IF YOU CAN KEEP IT: THE FORGOTTEN PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIBERTY
By Eric Metaxas
Viking, $26, 272 pages
Leaving Independence Hall on the last day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a concerned citizen named Mrs. Powell. “Well, doctor,” she asked, “what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.”
A new book by Eric Metaxas, best-selling author of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce biographies, borrows its title from Franklin’s potent response. “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty” explores the very concept of American freedom: how it emerged from such a disparate group of early settlers and how it can and must be preserved.
Mr. Metaxas transports readers to the Pilgrim landing and the establishment of the very first colony on what would become American soil. From research for his own children’s book, “Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving,” the author illumines the miracle of the Pilgrim’s survival as well as their code of ethics and fair play.
Over a century later, in the mid-1700s, this spirit of equality and justice for all men would be built upon by Englishman and preacher George Whitefield, who traveled the length of the 13 original colonies to bring the message of the Bible’s good news. Mr. Whitefield preached thousands of sermons, often attracting tens of thousands of people at a time and ultimately reaching about 80 percent of the population with his challenging and uplifting messages. All who attended were profoundly influenced toward unity as they embraced the overarching themes of individual freedom balanced with responsibility for the welfare of one’s neighbors and community.
This Great Awakening was quite a feat. Mr. Metaxas writes:
“Americans were becoming united in the wake of [Whitefield’s] nonstop preaching. People were being offered a new identity that fit well with the American way of thinking. Some were German by background and some were French and some were English, but none of it mattered: They were all equal under God … . To be an American meant to buy into a new set of ideas about one’s equal status in God’s eyes — and by dint of this to be accepted into a new community … .”
A unifying code of conduct and “common belief” were established decades before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were even conceived.
When representatives from the 13 original colonies convened to create a Constitution under which all colonies would submit, they experienced overwhelming disagreement and discord, especially regarding slavery and commerce. Mr. Metaxas records the words that broke through the loggerhead of state representatives entrenched in their own ideas and ideals:
“In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection,” Franklin stated. “Our prayers … were heard. And they were graciously answered.” In this same address at the first Constitutional Convention, Franklin declared that “God governs the affairs of men.”
The representatives heeded the advice, setting aside time for prayer. Mr. Metaxas points out that “in the end all impasses were broken, compromises on all issues struck, and solutions found.”
Mr. Metaxas wonders if focus on the “higher calling” will once again preserve this nation at this critical point in the life of liberty itself.
The author dedicated “If You Can Keep It” to his friend Os Guinness “for helping me see these inestimably important things.” Mr. Metaxas highlights a theory from Mr. Guinness’ book, “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future” (reviewed in The Washington Times, Oct. 22, 2012). A “Golden Triangle” of ideals supports America’s exceptional concept of liberty. According to Mr. Guinness: “Freedom requires virtue, which in turn requires faith of some sort, which in turn requires freedom. Only so can a free people remain ‘free always.’ “
This preservation of freedom is not only crucial for American citizens — our freedom resonates across the globe. Throughout chapters devoted to the importance of venerating American heroes, the magnitude of moral leadership, and love of country, Mr. Metaxas makes it clear that the promise of American liberty is not just for the citizens of this country. People the world over look to the very symbol of freedom embodied in Lady Liberty, standing stoically facing outward in New York harbor declaring, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … .”
If civic classes were ever popular again in high schools and universities nationwide, “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty” — along with such essentials as “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington and “The 5000 Year Leap” by W. Cleon Skousen — must be front and center on every reading list.
Since our nation’s founding, Americans have, indeed, worked to preserve what President Abraham Lincoln deemed an exceptional nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Now, can we keep it?
• Albin Sadar, a writer living in the New York City area, is the author of the Hamster Holmes series of mystery books for children from Simon & Schuster.