Benjamin Franklin's last letter
Hamilton is a global fellow with the Wilson Center. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are the authors of the research report "Government Information and Propaganda: How to Draw the Line?"
Shortly before he died on April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay, "Rules for Ruining a Republic." He had been a master of satirical letters — we might call them hoaxes — written for political purposes. Among the more famous was one he quill-penned in 1773 to warm the British that they were setting themselves up for an American revolt. The title was "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One."
That letter was written in a steady hand. His deathbed letter, dated March 28, was in a shaky one and was apparently slipped into a loose joint in the floorboards of the bedroom he occupied in his Philadelphia home.
Or perhaps his daughter Deborah hid it hastily at his death, having taken some of his last words literally. When she had said he would survive his pleuritic attack, he replied he would rather not — he had done his work.
In any event, the letter has since fallen into our hands from a source we are not at liberty to disclose. We believe the time has come to publish it.
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Rules for Ruining a Republic
This Republic, this novus ordo seclorum, was forged on the shores of this fair continent through toils and blood. We have repelled the mischief from foreign malefactors, and our public affairs and economic commerce are now under our aegis.
Just days ago our first president gave his first State of the Union Message, as required by our new Constitution, in which he congratulated the Congress assembled in New York "on the present favourable prospects of our public affairs."
Yet, I keep coming back to what I wrote last November to a French friend, "Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes."
Now, as I lie here, I find myself imagining ways that at some distant time our nation would become like Rome, which as the solon Cicero said, "may retain the name Republic, but we have long since lost the actual thing." After all, opposition newspapers have called our first president "debauched" and various citizens have launched armed insurrection over policies they dislike. Some have declared that only elites should vote.
Tho' collapse is not imminent, I address myself to those future countrymen and officials who minister their affairs that they may have a handy guide to completing the task of ruining the republic when they so wish.
I. Political democracy entails dispute, even hot dispute. For the stakes are often high for citizens, and choices are rarely between the perfect good and the absolute bad, but commonly between better or worse. The debate over the framing of the Constitution, ratified two years ago, was such a set of ideas and the better for it, even if improvement — and more debate — are needed. But if dispute is salubrious, there are ways to make it poisonous, namely by employing dispute as a form of obstruction, rather than a means of betterment. Thus, you would be wise to seek political leaders who say, when someone is elected to the nation's highest office, that their goal is "to ensure that the president cannot achieve anything that could be called a success."
II. Words are to democracy as beams are to a house. Our Constitution, our laws, hold up the edifice of the Republic. Whilst the democrat must have reverence for words, the foes of democracy must eat away at them like so many termites. Truth and falsehood must be meaningless. Impression is all that counts. Inconvenient facts must be called lies, not met with evidence. Disagreeable opinions must be called conspiracies, not judged by reason. In this way the beams weakened and the house easier to bring down.
III. Further to the matter of word abuse, wreckers of the republic must cloak themselves in the garb of principle, however obvious it is that their modus operandi is naked cynicism. Indeed, the more naked, the better, for in this way the effect of the hypocrisy is greater. To illustrate, consider what may be done with the Supreme Court, which sat for the first time a few days ago. High, tho this Court of our constitutional charter may be, it easily can be debased. Although it may seem too farfetched to contemplate seriously, a Senate dominated by a president's opponents could deprive him or her of the right to appoint new members by some pretext, perhaps the argument that an election will occur, and thus new appointments should await the outcome. Even better will be the subsequent opportunity to ignore this previous injunction when the majority's president is in power.
IV. This leads us to a second vulnerability of democracy, elections themselves. A democracy without elections is not a democracy. Contemptuous actions such as the one mentioned above, in which presidents are prohibited from acting on the behalf of those who elected them, inculcate in the minds of citizens the idea that voting is meaningless. The sagacious destabilizer will find myriad other opportunities to achieve the same effect in our nascent democracy. For example, a coalition, cabal, or faction making a majority in one of the chambers of the Congress could strip some member of another faction of committee assignments for remarks they found odious, rather than letting the member's constituents decide the matter in the next election. The great virtue of stripping committee assignments is that the ultimate harm is to the members' constituents, as they will not be fully represented in the legislative process and thus alienated from democracy.
V. Elections are fevered contests, and inevitably produce disappointment for one side. As in sport, honour demands the defeated to admit defeat. It follows, therefore, that individuals set on dishonoring democracy should claim, when they have lost, that victory was snatched from them by some sinister force. This does not have to be proven, as it is implied by myriad actions such as those mentioned above, and, in any case, it is better to suggest that unseen malefactors are subverting the public good everywhere.
VI. Those who would ruin a republic will encourage pathologies of the publick mind. They will cast barbs at publick officials, and decry the entire class as debauched. The most nefarious of wreckers will encourage disaffection of the very notion that the republic is worth defending, that it was corrupt from conception.
VII. In the quest to stymie government from achieving anything meaningful on behalf of citizens, readers of wise Juvenal will recognize the virtue of selecting leaders holding little experience in publick affairs and promising panem et circensus. These readers will, in their pernicious wisdom, promote the election of those who profess as their chief virtue no knowledge of government. Tho it makes no sense for an ill person to seek a cure from a cobbler, citizens should be told that a healthy republic is best led by quacks because they are closer to the people.
VIII. In his State of the Union Address, President Washington advised Congress that "providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." 'Tis true. But the subversive official will note that the military also is a unique threat to the Constitution, as it is the one element of the Executive Branch with the means to summarily usurp the presidency. Washington acknowledged this when he ceremoniously surrendered his sword to the Congress after our successful revolution. The enemies of democracy will teach generals and admirals, including those recently returned to private life and with time on their hands, to be active in politics and forthright in their critiques of sitting politicians.
IX. As Montesquieu recently wrote, "The spirit of a legislator ought to be that of moderation." This is to be discouraged. Extremes should be sought by all sides so that cacophony shouts down harmony and nothing is achieved except increasingly heated emotions and little wise deliberation.
X. Finally, even when the republic seems to function, the wrecker should not lose heart. If there is any law of government that stands above the others, 'tis easier to destroy Democracy than it is to create it. As Plato said, Democracy "is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder.
(The above op-ed is a satirical piece imagining a discovered long lost letter from Benjamin Franklin.)