We’ve all heard the story, when asked what kind of government the Founders had created, Benjamin Franklin reportedly replied, “a Republic, if you can keep it.” But, what did he mean by “if you can keep it”? There’s more to that story than most people know and illustrates just how forward looking and aware the Founders were.
The quote comes from the notes of James McHenry, a Maryland delegate at the Constitutional Convention. Published widely for the first time in 1906 in the American Historical Review, but also in a newspaper in 1803, and in later pamphlets and essays. There were some variations in those retellings, such as the “lady” being identified as Elizabeth Willing Powel, a prominent society figure and the wife of Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Powel.
There was allegedly more to that conversation, as well. There’s an extended version of it in McHenry’s 1803 account. Mrs. Powel reportedly replied, “And why not keep it?” To which Benjamin Franklin responds, “Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”
Here is where Mr. Franklin’s grasp of human nature becomes very prescent, especially in conjunction with some of his other attributed quotes and the views espoused by other Founders. There were those among our Founders who wanted the president to be a king. In fact, the failures of the Articles of Confederacy led some to even try to recruit a king.
In 1786, the President of the Continental Congress, Nathaniel Gorham wrote on behalf of the government to Prince Henry, younger brother of the Prussian king, Frederick the Great. In the letter, now lost, Prince Henry was invited to cross the Atlantic and become the king of the United States of America. The Americans had a positive view of Prussia in general and Prince Henry in particular because of Friedrich von Steuben, a volunteer who fought at Valley Forge and a veteran of the prince’s own wars. It was likely von Steuben who recommended the young royal to Alexander Hamilton.
New York Senator Rufus King later reported that the prince, to his credit, had told von Steuben, “the Americans had shown so much determination [against] their old King, that they [would] not readily submit to a new one.” In short order, delegates assembled in Philadelphia to find other means of stability. The result was the U.S. Constitution and the newly formed Republic.
Why were some of our Founders so open to a new monarch? After Shays’ Rebellion and other governing failures, our new nation’s leaders were determined to strengthen the executive power. The most familiar form of a strong executive they knew was a monarch. Fortunately, other Founders and Framers weren’t quite so eager for a monarch.
Despite all the Constitutional restraints of the new Republic, Franklin foresaw the incremental imperialism to come. Another of his famous quotes from that era comes just after Washington had been elected the first president. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards,” he said. But, that isn’t the full quote. He continued, “The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”
The term “The Imperial Presidency” was coined by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in a book of that title published in 1973. The book details the history of the Presidency of the United States from its conception by the Founding Fathers through the latter half of the 20th century. Schlesinger wrote the book out of two concerns: first, that the US Presidency was out of control and second, that the Presidency had exceeded its constitutional limits.
Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in what historian’s call “the imperial presidency,” which continued and arguably accelerated under Harry Truman. However, the foundations for such an expansion of presidential powers had been laid all along the way. Just as Franklin had predicted. It was a time of crisis, a failing new government, when the Founders attempted to recruit a king. It can be argued that presidential powers expanded under Lincoln during the Civil War and Woodrow Wilson during World War I, leading up to FDR.
Crisis can often motivate people to seek out strong leadership and even surrender rights and liberties to attain it. In modern times we’ve seen it, as well. Post-9/11 and even recently through the Covid Pandemic. Power always seeks more power, no matter how limited at first, it will expand at every opportunity when given a plausible excuse.
So, in response to Benjamin Franklin’s dire predictions, I ask… Can we keep the Republic? Have we kept it or has it long since devolved into an oligarchy and imperial presidency on the road to monarchy?