Tag Archives: John F Kennedy

“A Republic, if You Can Keep It.”

So spoke Benjamin Franklin in 1787 at the end of the convention to write the U.S. Constitution. He spoke in answer to a questioner who wondered what kind of nation this gathering of politicians had created. A monarchy like most European nations?

Answer: a republic, but only if you can keep it.

Ancient Rome also began as a republic but descended into tyranny. Why? For centuries, historians have studied possible reasons.

Some cite moral decline. Roman citizens became more interested in “bread and circuses” than in serving their republic, as they had in the beginning.

Or perhaps they yielded to the temptation to cede power to a dictator when times are hard. Citizens find it easy to believe a Caesar or a Hitler who promises easy solutions to economic problems or threats from enemies.

A democracy outlasts such threats if enough citizens look beyond the immediate present and choose long term goals, even sacrifice.

When Britain stood on the brink of extinction from the highly efficient German war machine at the beginning of World War II, their leader, Winston Churchill, didn’t promise a quick solution to the danger.

As the Nazis rolled over much of Europe, Churchill called for his people to stand firm while promising them “blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” Citizens rallied and sacrificed for the long term goal of defeating Germany.

John F. Kennedy inspired a generation of young people by calling on them not “to ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

The vision of shared sacrifice is a powerful weapon. Not bread and circuses, but a sacrifice that includes all. Even the wealthy.

I Joined a Student Protest Once

College students made the news recently at one of the universities in Seattle. They are demanding curriculum changes. They say they want fewer courses centering on “dead white men” and more courses from a diverse set of writers.

I took part in a student protest once. Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have been led by noble purposes. The strike protested food in the college cafeteria. I joined because spring had arrived, and it was a fun thing to do.

Organizers worked with car owners to drive all students who wanted to participate to off campus eateries during lunch.

The college president met with us in meetings. He lost his temper in the group I was in. His mistake, I think, was in supposing that the protest was about our rejection of the food.

The protest wasn’t about food, not really. It was a way for us, the students, to believe we had a part to play in the ordering of our lives, to believe we counted.

I make no judgements today on the arguments of the students or the curriculum they protest. The protests do mirror those of youth in the 1960’s. Then, students were inspired by the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House. Through tragic circumstances, the Kennedy generation was eclipsed by the older generation of Lyndon Johnson. The younger generation felt betrayed.

Perhaps today’s younger generation, some of whom are campus protestors and many of whom support Bernie Sanders, were similarly disillusioned when the promise of Obama’s election was followed by years of political infighting.