When Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention, a lady asked him what kind of government had been formed. Franklin reportedly responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s answer has always been interesting because it revealed that he well understood the profound difference between a pure democracy and a constitutional republic. But far more intriguing to me was Franklin’s implied concern that the newly crafted scheme of government was hardly self-sustaining and ultimately vulnerable.
He and the other framers understood that liberty was rare in world history and that it would be no easy task to design a system that would both maximize and preserve it. I believe that until relatively recently most Americans cherished this system precisely because it was uniquely equipped to accomplish those purposes. Now I am not so sure.
The framers established a federal government with sufficient power to ensure ordered liberty, but with a host of limitations on its power. Governmental power was divided between the federal government and the states, and federal power was divided among three branches that would each check encroachments by the others. They set up a bicameral legislature to further diffuse federal power and eventually drafted a Bill of Rights to expressly guarantee civil liberties against government intrusion — and much more.