A Work in Progress

The English word “republic” is taken from the Latin phrase “res publica,” a concept which embraced the government, the culture, the community, and the aggregate sum of public acts of citizens. After the meeting in which the Framing of the original Constitution took place, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as answering a woman’s question of “What have you given us?” with the phrase, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” Today is as good a day as any to step back and evaluate whether we have met the wise Mr. Franklin’s challenge.

Some of our most intense debates as a people relate to the matter of what it is that constitutes our republic, and whether the changes that have been wrought to it over time – during the Lincoln Presidency, during the New Deal and the Great Society, and now in the world after 9/11 – have been for good or ill. Politicians come and go, but the res publica remains.

On 9/11, I watched the towers burn and collapse on television, knew terror, and thirsted for revenge. I wonder how many, like me, saw in the collapse of the towers not just a cause for fear and anger, but also cause for dread – dread for what we Americans would do to ourselves, how we would compromise our own liberties and freedoms to go to war and whether those compromised would persist.

In all the talk of asymmetric warfare, calls for vigilance against our fellow-citizens, self-righteous justifications of bigotry in the name of safety, and proud displays of the American flag, the thing that was clearest to me was that the terrorists might be able to bring down a building or two, but only we Americans could be the architects of our own destruction. I’d read 1984 and traveled abroad enough to have seen the awful legacy of totalitarianism.

The USA-PATRIOT Act came and seems here to stay, and the ominously-named Department of Homeland Security has been created and now I, like pretty much everyone, meekly take off my shoes and tacitly relinquish my civil rights when I fly on an airplane. I was told to fear the shadows in the dark, and see that many still do. That fear is what drives people to embrace horrors like torture and imprisonment of people in Guantanamo Bay without due process; that fear is why we have such overwrought debates over what ought to be obvious questions like whether and how an imprisoned person under our government’s power ought to be given a trial.

Both before and after 9/11, I questioned exactly how much the wisdom of the Framers mattered. They were clear that they did not think they had all the answers; they were politicians who played “kick the can down the road” with respect to problems they could not solve themselves; they invited us as their successors to amend their work as we might need to solve the problems of our day which they knew they could neither anticipate nor solve for us. We live in a world of technological marvels they could not have dreamed of (well, maybe Franklin could have), a nation of much greater geographical scope and cultural diversity than they had attempted to govern, and confront problems of qualitatively different complexity than they did.

At the same time, they found something in their radical ruminations that is indeed timeless and not only worthy of respect but also worthy of being given renewed and enduring vitality in our own day.

The challenge of maintaining the res publica is a balancing act between innovation and tradition, between the practical and the idealized, between respect for our institutions and transformation of them into models that serve our society today. It is the challenge of philosophically understanding the ideas of individual freedom, democratic self-government, divided institutions of power – and of turning those philosophical concepts into meaningful and reasonable ways of exercising that power.

We’ve been conditioned by our culture to fear the erosion of our liberties. At the same time, we’ve been conditioned by our culture to respect the institutions of government. There is an unresolvable tension between these strains of thought.  Watching the towers come down raised a new set of challenges for us, but those challenges are not qualitatively different than the challenges we’ve faced in the past – how best to handle the supply of money, how to deal with slavery and racial equality, expansion of our frontiers and development of new lands, the challenges of overseas wars both popular and not. Sometimes, we’ve faced these problems with nobility and resolve; sometimes, we have acted shamefully and come to regret the decisions made in our past.

Through it all, though, we have maintained the res publica. Ten years after the sudden and startling emergence of a profound challenge to it, the res publica remains a vital force and not a dead letter. We have spilt much ink and many electrons over it in the intervening time – and I am today convinced that the res publica remains alive today precisely because of those arguments and disagreements. The process of using argument and disagreement productively is at the core of our res publica.

Perhaps I am the victim of time eroding my sense of what is intolerable but today I am sanguine about it all. The truth is, it is not so great a burden to walk barefoot through a metal detector and I would not hesitate to agree with the general proposition that some reasonable level of security screening is appropriate for air travel or other use of a common carrier. I have yet to experience a TSA agent wanting to touch my penis; no one has reported me as a suspected terrorist that I know of; it has not materially impacted my life that when I buy a car or otherwise apply for credit a record is made to the government of my financial activity.

Much of the fear and distrust associated with the government’s assembly and gathering of information is, just as is the fear of the terrorists against whom that information is being purportedly gathered, a fear of shadows. Few of our security workers find this information interesting and relatively few crimes are being committed. While I have significant disputes with the policies advanced by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, I see no reason to think that either is a man of subversive intent or evil character; nor is there any particular reason to think that the people doing the hands-on work with the information gathered by the government in the wake of the new paradigm of privacy, security, and liberties are worthy of distrust.

The concern is not that any individual will intentionally transform the res publica into a security state like 1984, and we really aren’t. We’re a step in that direction from where we were ten years ago, but we’re moving towards reaching a consensus about the balance between what is tolerable in a free society yet necessary for reasonable levels of security. Virtually no one would disagree with the idea that some level of regulation and some level of police activity is necessary. Fortunately, virtually no one would disagree with the idea that we must remain a free people as well.

Benjamin Franklin left us with another quip worthy of consideration – you know it, it’s the one about a people trading liberty for security getting no security and deserving no liberty. We ought not to forget the wisdom in that aphorism – what we defend when we defend the country is not an economy, not a set of military assets, but rather the res publica: a culture of people who are fundamentally autonomous from their government and ultimately sovereign over it.

Ten years after 9/11, we can still decide for ourselves what freedom is, we can still decide for ourselves if we are free enough, and we can still free ourselves if we find that we are not, through the nonviolent process of civil government and the process of politics.  So long as that is true, we have not betrayed the legacy that Mr. Franklin and his colleagues bequeathed to us.

Were Ben Franklin here, alive today and sharing a glass of wine in my house while discussing public affairs, I would concede to him that the res publica of 2011 is indeed different than that of 1789. But I would tell him that it is yet alive, yet vital and powerful, and yet worthy of respect. It is now, as it was in his day, a work in progress.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Thanks for this very thoughtful post, Burt, though it’s sure to give our more libertarian fellows agita. It’s interesting to see someone go to bat for some of the diminutions we’ve allowed in our civil liberties as reasonable, as opposed the usual clarion call that we’ll all end up in Ceausescu’s Romania if we have to submit to TSA body-scans. Your main point about our constant need to ask and re-ask the question is well-taken.

    • I suppose I came on a little bit strong on the “reasonable infringement of civil liberties” thing. If I wrote this thing over again, I’d likely have soft-pedaled that more since I do think that our post-9/11 attitude towards civil liberties has been too casual and seeing the commentary makes me realize that.

      My point is that we aren’t bound by some dead hand to either affirm or condemn what is going on — we get to, and have to, decide for ourselves if these are reasonable or even desirable things. In other words, we can still decide for ourselves if we want to, for instance, engage in torture. While I hope we don’t decide to keep on torturing people, I do like that we get to decide.

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