I recently returned from Turkey, where I was honored to serve as a speaker at a conference celebrating the anniversary of the founding of their Court of Jurisdictional Disputes. Turkey is currently in an interesting and possibly tumultuous time in its history, with a recent election to decide whether to embark as a non-secular nation in line with its current-President’s wishes or to remain on the secular, rule-of-law path it has maintained for approximately 70 years. What follows are the (lightly edited and redacted for space) remarks I gave to the members of the Turkish Judiciary at that conference:

I have read the Turkish Constitution but wish I were a better informed student of Turkish government. Instead of attempting to address the intricacies of the Turkish Constitution today, I thought I would address something more familiar to me—America’s own experiment with the republican form of government—in hope that it may have bearing on your own experience and aspirations.

In 1787, following what we refer to as the Revolutionary War to shed Britain as our colonial ruler, prominent members of our Founding Generation from each of our 13 colonies met to determine whether they could create a national government to unify the 13 colonies that, to that point, had functioned as independent countries under British rule. Luminaries such as Dr. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were members of that effort we refer to as the Constitutional Convention.
At the conclusion of the Convention, a woman approached Dr. Ben Franklin and asked: “Well Doctor, what have we got: a republic or a monarchy? Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

Those are words everyone committed to a republican form of government must heed. As a judicial representative of the world’s longest surviving republic, I know that a republican form of government is no more than a construct. It is a commitment to a constitution so that all whom it protects are entitled to no more or less than the rule of law set forth in that document.

Even our experience with this republican form of government in the United States has been fraught with perils, with cycles of uncertainly. Colonialists shared a common language—English—and a number of British customs and values. But, unlike the nations of the world at the time, America, even in colonial times, was a nation of immigrants with no singular cohesive ethnic heritage. What our colonial forefathers shared was a commitment to the liberty of their fellow citizens to pursue their personal goals unfettered by intrusive government.

Our Founding Generation, having thrown off the yoke of British rule, was extraordinarily distrustful of power, so the national government they created was designed to limit and check federal power to preserve the liberties of its citizens. As such, the 13 colonies that cherished their individual sovereignty ceded to the federal government only enough power to protect them from foreign powers and regulate the relationships between themselves.

Thus, we have in the United States a federal government of specific and limited enumerated powers while the colonies (now states) retained sovereignty within their borders. This is the concept of “federalism.” Many foreign visitors are surprised to learn that there are 51 sovereignties in the United States—a federal government and 50 state governments, each sovereign within its own sphere.

In addition, the federal government was divided into three branches—executive, legislative and judicial—and the responsibilities of each branch was exclusive and served as a check against the other two. This is the concept of “separation of powers. (The Turkish constitution has a similar separation of powers feature.)

We in the United States, have, over the years, struggled to maintain the balance of powers spelled out in our constitution. Sometimes, the power relationships between the three branches of the federal government have shifted as has the power relationship of the states to the federal government.

For example, we fought a Civil War that challenged the power relationship between the states and the federal government. More recently, that battle rages on in litigation brought by the states against federal programs dealing with immigration and healthcare policies. But we have been fortunate in the United States that none of these power shifts has remained unchecked for long without resolution.

If I were to speculate on why this general balance of power has been maintained for over 200 years I would suggest that our citizens, like the Founding Generation, are suspicious of government power. The desire to just be left alone and unfettered by intrusive government remains a dominant character trait among our citizens—even those recently arrived in our country seem to acquire this instinct. Interestingly, this distrust of government has been coupled with an abiding commitment to the rule of law—the idea that everyone, however high or low born, is entitled to be treated the same under law—is deeply rooted in our American political culture.

So, even with such an evanescent concept as a “republican form of government,” and the tendency of government power to aggregate and corrupt, we in the United States, have managed, in Dr. Ben Franklin’s admonition, to “keep it” for more than 200 years. That is the challenge of every people who aspire to live free.