Sunday, May 02, 2010

Graduation Message: 'A Republic, If You Can Keep It Straight'

President Obama gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan yesterday. Here is an excerpt:

So before we get too depressed about the current state of our politics, let’s remember our history. The great debates of the past all stirred great passions. They all made somebody angry, and at least once led to a terrible war. What is amazing is that despite all the conflict, despite all its flaws and its frustrations, our experiment in democracy has worked better than any form of government on Earth. (Applause.)

On the last day of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was famously asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got -– a republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin gave an answer that’s been quoted for ages: He said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” If you can keep it.

Well, for more than 200 years, we have kept it. Through revolution and civil war, our democracy has survived. Through depression and world war, it has prevailed. Through periods of great social and economic unrest, from civil rights to women’s rights, it has allowed us slowly, sometimes painfully, to move towards a more perfect union.

And so now, class of 2010, the question for your generation is this: How will you keep our democracy going? At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and vibrant; how will you keep it well in this century?
Notice how what Franklin says we’ve got, “a republic,” a moment later turns into a “democracy” in the mouth of that same Republic’s President, with no apparent explanation.

Because the term “democracy” also carries the meaning of government of, by, and for the people, I don’t always get as upset by its use as many Federalists do. If you want to read up on the differences, you can read James Madison on the topic.

Anyway, Franklin was asked if we had a republic or a monarchy, not a republic or a democracy. In view of Obama’s publicly expressed affection for monarchs of all kinds, I guess he could have substituted something worse.

But I do find his substitution, at least fifteen times, of the term “democracy” for our republican form of government notable, especially after he quotes Franklin specifically describing it as a “republic.” Distinctions like these should matter, especially when one is the Intellectual in Chief exhorting the graduating class of as self-consciously elitist an American university as the University of Michigan.

No comments: