The Consent of the Governed: Can We Keep It?

John C. Rankin (July, 2009)

The consent of the governed is the bulwark of American freedom, a risky proposition meaning the government belongs to the people. We elect our own representatives, and they are always accountable to us. Without a historically informed understanding of the consent of the governed, and its biblical origins, the only alternative is a slide toward some form of tyranny. A lazy people cannot be a free people. Can we weep it?

Dating to the era of The Magna Carta in 1215, the consent of the governed only comes to us through a long and bloody struggle between those who aspire to freedom, and those who cling to tyranny. It comes to us through a texture of uneven yet unrelenting progress, through a growth of checks and balances.

Following the signing of The United States Constitution in 1787, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790; and also a signer of The Declaration of Independence) was reputedly asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” In a strict monarchy, the unelected king has the final say; in a democratic and constitutional republic, the people have the final say through their elected representatives.

The phrase “a democratic and constitutional republic” can be a mouthful, but its precision is important. Democracy refers to the vote of the people, yet we are not a pure “democracy.” That would be too cumbersome, having every item in the state and nation always voted upon. Such a pure democracy can only work in small communities.

A more accurate term is “a representative government,” which is the nature of a “republic.” We democratically elect our representatives, who make the law according to the state and federal constitutions which we have also voted upon. If we do not like how our representatives are governing, we can elect others to take their places, or even remove them sooner by more direct means.

Can we keep our republic? This is always a live question. Freedom is consistently at risk of being lost if we are not vigilant to protect it; indeed, tyrants can be elected by a constitutionally illiterate people. The best way to protect our republic is for all citizens to participate in the consent of the governed, and this requires a biblical literacy.