America’s Founders on Virtue as Fundamental to Republican Government
“Virtue” and “republic” have long been connected to each other among philosophers of politics. The connection was frequently asserted in the rhetoric of Americans during the founding. Indeed, it was while states were writing constitutions that these ideas were more rigorously investigated and an increasingly sophisticated understanding emerged. The most widely read source on the experiences of republics and the importance of virtue was Plutarch’s Lives, which contained the biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen. Many intellectuals also read primary sources, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius, and interpreters of those sources, such as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and various 18th century English political essayists. These investigations led to a political conundrum. Most Americans believed that mankind’s actions were driven by base desires, such as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Yet the success of republics had always been said to rest on public virtue, the requirement that the rulers and the people overcome their passion for personal gratification and act for the benefit of the community, “res publica.” Moreover, the wisdom received from ancient writers postulated that public virtue was derived from private virtue. The task became to reconcile this tension between private passions and republican virtue.
Three ideological theories of republicanism emerged, with attendant differences in their conceptions of private and public virtue and the connection between them. These three conceptualizations had significant geographic roots. One was an American version of classic republicanism, which might be called puritan republicanism. It is “positive” republicanism. The proponents looked to the firm hand of government to promote both aspects of virtue, private and public, and to insure their continued interrelation. It was founded in the religious tradition and political experience of New England communities, although its influence was not confined there. One of the best exponents of that tradition and its republican significance was John Adams.
Another was agrarian republicanism, which coalesced somewhat later, and was rooted in the experience of the South, especially its largest and wealthiest state, Virginia. Agrarian republicans also accepted the need rigorously to inculcate private virtue, but they were less optimistic about the conviction that private virtue assured public virtue. At the very least, they were skeptical that sufficient public virtue might be realized among those who would gain political influence. That skepticism was particularly acute when the matter became who would control the distant general government and thus be most removed from effective supervision by the people.
Best, then, not to rely on virtue among the rulers, but to look for other means to limit their ability to cause harm to the republic. If private virtue of the ruler or the people was inadequate to assure public virtue, the rulers’ self-interest must be channeled to serve the public good. James Madison worked out these ideas in his constitutional ideology, which found its way into basic structures in the United States Constitution. Madison was not alone, and he was not the most rigorous expositor of agrarian republicanism. That title goes to John Taylor of Caroline.
A third approach was national republicanism, represented by Alexander Hamilton as its most prominent ideological proponent and George Washington as its leading public figure. In many ways their views complemented those of the agrarians that private virtue was a necessary but also a regrettably flawed guardian of the success of republics. However, there was a crucial difference. Government would have a much more active role in using incentives to create conditions through which republican virtue of the public sort might be fostered. Moreover, republican virtue was not limited to those connected to the land, but extended to those engaged in commercial and even manufacturing enterprises. Hamilton, after all, was not part of the landed gentry, like Adams, or the Southern planter class, like Taylor. National republicanism was based in the emerging commercial centers, especially those of the mid-Atlantic states.
John Adams’s major work on constitutional government and republicanism was A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, a treatise on the emerging American constitutionalism with its emphasis on checks and balances of governmental powers. But Adams was also a prolific writer of letters to numerous correspondents. Many years before he wrote in his 1798 response to the Massachusetts militia, “Our government was made only for a moral and religious people,” he wrote to the chronicler of the period Mercy Otis Warren that republican government could survive only if the people were conditioned “by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” Sounding the theme of positive classic republicanism, he continued, “There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honor, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” [Emphasis in the original.]
In light of man’s fallen nature and his helpless soul’s inclination to sin, a firm hand was needed. Hence, three New England states had an official church, the Congregational Church, heir to the Puritans. Moreover, a Stoic virtue of private simplicity and public duty was cultivated, not the least by intrusive sumptuary laws. Such laws, passed in the name of protecting the people’s morals and sometimes dressed up in broader cloaks of liberty and equality, restricted various luxuries and excessive expenditures on jewelry, clothing, victuals, and entertainment. Adams, in his 1776 book Thoughts on Government, touted the benefits of such laws, “[The] happiness of the people might be greatly promoted by them….Frugality is a great revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies, which are real antidotes to all great, manly, and warlike virtues.”
The historian Forrest McDonald, in his invaluable book Novus Ordo Seclorum, provides details about the constitutional and statutory sources of such laws. For example, Article XVIII of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights urged a “constant adherence” to “piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry and frugality [which] are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty.” Legislators and magistrates must exercise “an exact and constant observance” of those principles “in the formation and execution of the laws.” None other than John Adams had drafted that document in the Massachusetts convention. Other states had similar provisions. At the Philadelphia Convention, George Mason of Virginia sought to grant Congress the power to enact sumptuary laws, but his proposal was defeated.
Adams also lauded laws that resulted in the division of landed estates, because he perceived such laws as promoting relative equality of property ownership. Adams termed it the “mediocrity of property” on which liberty depended. This sentiment, drawn from an ancient republican pedigree, put him in good company with American republicans of other stripes. Indeed, “agrarian republicans” were, if anything, even more militant than Adams in their adoration of land ownership as the bulwark of republican virtue and personal liberty. Thomas Jefferson spoke for most Americans in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, when he declared that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God if ever He had a chosen people, in whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” He expressed similar views in other writings. During the debate over the subsequent Louisiana Purchase during his administration, Jefferson was able to overcome his constitutional qualms with the satisfaction that the United States had acquired sufficient land to guarantee its existence as a republic of yeoman farmers and artisans for many generations hence.
As a theorist of agrarian republicanism, Jefferson was thin gruel compared to John Taylor, a Virginian planter, lawyer, and politician, who served off-and-on as Senator. To distinguish his branch of the family, Taylor is usually referred to by his birthplace, Caroline County. The aphorism “That government is best which governs least,” has often been attributed to Jefferson, although it appears first in Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau in 1849. If, however, one might at least grant Jefferson the same sentiment, this aphorism even better describes Taylor’s philosophy. In particular, his 1814 book An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States sets out a systematic philosophy for land as the basis for personal happiness and republican vitality. Land gives its owners sustenance and trains them to self-reliance, which produces independence, which, in turn, is the source of liberty. A key to maintaining that independence is the right to keep arms.
The (mostly) Southern agrarian republicans shared with their (mostly) New England classic republican compatriots a belief that widely-shared land ownership is most conducive to private virtue. However, they parted ways on the connection between private and public virtue as crucial to the survival of republican government. Taylor wrote, “The more a nation depends for its liberty on the qualities of individuals, the less likely it is to retain it. By expecting publick good from private virtue, we expose ourselves to publick evils from private vices.” While a republican system, as a whole, is strongest when it rests on a broad base of a virtuous and civically militant citizenry, it is risky to rely only on that condition to produce virtuous politicians. Homo politicus is better known for seeking power for personal gain and influence over others than for personal sacrifice and care for the general welfare. As described by the modern school of “public choice” theory, politicians are self-interested actors, whose actions are best explained by their number one goal, to get re-elected. In addition, the puritan approach of an intrusive government which would police private behaviors raised red flags for the agrarians.
Taylor and other agrarians distrusted government generally, but the more removed from direct and frequent popular control officials were, the greater the danger to the republican form. The good news was that sufficient public virtue could be produced even if, for whatever reason, private virtue was lacking in those who would govern. To that end, it became incumbent on those who framed constitutions to recognize the inherently self-interested nature of politicians and to harness that self-interest through constitutional structures which would simultaneously authorize and limit the power of government officials of all types. Politicians would “do the right thing” not because they were sufficiently trained to private virtue, but because it would serve their own self-interest in preserving their positions.
Taylor’s prescription was not novel. The Scottish philosopher David Hume began his 1742 essay, “Of the Independency of Parliament,” by declaring, “Political writers have established it as a maxim that, in contriving any system of government and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, cooperate to public good.” The works of the charismatic and often controversial Hume were well known to educated Americans.
James Madison expressed these sentiments in a famous passage in Number 51 of The Federalist:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be
connected to the constitutional rights of the place…. In framing a government
which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:
you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next
place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the
primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the
necessity of auxiliary precautions.
Those “auxiliary precautions” were the structural checks and balances in the Constitution.
Various historians have noted the importance of Taylor’s contributions to American political theory, even lauding him as in some ways the best which America has produced. Although his vision was republican, it may better be characterized as a branch of classical liberalism or liberal republicanism. Note that the term “liberal” does not have the current political connotation. Unlike today’s version, the classic liberalism emerging during that period was directly tied to the individual’s liberty to live free from state-enforced mandates beyond the minimum needed for social stability.
Taylor was not the first skeptic about the classic Aristotelian and Ciceronian connection between private and public virtue reborn in the puritan republicanism of John Adams. The history of 18th-century Anglo-American ideas reveals influential predecessors, such as Bernard de Mandeville and, as mentioned earlier, David Hume. Mandeville wrote his satirical Fable of the Bees in 1705, a famous parody of English politics of the time. In the poem, he describes a thriving colony of bees, where each individual bee seeks to live a life of luxury and ease, a sentiment not disagreeable to Taylor’s Southern planter class. But this prosperous existence comes to an end when some of the bees begin to denounce the personal corruption caused by luxury and to call for a life of simplicity and virtue to be imposed. Many bees die, their hive becomes impoverished, and they live in a hollow tree, “blest with Content and Honesty.” He concludes,
Bare Virtue can’t make Nations live,
In Splendor; they, that would revive
A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.
In short, personal vices, such as greed and ambition, generate public virtue of industriousness and prosperity. Similar ideas also infused the writings of an important contemporary of the American founders, the political economist Adam Smith.
Even more than Taylor, it was the adherents of an emerging “national republicanism” who agreed with Mandeville, Hume, and Smith. Although all persons are driven by their passions, not all passions are the same. Some, especially those who already have material riches, might be gripped by a simple desire for fame or honor, or by love of country. Moreover, a properly constructed constitution, produced by those few motivated by such nobler passions, might harness the baser passions of lesser politicians towards the public good. The men who met in Philadelphia for the specific purpose of drafting the Constitution might qualify as men whose primary, if not sole, passions were fame and love of country. For most, no immediate financial gain or personal political success was to be gained. Indeed, contrary to the progressive theory advanced in the early 20th century by the historian Charles Beard that economic self-interest was the driving force behind the Constitution’s adoption, it is well-established that delegates voted in favor of proposals which would, if anything, hurt their financial interests.
Such “good” passions, although they manifested a self-interest, also produced the public virtue necessary for republican government. It produced policies for the general welfare and in the interest of the public. The problem, of course, is that all politicians—and, indeed, bureaucrats of all kinds—routinely claim to be driven by a passion for public service, and that their policy proposals are in the public interest. A multitude of unelected non-governmental organizations and litigious law firms also claim the title “public interest.” Alas, to consider, for instance, who benefits from pay-outs in the typical class-action lawsuit, the reality rarely matches the professed public virtue. One never hears a politician say that a policy, no matter how nefarious and self-rewarding, is done for anything other than the noblest public purpose. Rare even is a politician as honest as the 19th-century New York Tammany Hall leader George Washington Plunkitt. He famously distinguished between “dishonest” and “honest” graft and was frank about his practice of the latter. Dishonest graft meant working solely for one’s own interests. Honest graft was to work for one’s own wealth, while simultaneously furthering the interests of one’s party and state.
The big problem, then, for the national republicans was to constrain those politicians who would in fact hold political offices for a longer time and with less-defined objectives than those who drafted the Constitution. George Washington had long and carefully cultivated the public image of the man driven solely by a passion for honor. Whatever his motives in his private actions, such as, for example, acquiring huge tracts of land, Washington in his public life appears to have been driven by his concern about the public’s perception of him as a man of honor. Forrest McDonald and numerous other historians have painted the picture of a man who might be said to have “staged” his public life. Washington was deeply affected throughout his life by Joseph Addison’s play Cato about the Roman republican statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (“the Younger”). Cato, a committed Stoic, was famous for his unrelenting honesty.
But Washington was a rare specimen of homo politicus. The national republicans’ plan for more run-of-the-mill politicians was similar to that of the agrarians, to rely on one measure of citizen virtue and another measure of constitutional structure to produce public virtue from politicians driven by private passions. Unlike the agrarians, they were convinced that a strong national government must be a part of that structure. On that point Hamilton and at least the 1787 version of Madison could agree. Hamilton and the national republicans parted ways with Madison, and with Jefferson and the more resolute agrarian republicans such as Taylor, by enthusiastically embracing the role of manufacturing and banking in promoting public virtue.
Jefferson’s ideal republic of yeoman farmers and artisans, comprising a large middle class possessed of a rough equality of means, had little room for manufacturers, and none for bankers and other jobbers dealing in phantom “wealth.” Manufacturing, when combined with commerce, the fear went, would necessarily soon lead to two anti-republican results. One was a love for material luxury; the other was a life of drudgery for the impoverished masses. The history of the ancient Roman Republic was a vivid cautionary tale. Taylor and the agrarians accepted the benefit of commerce within their preferred system of political economy, because it facilitated the export of products from the agricultural South and the importation of manufactured goods from abroad. But, in a preview of the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of the 1820s and ‘30s, this required free trade. Like most Southerners, Taylor was a committed free trader and suspicious of any national government regulation of economic matters, especially tariffs.
The agrarians’ fear of manufacturing tied into a general belief among political writers going back to antiquity that political systems evolve and, ultimately, decay. Entropy is inevitable in politics as much as physics. Agriculture may be the most desirable occupation, but, sooner or later, the limited productive land area is fully occupied, as New England was discovering. People would flock to cities where manufacturing would become their occupation. As Adam Smith described the effect on people, “the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are, perhaps, always the same … generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become ….” This fate stood in sharp contrast to that of the farmer, artisan, and merchant, who must possess broad knowledge and understanding of many activities. If this process was inexorable and made those human brutes unfit to practice private virtues, it also made the demise of the republic inevitable. Even Benjamin Franklin believed in the dangers from this progression, which puts his remark to his interlocutor, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” in yet another light. It also explains the urgency which Jefferson and other agrarian republicans felt about the westward expansion of territory and the opening of western land to agricultural settlement needed to forestall this threat to republican governance.
At the conclusion of the passage quoted above, Adam Smith extended a saving hand. After all, he was not opposed to either manufacturing or banking as sources of wealth. The evils of a poor and brutish urban working class would happen, “unless the government takes some pains to prevent it.” Smith had his views of what that might be. In any event, Hamilton, as an enthusiastic believer in Smith’s ideas, agreed that wealth was not fixed, and that even a personal profit motive can contribute to the public welfare. Investing in new processes and useful products and services is a public benefit. Thus, actions of the manufacturer and even the banker exemplify public virtue, whether or not they are driven by self-interest. He, like Adam Smith, believed that private wealth-producing activities qualified as private virtue. While others might not go that far, Hamilton successfully advocated the connection between such activity and the public virtue needed to maintain republican government.
Having established that manufacturing and banking could be “virtuous” in the public sense, there remained the need to foster them in order to ameliorate the conditions of poverty which would threaten republican government. After all, if enough wealth is created for all, “poverty” ceases to be objective and becomes relative. A rising tide floats all ships. At least from a material standpoint, owning a car and various electric and electronic devices today, living in an abode with air conditioning, and having clean water, basic sustenance and medical care, are vastly better than the experiences of past generations.
Hamilton and his supporters believed that their strong national government was the best mechanism to adopt policies which would foster the growth of wealth. Hamilton’s later program in his four reports to Congress between 1790 and 1795 on the public debt, a national bank, and manufactures, laid out in considerable detail his plans to that end. These sophisticated reports were a monument to Hamilton’s intellect and experience applied to the economic problems of the early United States. They had such potency, and were so hotly contested, that they precipitated the First American Party System of Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans and made Hamilton in effect the dominant figure of American politics in the 1790s.
It should be noted in conclusion that all republicans—classic puritan, agrarian, and national—opposed democracy. Even those delegates and political leaders who at one point had been most favorable towards broad public participation and involvement in politics, were shaken by Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. That event in 1786 had created much tumult and political chaos and was put down by an army raised by the state. It was very much on the minds of the attendees at the Philadelphia convention. Some of the most vociferous detractors of the Constitution as insufficiently “republican” were also the harshest critics of democracy. For them, Shays’ Rebellion exposed the danger of relying on private virtue to provide the public virtue necessary for republican self-government. James Madison spoke for them all when he opined in Number 10 of The Federalist about the inadequacy of democracies to promote public virtue:
[Such] democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have
ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property;
and have, in general, been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their
deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronised this species of government,
have erroneously supposed, that, by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in
their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and
assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.
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