History remembers Independence Hall for the grave, soul-stirring words written there:
“All men are created equal …”
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”
“We the people …”
But it is a pithier, sharper sentence spoken there that distills the challenge before America today. You’ve probably heard the story.
At the end of the Constitutional Convention, as delegates emerged from their secret deliberations, a Philadelphia woman—one “Mrs. Powell”—asked Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the convention had given them.
Franklin answered her: “A republic … if you can keep it.”
Dr. Franklin’s challenge feels so bracing still, two centuries later. Today, the nation is increasingly misgoverned, misled, and outright attacked by a ruling elite that does not want us to “keep” our republic.
In fact, they want to take it from us. Look back no further than how our elected and unelected officials acted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This little clique goes by different names. I’m sure you’ve heard them all: the woke, the “globalists,” the “establishment,” the “coastal elite,” the political class, the “Swamp.” My favorite, though, is the “Neiman Marxists.”
They control different industries and institutions, from the media to the government to our schools, universities, and corporate boardrooms.
But for the purposes of winning back our country and “keeping” our republic, they are all the same.
I don’t mean only that they are the same as each other. They are the same as they have ever been.
Today, we think of America’s Revolution, founding, and history as a heroic story about the triumph of the human spirit: the little guy standing up to the bullies, fighting for freedom against oppressors. But as you know, there are always some people who don’t like a David and Goliath story: the Goliaths.
In the 18th century, that was Europe’s aristocracy. They hated the American Revolution and our Constitution because the fundamental idea of our nation is that here, the people rule. We didn’t need elites to tell us what to do.
In the 19th century, when France’s revolutionaries insisted that “freedom” required totalitarian oppression, America proved otherwise.
And when a new generation of privileged, landed elites in our own land declared that all men were not created equal, America rededicated itself to the principles of 1776. We fought, we reunited, and—“with malice toward none and charity for all”—we stood taller together as one.
In the 20th century, when totalitarian ideologues around the world conflated patriotism with hate and equality with tyranny, America rescued most of the world from them.
For two centuries, every generation of global elites looked down on American freedom—and ended up looking up at our success.
Now in the 21st century, the so-called “Great Awokening” is just the latest iteration of the empire striking back. From Washington and Wall Street to Beijing and Brussels, they are coming for our freedom, for our Constitution, for our faith, and, yes, even for our children—all in the name of global order. They want to take from us our birthright as Americans. They say they want us to become “citizens of the world.” But in truth, they want us to be subjects of them.
Today, Americans are rising up; drawing a line in the sand; and telling those who every day expect to impose their will on us, on our families, on our children, that never—never—will they succeed.
Better still, American parents—like all of us at The Heritage Foundation—are tired of playing defense. Like the 56 men who had the spine to sign the Declaration of Independence, they’ve decided to go on offense. I’m here to tell you that at every step of the way, in every fight, in every battle, with every hateful journalist, every attack on the American people—every single one—Heritage and I will stand firm.
As we fight to preserve the American order against this global empire, it’s important to remember what it is that conservatives need to conserve.
One of the best books ever written about America’s unique culture of freedom is called “The Roots of American Order” by Russell Kirk. You may have also come across his most famous book, “The Conservative Mind,” which traces the history of conservative thought.
In “The Roots of American Order,” Kirk traces the ideas that make up the American way of life—and in particular, the four great traditions that led our forefathers to found our republic 236 years ago this month.
America did not invent the idea of “ordered liberty.” We inherited it from the West’s four great cities of freedom that came before us: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London.
The first is obvious. All the moral principles on which America was founded—and on which our society has flourished—date back to the Old Covenant, the Old Testament, and the ancient Kingdom of Israel. When our Founders, in the Declaration of Independence, invoked the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” they weren’t talking about Zeus or Thor. They were talking about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
From the Jewish people, the West inherited our greatest gift, the one on which all others rest: the knowledge of our good and loving God. “All men are created equal” was not a philosophical theory springing from the Enlightenment, but a revealed moral truth. Men are not equal in virtue or wisdom, talent or strength. The equality of the American Founding is our moral equality—as fallen creatures before a just Creator, who, in his infinite mercy, loves us nonetheless—and taught us how to live according to His will.
Human equality. God-given rights. These, America owes to the God of Abraham; the holy, heroic people of Israel; and the city of Jerusalem.
America’s second inheritance, democracy, comes from Athens. In Abraham Lincoln’s words: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Twenty-five hundred years ago in Athens, every citizen had a voice. Leaders were chosen and entrusted with power, not born with or entitled to it. They served temporarily and subject to the will of the people. The people decided when to go to war, whether to levy taxes, and what public works to build. They were, in a way no people had been before, free.
And from that freedom, the Greeks flourished. Classical Athens is as famous today for its ingenious philosophers, mathematicians, science, poetry, architecture, and art as much as for its political innovations.
Practically the only problem the Greek city-states couldn’t solve was, as Kirk put it, “how to live with each other in peace and justice.” They disputed. They fought. They bled each other white in costly conflicts because cooler heads could not be heard above the din of the crowd. In the end, the tragic lesson of Athenian democracy was that without order, liberty is doomed.
Weakened by war, Greece, once the flower of civilization, soon fell to America’s third great cultural ancestor: Rome.
What fueled Rome’s rise from a tiny trading village to an empire spanning three continents? Well, one of the first sources of their success was what they learned from the Greeks. They built on Athenian innovations in science, engineering, military strategy … and also politics.
The Romans would not repeat Athens’ mistakes. Instead of a pure democracy, they established a republic. They divided power between consuls, community representatives, and the Senate. Each checked the power of the other two—harnessing ambitious Romans’ talents for the good of the whole.
In time, this system was so successful and generated so much wealth and power that Roman culture turned decadent and the government unresponsive to the people. The Senate gave way to Caesar, and the republic gave way to the empire. (Sounds a lot like Washington, now that I mention it.)
But the story didn’t end there. Just as Rome learned from Athens, she learned something else from Jerusalem.
Christianity, thank God, transcends politics. On the other hand, we have it on very good authority that Christians are “salt of the earth.” Their devotion always changes cultures—converts them, you might say. Christian devotion makes societies more just, more compassionate, and more charitable and dutiful. Yet for all these virtues’ collective value, the revolutionary truth at the heart of the Gospel is the innate, infinite value of each soul.
Thanks to a particular Roman crucifixion in first-century Jerusalem, human beings today are not only made in the image and likeness of God, but can be redeemed by Him. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
The revelations of the New Testament empowered mankind to pursue the “good, the beautiful, and the true” as never before. And the lives of the apostles, saints, and martyrs give us a roadmap toward them. But as we all know, the virtuous road is still the one less traveled. Human nature does not change. And men, especially powerful men, tend to pursue their own self-interest first and foremost.That leads us to the fourth city that made America: London.
Everyone has heard of the Magna Carta. But schools today don’t focus on great moments in history these days. It takes too much time away from “Drag Queen Story Hour” and critical race theory.
In the year 1215, England was ruled by an obnoxious thug. If you ever want to know how bad King John was, understand that he’s not King John I because there has never been a “second.” John was so bad that English kings stopped giving their sons that name.
Now, even a thousand years ago, corrupt kings were not new. Throughout history, they had been resisted, and some of them had been violently deposed. But English nobles knew how destructive civil wars could be. So, they took a different tack. Instead of replacing their monarch, they redefined their monarchy. Through the Great Charter—Magna Carta—they forced the King to put limits on the crown’s power, established Englishmen’s rights from that moment forward, and set the law itself as the true legal authority in England.
It’s all there in the Declaration of Independence. After the poetic preamble about “unalienable rights” and the “consent of the governed,” the rest of it reads like a dry legal document. Most of the text is a plain-worded indictment of King George III’s serial violations of the American colonists’ rights as Englishmen.
They did not want to rebel—they just wanted the rights due them as English citizens. That’s why the American Revolution was, at bottom, a conservative revolution.
Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration was heartbroken about leaving “our British brethren.” “We might have been a free & great people together,” he wrote. But when London forswore its own heritage of ordered liberty, America claimed it for our own.
That’s how Philadelphia became the fifth city, growing taller and stronger from the roots of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London.
It is the legacy of these five cities that American conservatives today must now fight to conserve. Not simply because they represent our inheritance and the principles that make America exceptional. But because they are the true targets the woke Left is attacking today.
With every speaker they silence, every skeptic they cancel, every book they ban or work of art they deface, or every truth they declare “hate speech,” the Left hacks away at America’s roots. They want to overturn what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—the bonds of faith, freedom, and fellowship we share with those who came before us. And let’s not kid ourselves: their attacks have worked.
Just look around.
Jerusalem’s faith? A majority of Americans today seldom or never attend religious services. Prayer and the Bible are banned in schools, but pornography is permitted. Churches are threatened with bankruptcy if they don’t endorse same-sex marriage. Antisemitic and anti-Christian crime is on the rise. Corporations that mock Christianity, like the Los Angeles Dodgers, are held up as heroic, while children are suspended from public schools for T-shirts that say, “There are only two genders.”
Athenian democracy? Ask yourself: Does it feel like the federal government works for you, or is it the other way around? A close look at our justice system might offer an uncomfortable answer. Athenian freedom liberated mankind to search for truth in nature and science. Today, the Left is at war with the truth: about unborn babies, about the differences between boys and girls, about climate change, about masks and school closures, and about the origins of COVID-19.
Roman separation of powers? Today, all our powerful institutions have joined together in one uni-party cabal. The media, the academy, big tech, big business, and big government surveil us, censor us, manipulate us, prosecute us, doxx us, and cancel us. Meanwhile, individual freedom is being subsumed into the creepy zoology of woke identity groups.
London and the rule of law? Look at the border, where fentanyl and criminals pour into our country. Look at our crime-ridden city streets as district attorneys refuse to put criminals behind bars. You may have heard: IRS agents showed up unannounced at the home of a journalist the day he testified before Congress on the weaponization of the government. The White House ordered the FBI to investigate moms and dads protesting corrupt school boards as “domestic terrorists.”
Like they have for 236 years, elites today fear American independence, freedom, and heritage.
They don’t want our children to inherit liberty and truth, because then they can’t be ruled. They can’t be bullied. They can’t be intimidated or gaslighted or oppressed. This is why so much of their assault is aimed at our education system. The Marxists’ “long march through the institutions” in America has been working.
Jerusalem. Athens. Rome. London. They are the real targets of the woke Left’s campaign of bigotry and lies. The elites know as well as we do that faith, equality, order, and the rule of law are essential for us to live in freedom. And they don’t want us to live in freedom.
The reason they are fighting so furiously now is that in the last few years, the West has started standing up to them.
Just a few short years ago, starting in Northern Virginia, a few brave moms and dads stood up and said no to woke school boards, no to woke principals, and no to woke lawmakers. They are the heroes, and their work is spreading throughout the country in nearly every school board meeting in America.
Brexit. The 2016 presidential election. The leadership of conservative governors like Glenn Youngkin, Greg Abbott, Brian Kemp, Kim Reynolds, and, most especially and heroically, my friend, America’s Governor, Ron DeSantis.
They are fighting for a future of smaller government and bigger citizens. Of more marriages and kids, happier families, and stronger communities. For a place where we talk more and tweet less. Where schools teach and don’t indoctrinate. Where we spend more time in our pews and less on our screens.
That future we envision is not a dream. It’s our birthright. Building that fifth city is even today just a matter of rededicating ourselves to the best virtues of the other four.
If we commit ourselves to our faith, our dignity, the truth, individual freedom, our constitutional republic, and our rule of law, the Left cannot stop us. The media and the ruling elites cannot stop us. History makes very clear that when people of faith and courage dedicate themselves to freedom and justice and pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to that cause, nothing can stop them.
We are the fifth city—the fulfillment of all the dreams fought for at the Valley of Elah and Jericho … at Salamis and Waterloo and Gettysburg … on the Catalaunian Plains, on Omaha Beach, and aboard Flight 93. It was the promise of fulfilling those dreams that inspired our Founders, locked inside Independence Hall during the sweltering days of July 1776—and that, just 18 months later, motivated George Washington and his army to fight the freezing, life-threatening long winter at Valley Forge.
In Philadelphia, the West once stood and now must stand again. Not to recreate the past, but to create a future worthy of the men and women who have loved, labored, and lost so much to bequeath us the gifts of their four cities—and worthy of the children who made us “moms and dads for liberty.”
The fifth city, shining upon a hill, is not just our birthright—it’s our sons’ and daughters’ too. It’s for them that we must remember Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia. It’s for them we must answer Ben Franklin’s challenge and “keep” this great republic, which remains the most noble, inspiring social and political experiment in all of history.
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