At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, as he was leaving Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, a woman approached the elderly Benjamin Franklin. “Well doctor, what have we got,” she said, “a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s answer, which was recorded in the diary of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, was sobering and prophetic. “A republic,” he said, “if we can keep it.”
So what is a “republic?”
The western nation state has its origins in the French, British, and Spanish monarchies. Go far enough back in history, and the King of England, France, or Spain was just another feudal lord. Eventually, in each country, a great feudal dynasty, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Bourbons, became so powerful that it was able to establish the absolute monarchy that would come to define “the nation.” In the Seventeenth and Eighteen Centuries, the transformation of the European economy from feudalism to capitalism demanded a new form of government.
Great Britain and France, the two great peoples of Western Europe, chose different paths. After a brief experiment with a Puritan Commonwealth immediately following the English Civil War, one that degenerated into a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, the British people first restored the Stuart Monarchy under James II. When he became unpopular – absolute monarchy simply doesn’t work in a capitalist economy — they invited William and Mary of the Protestant House of Orange to establish a liberal, constitutional monarchy, essentially an oligarchy of landowners and rich merchants with the king as first among equals.
The Bourbon Monarchy survived the Stuart Monarchy by almost exactly one hundred years, but in 1789, the French people, now a nation, rose up and destroyed feudalism. For almost four years, they conducted a debate among themselves. – “do we want to be a constitutional monarchy like Great Britain?” – a debate that resolved itself after Louis XVI attempted to collude with the invading royalist armies of Prussia and Austria against very the nation his family had been so instrumental in establishing. On August 10, 1792, the Paris mob stormed the old Bourbon Palace of the Tuileries and put the king under arrest. On January 21, 1793, he was guillotined in the Place de la Concorde and the French Republic, the first democracy in Western Europe since the Ancient Greeks, was proclaimed.
The early years of the American “republic” were essentially a debate about what “we” wanted to become, radical democrats like the French, or liberal capitalists like the British. Thomas Jefferson, for example, supported the French Revolution. Alexander Hamilton wanted to crown George Washington king. As anybody who’s ever gone down the rabbit hole on the Internet arguing with “libertarians” – who insist that the “United States is a republic not a democracy” – knows, the definition of a “republic” is a lot more complex than simply “a government without a king.” There are radical, democratic republicans, like Sinn Féin in Ireland, who want socialism. There are conservative republicans like Ron Paul, who want the unregulated rule of the big capitalists.
In 1787, when the woman outside Liberty Hall asked Benjamin Franklin if the United States were to become a republic or a monarchy, and Franklin answered that it would be a “republic if we can keep it,” Franklin indicated how well he understood that there was nothing inevitable about the republican form of government. To “keep” a republic, an Enlightenment ideal developed by intellectuals who had deeply studied the classics and ancient Greece and Rome, you need an educated, politically engaged people, and a dynamic, expanding economy that made it possible to eliminate hereditary class distinctions. As the leaders of the French and the American Revolution well understood, a republic, whether radical or conservative, requires “citizens” not “subjects,” people who want to put in the hard work you need to rule yourself, and not take the much easier route of being ruled by others. In 2016, the majority of Americans chose to be subjects not citizens, declining to vote for any Presidential candidate.
While the history of the United States is bound up with the histories of France and Great Britain, there is one important difference. France and Great Britain, as large and diverse as they are, can draw upon a history that goes back to the Roman Empire. The United States cannot. The British have their monarchy, their language, their Protestant religion, and a long tradition of peasant folk culture that connects them to their ancestors in the Middle Ages. The French have their institutions, their intellectuals, their well-established secular culture, their long, bloody history. In spite of the attempts of the far right in both countries to define the British or French nation as white western, and Christian, the typical Englishman or Frenchman knows it’s a lot more than that. How else would you distinguish a Frenchman from an Englishman? Both, after all, are traditionally white and Christian. In the United States, we have neither that luxury, nor that burden.
Back in 2008, Sarah Palin, the white supremacist John the Baptist to Trump’s white supremacist Jesus, would often refer to “real America,” those rural and exurban parts of the United States that would eventually put Trump in the White House. “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit,” she said, “and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” It sounds harmless enough. Occasionally, in the Spring and Summer, I’ll ride my bike from Elizabeth, New Jersey to New Hope Pennsylvania, from my urban hellhole to one of those “small towns we get to visit.” I enjoy my cycling trips to “real America” as much as I enjoy going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Donald Trump’s appointment of Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) as chief of staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) demonstrates, however, Sarah Palin’s invocation of “real America” was most than just nostalgia for a mythical, small town Jeffersonian past. FAIR, which has been labeled as a white supremacist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has as one of it’s major objectives, to repeal what is known as “birthright citizenship.”
Another FAIR initiative to end birthright citizenship provisions of the 14th Amendment, a longtime goal of the group, was launched in January 2011. IRLI, FAIR’s legal arm, working in partnership with State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI), announced a plan to halt what they call “the misapplication of the 14th Amendment.” At the time of its adoption in 1868, the 14th Amendment ensured that the children of slaves could not be denied citizenship; it now ensures that almost all children born on U.S. soil are automatically granted U.S. citizenship.
If there’s anything worth preserving about the United States of America, it’s birthright citizenship, the idea that anybody can become an American regardless of race, religion, or national origin, that if you’re born on American soil, you’re an American, period, even if your parents are in the country illegally. That conservative Americans who voted for Trump have begun to define American citizenship by skin color represents a failure to understand the meaning of the republican form of government. To be more specific, it represents a failure of the American republic to engage conservatives. So they have retreated back into an eighteenth century fantasy world where white Americans were exclusively Anglo Saxon and Protestant, black Americans were slaves, and Asian Americans didn’t exist. They have rejected the idea that the idea of American citizenship can evolve along with the changing demographics of its population.
When Benjamin Franklin remarked that we were “a republic if we can keep it,” he was conscious of the way the British, right up until the United States Civil War, would often refer to the United States as “the American experiment.” If the American republic fell, that probably meant that “we” – in quotes because I’m of German and Polish, not English descent – would go from being citizens of the United States back to being subjects of King George, that we’d end up becoming something like the Canadians. To be honest, that doesn’t sound so bad. But what does it mean now that the United States is a country of three hundred million people spanning five time zones, a vast multicultural, democratic empire made up of the indigenous, the original Anglo Saxon, Protestant settlers, and hundreds of later immigrant groups who come from almost every nation on the planet? We’re not going to invite Queen Elizabeth to annex the United States and welcome us back into the British Commonwealth. Unlike Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington, most of us were never part of the British Commonwealth in the first place. Without the American republic, we have no cultural identity. A Frenchman or an Englishman can be a subject as well as a citizen. An American cannot. When he stops being a citizen, he stops being an American. To lose the American republic is to lose the American nation. No longer citizens, we have become subjects, not of a king, but of the corporations that control our economy.
When did we lose the American Republic? Was it in 2000 when we failed to rise up and protest the stolen election? Was it in 2001, when we responded to 9/11, not with calm determination, but with so much panic and fear that we allowed George W. Bush to take what was left of our civil liberties? Was it in 2003, when we let Bush and Cheney march us off to war in Iraq on imaginary WMDs in Iraq? Was it in 2007, when we failed to demand that the Democrats, now in control of both houses of Congress, impeach the man who normalized torture? Was it in 2008 and 2009 when Barack Obama essentially surrendered the authority of the federal government to the banks? Or do we have to go back even further, to the McCarthy years, when we allowed the Truman Administration to institute a massive standing army and a permanent security/surveillance state, to 1917, when we let Woodrow Wilson smash the American left, strip Eugene Debs of his citizenship, and stampede us into a war in Europe to save, not democracy, but the interests of the British and French empires against the interests of the German empire, to 1876, when the Republican Party made their corrupt bargain with the Democrats, the White House in exchange for allowing the south to shut down radical reconstruction and re-institute white supremacy? Perhaps, like people on the radical, anti-racist left argue, the United States was never a legitimate nation, that it was corrupt from the very beginning, a nation founded on slavery and native American genocide, that in 1776 the British crown was getting ready to abolish the slave trade, and the American Revolution was, in effect, the American Counterrevolution.
The exact year we “lost the republic” doesn’t matter as much as how the “American Experiment” has collapsed under the weight of contradictions that have existed since the very beginning. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention established the American republic. We couldn’t keep it, but let’s look at that, not as something to be mourned, but as an opportunity. As Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “the workingman has no fatherland.” As Emma Goldman wrote, patriotism is the enemy of liberty. The only thing that more perfectly expresses the failure of the “American Experiment” than Donald Trump is how the only other alternative was Hillary Clinton. In 2017, with conservatives determined to provoke a war with Mexico and liberals determined to provoke a war with Russia, I can very confidently say “a pox on both your houses.” I am no longer an American. I am a citizen of the human race. The American Experiment has failed, and thank God for that.