On Tuesday, the Miller Center hosted renowned political advisor and attorney Melody Barnes for her lecture, “A Republic if You Can Keep It: The Role of the President in Upholding the Idea of America.” As the former Director of the Domestic Policy Council under Barack Obama, chief counsel to the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, and a current Miller Center fellow, Barnes spoke as a lecturer in the Center’s “Historical Presidency Series” to raise critical questions in Americans’ understanding of the past, present, and future of the United States.
She began the lecture by explaining the origin of the speech’s name, “A Republic if You Can Keep It.” According to Barnes, the idea actually came from a famous quote of Benjamin Franklin’s.
As Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman is said to have asked him, “have you given us a monarchy or a republic?”
To this Franklin responded, “a republic – if you can keep it.”
With this theme continuing throughout her talk, Barnes outlined her belief that the president’s role in preserving American democracy extends far beyond his political responsibilities. To her, it includes contending with the moral sacrifices that the Founding Fathers made – sacrifices that they hoped would preserve their new, fragile nation.
“In addition to policy, the president also stands as a powerful symbol of [American] principles and ideas,” Barnes explained. “The framers of the Constitution were comprehensive students of history and philosophy…[but] our true political paradigm is set up in a set of civic myths, which we’ve embraced since our founding.”
This collection of myths, Barnes went on, includes the fundamental American principle of shared liberty for all citizens. She pointed out that throughout America’s history, freedom has been far from absolute, but Americans have consistently refused to believe it. However, to Barnes, American citizens cannot be wholly faulted for their resistance.
“Sometimes civic myths function as noble lies,” Barnes said. “Our founding ideas and civic myths serve the noble intention of a country rejecting tyranny… but simultaneously promulgating racist, sexist, and elitist positions.”
Barnes continued by sharing a favorite quote, one from a civil rights worker: “Things ain’t what they ought to be, but they sure ain’t what they used to be.” After reciting these words, Barnes noted how the quote epitomized her appreciation for the moral progress the United States has made as a country, stretching all the way from the times of Washington and Jefferson to today.
“America has moved closer to its founding principles, and I both acknowledge and am deeply grateful for that,” Barnes said. “But we have far to go.”
On this note, Barnes explained her desire to address those Americans who have lost faith that their country is on the right path. She said she finds their fears justifiable.
“Today’s lack of confidence [in the American dream] should surprise no one,” Barnes noted. “No matter the cause…Americans are hurting, regardless of race or ethnicity.”
In addressing President Trump’s current relationship with the nation’s founding principles, Barnes said that “whether it’s a dog whistle like ‘Make America Great Again,’ the articulated return of a Southern Strategy, or an expressed support for the ‘very fine people’ of the Neo-Nazis… what’s so deeply disturbing is that President Trump is taking those positions in a different time. It’s not 1790…It’s 2017.”
While Barnes articulated the importance of all presidencies from Washington to Lincoln to Johnson to today, she maintains that the people who truly shape America’s history are not the occupants of its highest office but rather the common, everyday citizens.
“The opportunity expressed in our founding remains in our hands,” Barnes insisted. “It’s up to us… power rests with the people, and we must consent to be governed. The President and the presidency reflect who we are, whether we vote or choose to stay home. Washington, and Lincoln, and Johnson, and Trump are a mirror of who we are, for better and for worse.”
Barnes reemphasized the need for recognizing that we, as Americans, hold a collective identity. And if a mass speaks up, leadership listens.
“The President upholds American principles if – and when – we demand it,” she said.
More information on Melody Barnes and her work with the Miller Center can be found here.
The livestream for the event can be found here.