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Image of James McHenry
James McHenry. Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, 1803

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

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This post was written by Lee Ann Potter, the Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.




a (1) :  a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president (2) :  a political unit (as a nation) having such a form of government

b (1) :  a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

(definition courtesy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

In anticipation of Constitution Day, our “Sources and Strategies” article in the September 2016 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, suggested provoking student interest in civic responsibility with an 18th century diary entry. The featured entry was that of James McHenry, written on September 18, 1787.

Diary Entry from James McHenry, September 18,1787
Diary Entry from James McHenry, September 18,1787


McHenry was an Irish immigrant who served as an aide to Washington, and later to Lafayette, during the Revolutionary War. He was selected to serve as a delegate to the federal convention (that became known as the “Constitutional Convention”) from Maryland and upon his arrival in Philadelphia began keeping his personal journal. Due to an unexpected illness of his brother, however, McHenry returned home and missed much of the convention—from June 1 to August 4—but the information he included when he was present was quite detailed.

For example, the day after McHenry and the other delegates signed the Constitution and officially adjourned—he recorded the following exchange:

“a lady asked Dr. Franklin

well Doctor what have 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”

We suggested sharing this page with students, confirming that they know what a monarchy and a republic are, and then asking them what they think Benjamin Franklin meant by “if you can keep it.”

We then proposed recording student responses and generating a class list of specific behaviors required to maintain a republic, and finally providing students with an opportunity to conduct original research about the Constitutional Convention, the delegates, Eliza Powel, and their understanding of a republic.

If you tried these suggestions, or a variation of them, with your students, please tell us about your experience!

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Comments (14)

  1. This lesson should be taught in every classroom and for adults too.

  2. I can only add my support to the first comment. The Constitution and what makes this country are no longer taught in any school in this country.

  3. As an emeritus law professor, I can attest that at one time college courses in political science and history were virtual prerequisites for entry to law school. By the time I retired I taught students in American constitutional law who lacked a basic foundation in American history or government. What a mistake it was to abandon that required background.

  4. I dare say that the majority of the members of Congress have virtually no understanding of the United States Constitution. If some of them do understand it, they completely reject it for their own political (and ideological) purposes.

  5. Apocryphal quote aside, the first three comments are anecdotal at best which, also anecdotally, suggests schools don’t teach logic… and were that true, it’d be a dang shame.

    (I only know it’s not true because my school did teach logic. )

  6. It is illogical to term a quote apocryphal when the author is sufficiently identified. The 5 w’s are answered along with the well known how. So, all the evidence necessary to prove that it is genuine exists. The straw man effort failed miserably. The Library of Congress rightly treats the diary as a reliable historical document. I use this quote with authority. Attempts to erase or skew American history will be challenged.

  7. We MUST have this taught in public schools OR dismantle the public school system. History is too important to not know.
    I believe and have read that the founders when attempting to come up with a “best” form of government were stymied and at an impasse…UNTIL they prayed to Almighty God for guidance. Then got it and came up with this/these documents-the best the world has ever seen. I believe The United States of America-a republic-is the greatest nation on earth EVER. it’s because of the blessing of Almighty God and founders who recognized our need for His Wisdom. Human knowledge/wisdom IS NOT ENOUGH.

  8. History and the writings of our Founding Fathers must be returned to our public schools. Every class and every teacher teaches from what has gone before – teaching from the founders of this republic are imperitive to keeping this republic. They had the advantage of having lived under another form of government and could rightly discern that a new form of government brought about by Divine Intervention was the answer- “a republic, if we can keep it” as Franklin so wisely commented.

  9. As an immigrant, as all immigrants, I was very aware of the flaws in the way American freedoms were practiced. The fact that America grew out of the practice of slavery and that the slavery model is THE model of just about everything America. BUT, and this is the big ‘but, I was also very impressed that the founding fathers KNEW that they had created an imperfect union but one that would evolve.
    That potential was the draw for all immigrants.
    The evolution of America based on the simplistic idea of “Freedom and Justice for all” and that America would evolve.
    That’s powerful.
    Unfortunately, The sad truth is that in the 21st century (so far) we have seen those ideals destroyed and there’s the true sadness and disappointment.

  10. In 1962 our Fifth Grade Teacher told us the truth: Behind closed doors and without Authority, the Supreme Court Judges decided: God does not exist.

    God was removed from our History. The Truth taught before 1962 starting in First Grade: Our Constitution came from Jesus Christ our Saviour. Man is Evil. Life is not fair. There is No Such Thing as Equal. We Trust God and Not Man. We are Building a More Perfect Union. We Work Today for a Better Tomorrow and Forgive Transgressions from Yesterday.

    Because we do not trust man, our Government was Purposely Made Limited. It is the Citizen that has the Right to bear arms, free speech, and always innocent. Governments and Companies have no such rights.

    God uses Morality to guide man. The Government is restricted to making laws of Order. And the Order being defined must be Protection to Unalienable Rights. We are Male and Female living in Life. We are all Unique. And the Government is not allowed to define the Citizen.

    Government is not allowed to Fine or Penalize the Citizen for living life. For example $100 for Speeding is Unconstitutional. And doing Drugs does not mean you are evil and must be put behind bars.

    Lifestyle belongs to God and Order to the Lifestyle belongs to Man.

  11. As for the 3rd comment from a law professor, I would agree 100% and I’m a bit perplexed as to why American Heritage, or a basic American founding class, stopped being taught in an undergraduate program. I am pre-law and finishing my undergrad in political science and minoring in Constitutional Studies at a public university in my state. I chose my major and minor because it seemed fairly logical to me that a firm foundation in Constitutional law would not only help me, but should be a requirement for law school.

    As for public school curriculum, it is imperative that kids have a BASIC understanding of the Constitution and government, not to mention a basic knowledge in higher education. It is quite apparent that Americans are lacking a basic education in all areas but particularly in what it means to be an American. There is a very potent arrogance and entitlement that exists within the United States and views on what people’s “rights” actually are. There is a consensus, at least in my community, that Constitutional rights are absolute when, in fact, they are not nor have they ever been. It is crucial for the people to have a basic understanding of what the Constitution says and means, not ones interpretation, but what it actually means. Liberty is NOT freedom of choice regardless of consequences, nor is it absolute. With liberty comes responsibility and ACTION on the part of every citizen.

    When it comes to our elected leaders it seems that, for the most part, the intentions of the framers to build a great nation has been lost, starting with providing an education. The Framers were highly educated men. A majority of the Framers were lawyers by trade and well-versed in classical learning. The study of Greek and Latin literature, and of the ancient worlds of history and politics.

    I will quote John Adams “Thoughts on Government” that he wrote in April of 1776, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

  12. In response to the 3rd comment from a law professor, I am a bit perplexed as to why an American Heritage class or even a basic American founding class is not a requirement for an undergraduate degree. I am pre-law and about to finish my undergraduate degree in political science with a minor in Constitutional Studies which I chose because it seemed logical to me that a firm foundation in Constitutional law and founding principles would be essential in law school.

    It seems to me that there is an arrogance and a sense of entitlement, at least in my community, regarding what people’s “rights” are. I’ve decided that this is, in large part, due to a lack of basic knowledge and understanding of the Constitution.

    In learning about the Framers and Founding Fathers the consistent theme is how well educated these men were. A majority of the Framers were lawyers by trade and well-versed in classical learning. The study of Greek and Latin Literature, and of the ancient world’s history and politics. Sadly the last President of the United States with a truly classical education was likely John Quincy Adams, the son of the 2nd president John Adams. It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “History informs us what bad government is.” These were wise, well educated men and not afraid to stand up against tyranny, in fact, their basis of political thought was to avoid tyranny at all costs. These men were true statesman, they valued virtue, Liberty, and Law, not just natural law (God’s law) but common law as well as civil law and of course fundamental law. But it was the Rule of Law that made the Constitution work and it is the Rule of Law that is the foundation of our democracy.

    Liberty, order, and justice are all made possible by a sound Constitution, but, the Constitution, for the United States at least, is only a piece of paper if the people fail to support it and understand it.

    “Many of the Framers of the American Constitution were of the opinion that Constitutional government requires, above all, a ‘virtuous’ citizenry if it is to endure. Certainly a Constitution cannot last if it is willfully ignored, or if there is no common understanding among the citizens and their elected leaders as to what the achievement of liberty, order, and justice requires.”

    If the American experiment is to continue, it is crucial for the people to have a basic understanding of what the Constitution says and means, not ones interpretation, but what it actually says and means. Liberty is NOT freedom of choice regardless of consequence, nor is it absolute. With Liberty comes responsibility and ACTION on the part of every citizen.

    I will quote John Adams “Thoughts on Government” that he wrote in April of 1776, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

  13. The Democrats are so sure of their position they are now fighting like Hades to protect themselves against this simple comment.

  14. I am not college schooled person. But my life as born citizen of this country an a veteran. Gives me the right to say something. I whole heartedly agree with Michael Polelle comment made on July 17th, 2023. That it was so wrong to drop the requirements of Constitutional Law from the curiculum to be a lawyer of this country. I use to say great country. There are so many things the youth and young adults of our country are no longer being taught. Because of that our country is loosing it’s integrity to the world and ourselves. I believe a higher education is a great thing. But if that knowledge with common since is not used, the college education was a waste.

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