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Three leading members of the pantheon of America's founders warned us of what lay ahead: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

If we can keep it: A trilogy of warnings from three of America's founders


By —— Bio and Archives--March 8, 2019

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If we can keep it: A trilogy of warnings from three of America's founderThree leading members of the pantheon of America’s founders warned us of what lay ahead: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. 

Washington was a wily fox in combat. He had a unique ability—gained from years of exploring and surveying the land—to see the battlefield from above and adjust his field position when necessary. Sometimes just in time. He stayed with his army throughout the Revolutionary War. The monument to him in Washington, D.C. is not tall enough.

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Jefferson was a seer, a visionary. He could see over the horizon. He sent Lewis & Clark out to explore the West. A genuine intellectual—a true Renaissance man. He left over 30,000 letters behind; they’re still being published by the Princeton University Press. His personal library became the seed for today’s Library of Congress.

Franklin was a bit of a rascal. The bohemian in him melded well into the debauchery of the French aristocracy. As a family man, he was an abject failure—which seemed not to have bothered him at all.  He was, to the French, the quintessential American. He was innovative, brilliant, and wise. 

Each communicated a warning to the nation that remains relevant today. Perhaps, particularly so today. In order of their dating, the warnings follow, with bold highlighting added for emphasis.

Benjamin Franklin

Elizabeth Willing Powel “considered one of the premiere social figures of Colonial and Early Republic Philadelphia, played a vital role in American history as a close friend and confidant to both George and Martha Washington.” She posed the key question.

As Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Powel questioned him. His answer became legendary in American history. It was recorded, on September 18, 1787, in the daily diary that James McHenry kept during the Constitutional Convention. Here’s what McHenry wrote

A lady asked Dr. Franklin, ‘Well Doctor what {sic} we got, a republic or a monarchy? ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.’ The lady here aluded {sic} to was Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia.”

Thomas Jefferson

On November 13, 1787, Jefferson, representing the American Colonies in Paris, wrote responding to a letter he’d received from William Stephens Smith, son-in-law of John Adams, as Jefferson awaited a copy of the new U.S. Constitution being carried across the Atlantic.

Jefferson wrote about how the British press was characterizing the situation in America, and then issued a warning for those in the media and politics promoting an increasingly vitriolic atmosphere in America today.

“The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it exist except in the single instance of Massachusets {sic}?”  Jefferson was referring to Shay’s Rebellion. He continued..

“And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s {sic} motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontended in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconception it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.

We have 13 states independent 11 years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion.  And what country can preserve it’s liberties if the rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”  (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 12, 1787-1788, Julian P. Boyd, Editor, Princeton University Press, Copyright 1955, pp. 355-357)

 

George Washington

On September 19, 1796, Washington’s Farewell Address was published in the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser. It soon spread to newspapers throughout the nation. He didn’t deliver the address verbally. It was too long for that; it was best read rather than heard. Like Franklin and Jefferson, Washington left Americans a warning.

Let me..warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

 

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus, the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true‚Äî and in governments of a monarchical cast patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.”

Combined together, these three warnings say this today:

Keeping the Republic is not up to anyone, or anything, other than “you.”  And “you” is not the government or the politicians. In America, “you” is We The People.

Keeping the Republic will, from time to time, require more than voting, emailing a legislator in D.C. only to receive a form letter in response, or putting a bumper sticker on a vehicle.  While Jefferson’s warning did not come from a man personally acquainted with violence, his words portend to it as a distinct possibility in keeping the Republic. 

And then there is Washington, a man who had braved war and on occasion rode rashly, carelessly, in anger through shot-and-flame in a long War for Independence.  He knew well the consequences of a fire that burst into a deadly, consuming flame. 

The American Civil War ended 154 years ago.

Jefferson once asked, “What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion?” 


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Lee Cary -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Since November 2007, Lee Cary has written hundreds of articles for several websites including the American Thinker, and Breitbart’s Big Journalism and Big Government (as “Archy Cary”).  His work has been quoted on national television (Sean Hannity) and on nationally syndicated radio (Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin).  He is quoted in Jerome Corsi’s book “The Obama Nation,” in Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny.”  His pieces have posted on the Drudge Report and on the website Real Clear Politics.  Cary holds a B.S. in Economics from Northern Illinois University, and a Masters and a Doctorate in Theology from the Methodist seminary at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.  He served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army in Military Intelligence. Cary lives in Texas.


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