"A republic, if you can keep it!" so replied Benjamin Franklin to a bystander's query upon emerging from the cloistered confines of Independence Hall on the last day of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
Today, Franklin's famous admonition is often quoted by modern day politicians to warn against the peril of over concentration of power in a central government at the expense of individual liberty.
But the question that prompted Franklin's famous reply, "What form of government do we have, a monarchy or a republic?" is as revealing as the answer. Written more than a decade earlier, the word "republic" never appears in the Declaration of Independence and is actually mentioned only briefly in the Constitution in a one sentence clause that "guarantees a republican form of government to the states," without any further explanation or definition.
Several decades later the U.S. Supreme court was asked to rule on the meaning of the words "a republican form of government." The highest court in the land declined to attempt any interpretation of this clause, ruling that the definition of "republic" was a "political question" and thus inherently unsuitable for adjudication by the courts.
The Founding Fathers ingeniously crafted a new "republican form of government" without actually defining what it was. The choice between monarchy and republic was actually not as easy at it might seem today. While the perils of monarchy were well known, it was also familiar and could just as easily provide stability and security, especially for a bankrupt economy emerging from a decade-long war of independence against the world's most professional army at the time.
Now, 224 years later, we're still vigorously debating the Constitution, what it means, what powers it grants to government and what powers it retains in the states and the people.
Today it is almost universally taken for granted that the Constitution is the embodiment of our aspirations for personal freedoms and individual liberty and a bulwark against excessive government intrusion into private affairs.
But at the time of Franklin's famous words, "a republic if you can keep it," it was not feared that government would become too strong for liberty to survive, the greater worry was that the new republic would be too weak to survive.
James Madison argued in Federalist No.10 that the republic must have a strong central government to survive the inevitable destructive force that political factions would play in breaking apart the republic.
Madison defined a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Madison argued for ratification of the new constitution with a strong central government as necessary to the preservation of liberty, not as a threat to it.
However you choose to define it, our "republic" if we decide to keep it, depends ultimately upon a foundation of good will and a shared sense of community and common purpose.
As we approach this coming July 4th holiday weekend in anticipation of our greatest celebration of common cause, we are also anticipating a shut down of our state government because we have as yet failed to find it.
I certainly hope we will.
In the meantime, Happy 4th of July! And if you are in town this weekend, stick around for the best fireworks display in north central Minnesota at Heartland Park, right here in downtown Park Rapids. It's definitely worth celebrating!
Note: you can support the Park Rapids Fireworks Fund with a tax deductible donation to P.O. Box 704, Park Rapids, MN 56470.
Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.generation busted.com.