Coming to a Republic, But Can You Keep It?

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw a dramatic acceleration of immigration into the United States from Europe. In 1910, my great-grandfather came from what was then Austria and settled in Milwaukee, WI.

He was one of a multitude.

I don’t know if I possess the creative capacity to exagerrate the signficance of what that wave of immigration meant to American society and politics.

At one level, that is an obvious point. Of course, it will lead to changes if Italians, Germans, French, Spanish, Scandinavian, and other diverse European peoples are all thrown together into a single pot.

So you could say that this is an exercise in stating the obvious. But I’m OK with that. I really like obvious things.

Here’s a particular obvious fact. Not one single immigrant from any country I listed above came to America from an established republic.

Try to absorb that fact.

Remember when Benjamin Franklin left the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, and someone asked him, “What have you given us?” His answer: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

What a very interesting statement. Why would he put it like that? Nobody would say, “A monarchy, if you can keep it.” But Franklin knew, and his confederates knew, that a Republic is a precarious form of government, for human nature always tends toward some sort of collectivism.

Either people turn toward populism, which always leans on the monarch or the Fuhrer or the Messiah or the dictator to protect it from the ravages of the plutocrats.

Or they turn straight to the One to be protected from the uncertainty of life and the market.

But few people want to be free for the simple reason that freedom requires hard work, wisdom, and risk.

So Franklin knew that the republic bequeathed to the American people led a tenuous life that would require hard work, wisdom, and risk. Fortunately, most Americans accepted those terms and determind to preserve the republic as long as they could.

As a result, when my great-grandfather, Jan Polak, joined this Republic in 1910 he came at the tail end of a vast attempt to ensure that the immigrants would understand what it meant to live in a Republic.

Think about this. When he came from Austria, he was leaving the formerly Holy Roman Empire ruled by an Emperor and gathering within its boundaries a whole series of smaller kingdoms and dukedoms. I doubt very much that the idea of voting for any ruler beyond, perhaps, his local church, ever entered his mind.

Now he was called upon every four years to elect his own president, every two years to elect representatives, and constantly to elect aldermen, mayors, governors, etc. etc.

It must have made him dizzy, and while not everybody was an almdudler from the mountains of Slovenia, far from society and culture, many, many immigrants needed these new responsibilities explained to them.

This was the impulse behind the growth of the public schools in the late 19th century. The American people had a Republic and they wanted to keep it.

It didn’t require racism or white supremacism or ethnicism or even political snobbery to realize that unless these people were taught about our system of government they wouldn’t know how to function within it. They simply weren’t accustomed to it.

The locals strove to teach my ancestors the contents of the constitution as well resources allowed. They were taught how to vote. They were taught what a republic is and how it differs from a monarchy or empire. They were taught the basic story behind our revolution. They were taught the constitution.

Having left old, decaying systems behind, mostly tyrannical, you can imagine what a breath of life this was to so many of them. It’s no wonder to me that my grandfather and my father regarded this country with awe.

Back in those days, when they spoke of the American way of life, they didn’t mean a conspicuously consumptive and wasteful desperation, they meant a place where the people chose their servants and they had a job description that described their servants’ roles. That job description was called the Constitution of the United States of America. And each state had one of their own as well.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandfather came from Austria. Three generations later, my mother fled Russian controlled Germany and landed in Milwaukee too, having married my father.

People still came to America seeking freedom in those days, but things had already changed a great deal.

I’m going to explore some of those changes in my next post.

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