The Assembly Room at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the original U.S. Constitutional Convention took place. (Antonie Taveneaux / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Assembly Room at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the original U.S. Constitutional Convention took place. (Antonie Taveneaux / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Opinion: Let’s celebrate our country this Fourth of July

On July 4, 1776, a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, steeple bells rang throughout Philadelphia. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, had just signed the document later known as the United States Declaration of Independence.

More than a decade later, after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked (as the story goes) what kind of government the Founding Fathers had created behind closed doors in the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer – a republic or a monarchy. The venerable Franklin, then in his 80s, replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

By way of definition, in a pure democracy, laws are determined by the voting majority. In contrast, in a republic, laws are made by representatives chosen by the people, and minority rights are protected.

As many political leaders and the media continue to elevate partisanship over patriotism, Franklin’s caution remains relevant today.

Of the 70 delegates chosen as representatives to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, only 55 attended the proceedings in Philadelphia, and records reflect that no more than 46 of them were present at any one time. A few of the 41 delegates assembled on the day of signing did not support the constitution as written. Despite multiple speeches pleading for their signatures, none of the holdouts changed their minds.

In the end, there were 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution.

The signed document had no legal status. The Constitution would only become official after nine of the 13 states chose to ratify it. The challenge ahead was convincing the American people to embrace the idea of a constitutional republic in which citizens are represented by elected officials sworn to protect their interests.

The first state to ratify the Constitution was Delaware on Dec. 7, 1787, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut. Some states voiced opposition to the Constitution because it did not protect rights such as freedom of speech, religion and press. A compromise was then reached whereby proposed constitutional amendments to remedy this would follow. Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina then ratified the Constitution, with the consent of the ninth state, New Hampshire, occurring on June 21, 1788.

This makes the U.S. Constitution one of the oldest still in place in the world today.

Ten amendments, known as our Bill of Rights, were subsequently fully ratified on December 15, 1791. Since then, 17 amendments have been added (Prohibition was repealed in 1919). Two of the most significant additions were the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

“Keeping it” or preserving, perfecting, and perpetuating the American democratic republic has always been the overarching concern of America’s greatest leaders.

Our Founding Fathers believed in adherence to the universal principles of equality, liberty and limited government, as well as the virtues of thrift, self-reliance and a strong work ethic. They believed these features made our constitutional republic distinctive and would bind Americans together regardless of origin.

As America approaches its 250th anniversary in 2026, that lofty ideal sometimes seems forgotten in the divisive political turmoil we face today.

Amid all the cries that “democracy is on the ballot” in this election, Americans know better. Our Founding Fathers crafted a representative form of government that will weather this storm and others that follow. Most Americans, and especially Alaskans, are a savvy and resilient people who understand that it isn’t a president or any government that decides what liberties shall prevail. It’s our constitutional protections and the consent of the governed, as expressed through our elections, which determines whether we “keep our republic.”

Fourth of July celebrations are an opportunity to appreciate the freedoms that Americans enjoy and express our gratitude to America’s Founding Fathers. America is not perfect, but it is always striving to correct its past mistakes to deliver on its promise of equal rights and opportunity for all.

At a time when some Americans — especially younger generations — focus mostly on the flaws of our nation, let this Fourth of July be one that honors all that is good about our country.

• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for KeyBank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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