“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

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.

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

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

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 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!


  1. Ribkaw
    December 29, 2017 at 6:00 am

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

  2. Mylan Moore
    September 13, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    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. Michael Polelle
    July 17, 2020 at 11:33 am

    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. Bill Hayes
    November 7, 2020 at 3:13 pm

    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. )

  5. Jack Adams
    November 16, 2020 at 1:07 am

    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.

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