If You Can Keep It!

On December 23, 1776, the Continental Army, under the leadership of General George Washington, was about to go up against some of Britain’s so-called crack troops, The Hessians. As he looked over these troops, Washington saw a group of tired, discouraged, cold, and hungry men and boys. He understood that if they lost this battle, it would be over. The dream of freedom from the tyrannical governance of England would win out if they failed. He was desperate to find something he could use to lift the spirits of his downtrodden, discouraged troops. He had come across Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis Number 1 and read the following to his men:

“These are the times that will try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet, we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”—American Crisis, Number 1, Pane’s Collected Writings, pg. 91.

As inspirational as those words above were, Washington read the following to his beleaguered troops to solidify what they were fighting for:

“Once more, we are again collecting and collecting; our new army at both ends of the continent is recruiting fast, and we shall be able to open the next campaign with sixty thousand men, well armed and clothed. This is our situation, and how will many know it? By perseverance and fortitude, we have the prospect of glorious issue, by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils – a ravaged country – a depopulated city—habitations without safety, and slavery without hope – our homes turned into barracks and baudy houses for Hessians and a future race to provide for whose fathers we shall doubt of. Look on this picture, and weep over it! – and if there yet remains one thoughtless wretch who believes it not, let him suffer it unlamented. – American Crisis Number 1, Pane’s Collected Writings, pg. 98-99.”

Washington’s plan seemed to work as he and his troops caught the Hession troops by surprise, achieving a victory that propelled enrollment and set the stage for future victories and the ultimate defeat of the British army. Paine’s words were indeed inspirational, helping to carry the day leading to our independence and no doubt on the mind of Franklin as he exited from Independence Hall on December 17, 1787, when confronted by Elizabeth Welling Powell asking, “Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarch? His famous phrase, “A Republic if you can keep it.” Quoted often and misunderstood by many, usually with little understanding and appreciation for what it took and takes to maintain it.

The relationship between what was then ‘the colonies’ and England was unusual, as Paine pointed out in the following:

“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”—Paine Collected Writings, Common Sense pg 28.

Paine saw it as odd for an island to control the destiny of a much larger land mass such as what is now the United States, but it did. The fact they were an island controlling a continent fostered a level of superiority that permeated the very fiber of many of this country who believed they had the right to subjugate and enslave individuals with little consideration to the overall impact it would have down the road.

Let’s not forget colonization is about expanding, exploiting, and enriching those who consider themselves superior in ways only imaginable to them and their future sons and daughters. When a country like England claimed its part of this world, it wasn’t about converting the natives to Christianity; it was for greed, profit, and power.

But expansion leads to competition, and England was indeed competing with its fellow royal miscreants who also believed they had rightful claims on this part of the world based on their idiotic belief their right to rule came directly from God because some man in Rome said so, when in fact, their ability to rule came from the barrel of a musket, and the point of a sword and the germs they brought with them which killed more than any musket balls and swords.

However, Franklin’s words are far more profound, containing a subtler message of concern that, if not addressed, would be a cancer on society for generations. His hopes and those of Paine for addressing this issue of slavery, which the King of England, along with other Kings, used to conjure up fear as Paine wrote:

“scandalous plunderings, who hath stirred up the Indians on one side, and the Negroes on the other, and invoked every aid of Hell in his behalf, should now with the air of affected pity turn the tables from himself, and charge on another the wickedness that is his own, can only be qualified by the baseness of the hear that spoke of it. – Paine Collected Writings, Common Sense, On the King of England’s Speech, February 19th and 28th, 1782, pg. 287

The question of enslavement came up during the debate on the Constitution and those in attendance made a momentous poisonous decision that has permeated the very meaning of United for this country along with added significance to Franklin’s words, “If you can keep it” in his response to Mrs. Powell. Franklin understood the vile and evilness of what the country was doing in the area, of engaging in the chattel enslavement business. He had enough insight to know and understand the continuation of the heinous practice would eventually contribute to the end of the Republic. That is why he wrote the following:

“From your Excellency’s station, they hope your influence will be exerted, hereafter, to prevent a practice which is so evidently repugnant to the political principles and form of government lately adopted by citizens of the United States and which cannot fail of delaying the enjoyment of the blessings of peace and liberty, by drawing down, the displeasure of the great and impartial Ruler of the Universe upon our country.” To John Langdon, Franklin Writings, pg. 429

Franklin understood what would entail with the decision to kick the slavery can down the road for twenty-one years, believing the problem would resolve itself, was not only disingenuous but foolhardy beyond reasonable expectations of men who only saw the profit they would make from the continuation of this abominable practice. Their desire for profit at the exploitation of those they deemed inferior to them based on a total misinterpretation of the scripture plunged the country into its first Civil War, with continuous, long-lasting, and devastating consequences we are still dealing with today and most likely, lead to the dissolution of our democracy as we have known it for nearly two centuries.

Franklin hoped this newly formed government would have the common sense to realize that embracing this practice of the buying and selling of kidnapped and enslaved Africans would rip asunder the work and sacrifice many made to free themselves from the grip of England. And that his fellow founders would abolish this practice, follow the path of the Quakers, and grant freedom to those they had enslaved. The possibility of consent to eliminate the barbaric practice seemed to emerge during the convention. But those from the Southern States would neither consent to the abrogation of ending the Slave Trade nor adopt the practice of freeing those they enslaved, hiring them back, and paying them a fair wage. A process described in An Essay On The Slavery and Commerce Of The Human Species, Particularly the African, by Thomas Clarkson, in which he wrote:

“But though this measure appeared, as has been observed before, to be attended with considerable loss to the benevolent individuals who adopted it, yet, as virtue seldom fails of obtaining its reward, it became ultimately beneficial. Most of the slaves, who were thus unconditionally freed, returned without any solicitation to their former masters, to serve them, at stated wages; as free men. The work, which they now did, was found to better done than before. It was found also, that, a greater quantity was done in the same time. Hence less than the former number of labourers was sufficient. From these, and a variety of circumstances, it appeared, that their plantations were considerably more profitable when worked by free men, than when worked, as before, by slaves; and that they derived therefore, contrary to their expectations, a considerable advantage from their benevolence”—Clarkson, Thomas, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African Translated from a Latin Dissertation.

The thought of freeing men and women they paid for and the children they had by forcible rape was anathema to the Southern Plantation owners. Why should they free those whom they deemed subhuman and intellectually challenged and pay them for their labor? When they could have their labor at the end of a whip and the threat of a flintlock? After all, if they were smart enough to bargain, they should have been smart enough not to get caught and sold into enslavement. No, there would be no Quaker-like bargain made with those they considered inferior and three-fifths of a human anyway. The Southern states paid what they viewed as their fair share to help establish this country, which became independent of England.

Now, it was time for them to reap their reward. It was time for the South to become representative of the Royalty of England with large plots of land, numerous servants, and wealth they could only dream about. It’s why they agreed to help with the violent divorce between what would become the United States and the British Empire. The Empire the sun never sets on.

So the proverbial can, is kicked down the road, and the heinous slave trade is allowed legally for twenty-one years, as stated in the debate on the Constitution:

An immediate abolition of slavery would bring ruin upon the whites, and misery upon the blacks, in the southern states. The constitution has therefore wisely left each state to pursue its own measures, with respect to this article of legislation during the period of twenty-one years.”—The Debate on the Constitution, pg. 153

And the southern states did indeed “pursue its own measures.” Measures of such cruelty, deprivation, and disregard for the lives of those they enslaved. Pursuing their “own measures” put the country directly on the path of our Civil War. Franklin might have envisioned a war when he said, “If you can keep it,” to Mrs. Powell regarding the form of governance the Constitutional Congress had just created. Or, it may have just been flippant on his part.

The Civil War of 1860 ended with the defeat of the Southern States. But their beliefs, views, hate, and their stance on white privilege and superiority, along with zealot views around Christianity, didn’t die on the battlefields. The most effective way to explain the overall enormity of what we have yet to face from necromancers of the Civil War is to think of The Lernaean Hydra, only worse. We’ll need more than Hercules. Think Jason and his Argonauts, Achilles, Hector, Ajax the Younger, Ulysses, Alexander the Great, and, for good measure, Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

IF YOU CAN KEEP IT” is the equivalent of the robot in Lost In Space saying Danger Will Robinson, and we need to pay attention to the warning, which we will discuss in Part 2.