If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty

If You Can Keep It:
The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty
Eric Metaxas
published 2016

I have begun reading books to get me into the revolutionary spirit for my next school year.  The first is If You Can Keep It, by Eric Metaxas.  It is a quick read, which surprised me given the heavy topic at hand, and considering Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace, both also by Metaxas, are such longer reads. Nonetheless, I am not complaining.  One may consider it a primer on the issue.

The title is from a question posed by a Mrs. Powell to Benjamin Franklin, after the close of the Constitutional Convention, in 1787: "Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?" Franklin replied, "A republic, madam--if you can keep it."

Metaxas reminds his readers that America was an experiment, founded on an idea -- an idea that had never been tried before, and one that must be maintained by the citizens in order to last.  America is a promise to all future Americans that "the people themselves would have to do a lot to make it work.  A government in which the people would govern themselves would be fragile and would require the people's attention in a way that no other government would."  The experiment was in liberty, or more specifically: SELF-GOVERNMENT.  

You have heard of American exceptionalism.  This really boils the blood of some, but that is because they do not understand it.  American exceptionalism, according to Metaxas, demands that America be an example to the rest of the world.  It is a not just for our sake, but for others.  If we are to keep the republic (alive and well), we must live up to its standards.  It has nothing to do with privilege, but rather it is a principle we work toward, and in turn has enabled us to help others.

Government is necessary, but self-government is required to ward off tyrannous government.  This next bit of info was interesting: our Founders had an extensive understanding of biblical history.  They knew man was fallen and they knew he could be redeemed.  Therefore, because man was fallen, the structure of government must be limited so that "fallen and selfish human desire for power worked against itself."

Back to self-government: the Founders understood that free religion was essential to good government.  Truly religious people were less likely to break the law.  The first settlement in America was composed of a deeply religious people seeking religious freedom, and it is this freedom to believe -- and not coercion -- that makes people free and desire to excel.  The Founders understood that freedom and religion were synonymous in purpose and principle.  See, and right here I thought: that is what makes Islam incompatible with our Constitution because people must generally be coerced to follow Islam; there is no liberty in Islam.  But Metaxas did not discuss this; it just made sense to me.

The more one practiced self-government (obeying the law and practicing good will), the less need there would be for a burdensome, strong-armed central government.  But freedom in self-government does not give one license to do whatever he or she likes; and therefore, there must be limits on freedom.  At the same time, we cannot simply export American exceptionalism to other nations expecting them to convert into a mini-America.  Metaxas states,
so much needs to be in place to make what we call freedom and self-government to work than to simply tell someone he is free and bid him govern himself . . . There are tremendous responsibilities that come with self-government.
In addition, government cannot make people behave; but the less the citizens do for themselves, the more often government will pick up the slack.  Oh, boy!  How that has happened to America!  This is why Americans must guard their freedoms.  If a people do not exercise their opportunities and responsibilities, they will lose it, forget how, and finally fail to pass it on to the next generation.  It is why we simply cannot free people in other nations who have not the desires for or notions of the responsibilities of liberty and self-government.  Alexis de Tocqueville calls these desires and notions "habits of the heart," and it is why morality and true religion are so important for self-governing people.
If you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart.
If a people are not prepared for the great responsibilities of their freedom, it will not work.  For the American people of 1776 and 1787, the Founders believed "the citizens were prepared for what they had been given," and that "the great freedoms of the republic they had made possible required keeping.  The Founders were right in trusting that we would keep the republic and would cultivate the habits of the heart.  But it was impossible for the Founders to see where after two centuries the things that were secure in their day would change."  Metaxas then asks: "What, then, is now to be done?  What then, are we to do?"

The author then describes the Golden Triangle of virtue, faith, and freedom.  Virtue is a high moral standard, and was once extremely popular in America.  It was demanded of every citizen, young and old, male and female, and it was part of the American culture.  Faith was necessary to motivate people beyond the law.  Tocqueville recognized that there was "no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."  That was because the authority in men's hearts was to God, not a forced obedience to man or government of men.  And finally there is freedom, which had everything to do with religious liberty -- that is, to recognize God as Creator and His moral law, but to worship in his own way.

Next, there is a whole chapter on George Whitefield and his influence on America, which was fascinating.  There is another chapter on Heroes and how America has gone from venerating great men (and women) to now doubting them and focusing on their faults -- men like Nathan Hale and Paul Revere.  Oh, and there is a chapter on the Importance of Moral Leaders.  Wow, we have fallen short in that tradition.  Our republic was founded on the principle of moral men and women, people of character, with good "habits of the heart."  How can we expect to last if we continue in immorality and perversion and corruption, both leaders and citizens alike?  (I just threw that in there.)  If we are not following that higher standard demanded of us by our Constitution, who will be left to uphold it, protect it, defend it, and pass it on to other generations or even be an example to other nations and people?

Return to American Exceptionalism: Did you know it was that darn Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who coined the term in the first place?  Blame him!  He said our position in the world is what made us exceptional, "and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."  But why?  

1.  Because America was founded on a universal creed that all men are created equal and that America exists only by consent of the governed.  We are a merit-based society where people are not treated based on family or race or beliefs, but rather one has mobility in society, as he pleases (and I would add, as God pleases);  2.  because America has thrived in freedom and extraordinary wealth; and 3. because America values the individual over the state, including leaders who are beholden to the same law as the citizen.*  (*Cough, choke.)

Then Metaxas talks about the Shining City on a Hill remark and how we are a beacon of light to those seeking liberty, freedom, and opportunity, in which so many immigrants have benefited.  Here I would like to add my own observations.  I am grateful to be an American and that my grandparents and all four sets of great-grandparents came to America from Italy.  But immigrants of the late 1800s and early 1900s were different: they wanted to assimilate to America, and they raised their children to be American.  Many of today's immigrants have no interest in incorporating into the distinct American culture, but instead are changing it.  Add that to the destructive sediment of American citizens that America is evil and her history is sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic, and essentially must die.  Don't worry; America is dissolving.  We cannot keep our republic under the current climate.  Those immigrating to America and the ones drastically seeking to wipe her clean will eventually find a very hostile place to live in time because there will be nothing to unite people any longer.  Like President Lincoln said, "
If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
But I digress.  

There is a final chapter on loving America.  Lincoln made a reference to "mystic chords of memory" when addressing the nation during his Inauguration, 1860.  Lincoln was talking about the things that unify people as a nation.  It is a love of country.  Here is a great question: if God calls us to love our enemies, can we not also apply that to our country?  I am reminded of Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn and his love of Russia, even when his Communist government sent him to Siberia for treason.  I think of Azar Nafisi and her love for Iran, the country she had to leave because those in leadership took away her freedom and individualism.

We can love our country, even with all her faults.  We are to love others the same way.  The key is to also admit there is good, too.  Be grateful God has given the gift of liberty and that you still have a country with freedoms left.  In the words of the author,
the love of what is good and true and beautiful in anything will become the portal through which we love all that is good and true and beautiful beyond it.
The bottom line is this: the Founders designed a government that was only as good as the  citizens who participated.  If the voters send inept, ignorant, unethical, self-serving, corrupted men and women to government, and in turn forget their own moral obligation to be virtuous citizens who understand the responsibility of liberty, then the experiment of self-government will surely fail.  Only if we maintain a citizenry always willing and able to rise to the occasion to protect and cherish our history, our country, and our neighbors, is there a better chance of us keeping the republic.


  1. Thank you for your great review. I will be pestering my library, hoping to get a copy of the book. Recently I read a book that might interest you: Simon Winchester's The Men Who United the States, an interesting and very entertaining study focusing on ways in which exploration, progress, and development served to confirm and advance the ideals of the founding fathers. Now, I'm off to my library's website!

    1. Well, I hope you do get your library to get a copy. And I will look into your suggestion. Sounds like a similar book I am also reading right now about the 55 men who made up the Constitutional Convention. Thanks.

  2. Metaxes presumably quotes John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

    What your review points out -- and so many people are wholly ignorant of -- is that self government does not consist of voting for one or another plastic-smile lawyer every four years. It consists of governing ourselves, our inner beings, and we do not tend to that personally, and if our culture does not promote it, we are lost. No amount of legislation or even brute force can replace or substitute for character.

    Thank you for your thoughtful review.

    1. Yes, Metaxas sure does use Adams' quote. I wanted to add it, but my post was already too long.

      How awesome is the idea of self-government?? I wish our schools and parents did a better job of passing the torch of liberty onto the next generation and incoming immigrants, as well as raising up virtuous individuals who value character, strength, responsibility, and freedom. I don't mean to be a bummer, but our society is looking more and more like the 18th century French who embraced the Enlightenment and lost their heads. (Metaxas also touches on this, but not in great detail). Yep, we are in close to losing our republic.