certain it is that the groundwork of Education with both Sexes rests on the Mother. She gives the first & most lasting impressions.”
Spalding’s book is part manifesto and part roadmap as it urges Americans to resist “the extended reach of the state—fueled by its imperative to impose moral neutrality on the public square—[which] continues to push traditional social institutions in to the shadows of public life, undermining respect for institutions meant to strengthen the fabric of America’s culture and civil society… We must challenge, engage, and reject the relativism and historicism that infect our culture and have caused such great turmoil in our politics.”
And “what does it say about our moral discernment,” Spalding asks, “when an endangered snail is protected more than a six-month-old child in his mother’s womb, or when we are unable to agree whether defining marriage as a union between man and woman serves any rational purpose? In a world of moral confusion, we must restore the accepted understanding of a human nature limited by the unchanging ground of right and wrong.”
Claiming no new discovery, Spalding pleads for a return to foundational principles. “We don’t need to remake America, or discover new and untested principles. The change we need is not the rejection of America’s principles but a great renewal of these permanent truths about man, politics, and liberty—the foundational principles and constitutional wisdom that are the true roots of our country’s greatness.”
Like the North Star, those truths can guide us to safety and prosperity as we navigate through the increasing darkness of our age. “We must look to the principles of the American Founding not as a matter of historical curiosity, but as a source of assurance and direction for our times. In a world of moral confusion, and of arbitrary and unlimited government, the American Founding is our best access to permanent truths and our best ground from which to launch a radical questioning of the whole foundation of the progressive project.”
Can we keep our Republic? The answer was already given by the Founders: yes, but only if we hold fast to the unchanging truths that constitute the foundation of the greatest nation on earth.