It is the secret at the heart of America’s founding—one that we have largely forgotten. Find out what it is—and about my new book.
What does it mean to be an American?
Unlike other countries, America is not defined by a particular ethnic or religious group. Instead, our country was formed around an idea: liberty. But what does it take to maintain liberty? It’s a question I try to answer in my new book, which is being released today, “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.”
Now, in order to find the answer to this question, we have to go back 229 years, to 1787. Having won the American Revolution, our founders went about creating a new form of government—one that would be strong, but not TOO strong; one that relied on self-government. The result, of course, was the U.S. Constitution—a marvel.
As their summer-long convention finished, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” He famously replied: “A republic, madam—if you can keep it!”
And what could cause us to lose the republic? Well, that’s simple: the loss of virtue.
Benjamin Franklin, like the other founders, understood that freedom and self-government absolutely depend on the practice of virtue. Have you heard that lately? Me neither. John Adams wrote that “the only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue.”
Now I’ll bet you didn’t learn about this link between liberty and virtue in high school civics class. I know I did not. But it was a deeply familiar and necessary concept to all our founders—one that we have largely forgotten—or even worse, dismissed.
What Franklin understood—and what modern crime statistics tragically bear out—is that if citizens do not voluntarily practice virtue, the authorities have no choice but to attempt to enforce it.
As Franklin explains, “As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” In other words, if we don’t govern ourselves, we have no choice but to be governed from above.
And what do we need in order to buttress the practice of virtue and morality? We need religious faith. George Washington put it bluntly: Laws by themselves are insufficient. “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles,” he wrote.
My friend Os Guinness has resurrected the founders’ vision for America in his wonderful book, “A Free People’s Suicide.” He names this vision the Golden Triangle of Freedom. His argument boils down to this: Freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith in turn requires freedom. Remove any one of the triangle’s sides, and the whole structure collapses.
So how is it that this concept is so seldom mentioned today? Franklin’s warning echoes down to us from more than two centuries ago, from that sweltering summer when he helped create the Constitution. When he told the woman “if you can keep it,” he meant that if Americans lost the understanding of the link between virtue and citizenship, we would cease being Americans in any real sense of the word.
Today is a great day to start teaching this all-but-forgotten concept to our children, not to mention ourselves. Re-learning these vital ideas, and living by them, is nothing less than a duty, because our first and foremost duty as Americans is to know what it means to BE an American.
Eric Metaxas is the bestselling author of “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.” He is the radio host of “The Eric Metaxas Show” and the co-host of “BreakPoint.”
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.