Keeping a Republic: America’s Founders on the Role of Public and Private Virtue
Nations rise and nations fall. Some would call this the cycle of life, writ large; others would simply offer that nothing is certain beyond death and taxes, certainly not the perpetuity of a nation. We are 235 years into this experiment in self-government we call the United States, and we’ve outlasted the average age of a republic, barely.[i] Some would thus suggest we are living on borrowed time. Are we? The Roman Republic lasted nearly 500 years (509 BC to 27 BC). Is it likely or even possible that ours will as well?
Alexander Fraser Tytler, aka Lord Woodhouselee (1747-1813) was a Scottish historian and professor at the University of Edinburgh. He identified stages which all societies will inevitably experience. A society will proceed “from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back into bondage.” Not a very encouraging prediction.
If this is a true prediction of the life of a society (and I don’t suggest it necessarily is) it is tempting to place our American experiment somewhere on this timeline, perhaps we are currently progressing “from abundance to selfishness.” Whether America is “past its prime” has been the subject of debate for quite a while.
Certainly, there are clear signs of decline in America, but is this part of a predictable, inevitable cycle or is this a merely transitory observation?
America’s Founders certainly hoped their work would not be short lived. At the Constitutional Convention, John Dickinson had drafted an address to the delegates – which he appears to have never delivered – reminding them that: “We are not forming plans for a Day Month Year or Age, but for Eternity.” An eternity? Really? Would the proposed new plan of government they had labored over for four months even be given a chance at life? Nine states would have to ratify; would they?
A Republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin’s immortal retort, suggests the Founders believed a republic was incapable of “keeping” itself, that human effort was required; but what sort of effort? By whom? How often? So much uncertainty.
One point they seemed to be in agreement on, one ingredient they believed was necessary for a nation’s longevity was virtue, both public and private. The Founders said this innumerable times in innumerable ways. A sampling:
“…[N]o free government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, Section XV .
“Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honour, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superiour to all private passions.” John Adams to Mercy Warren, 1776.
“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.” James Madison, Speech in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 20, 1788.
“[A] free government, which of all others is far the most preferable, cannot be supported without virtue.” Samuel Williams, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, 1774.
“It is certainly true that a popular government cannot flourish without virtue in the people.” Richard Henry Lee to Colonel Martin Pickett, March 5, 1786.
“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?” George Washington, Farewell Address.
But before we go further, let’s ensure we have a common definition of the word “virtue.”
Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, the go-to guide for founding era definitions, contains ten different definitions of “virtue.” The one I believe the Founders most often had in mind, the third in Webster’s list, read:
“Moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstaining from vice, or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law. In this sense, virtue may be, and in many instances must be, distinguished from religion. The practice of moral duties merely from motives of convenience, or from compulsion, or from regard to reputation, is virtue as distinct from religion. The practice of moral duties from sincere love to God and his laws, is virtue and religion. In this sense it is true,”
If this “moral goodness” or “virtue” was so important to the success of a popular government, how was it to be instilled or created in the people?
First, by inspiring it in the people: “The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people, in a greater measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers, and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty.” John Adams, to Zabdiel Adams, 1776.
Second, through the education of children:
“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties, and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates … to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them.” John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776.
“A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district–all studied and appreciated as they merit–are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.” Benjamin Franklin.
“It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which may not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country.” Noah Webster, On Education of Youth in America, 1790.
“Since private and publick Vices, are in Reality, though not always apparently, so nearly connected, of how much Importance, how necessary is it, that the utmost Pains be taken by the Publick, to have the Principles of Virtue early inculcated on the Minds even of children, and the moral Sense kept alive, and that the wise institutions of our Ancestors for these great Purposes be encouraged by the Government. For no people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffusd and Virtue is preservd. On the Contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauchd in their Manners, they will sink under their own weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders.” Samuel Adams letter to James Warren, November 4, 1775.
Some parents took their educational responsibility quite seriously: “Our Little ones whom you so often recommend to my care and instruction shall not be deficient in virtue or probity if the precepts of a Mother have their desired Effect, but they would be doubly inforced could they be indulged with the example of a Father constantly before them.” Abigail Adams to John Adams, May 7, 1776.
Third, through their churches:
“It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. If publick spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue?” John Adams, Novanglus, no. 4.
Virtue was perishable; it needed to be continually “refreshed”: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776.
But even the best-laid plans to inculcate virtue in the people were not expected to have complete success, and the design of government must account for this: “A fondness for power is implanted, in most men, and it is natural to abuse it, when acquired.” Alexander Hamilton. “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” James Madison, Speech in the Virginia Constitutional Convention, 2 December 1829. Even the most virtuous among them was to be watched for signs of moral decay: “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” James Madison, Federalist No. 57, 1788.
Americans today have lost sight of the idea of virtue; it is not taught in public schools, our government would like to count on it, but seems afraid to even mention the word, and our churches are fast joining the ranks of those who insist all truth is relative including moral truth. Violent crime is generally rising, private property disrespected and voices in the public square are becoming increasingly strident. If John Adams was right, that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” there will come a time in this country, perhaps not long off, when the Founders’ Constitution will simply prove ineffective in governing us. There is still time to avoid that outcome, but it will require the conscious efforts of patriots across this great land.
“A people may prefer a free government; but if from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when directly attacked; …they are more or less unfit for liberty.” John Stuart Mill
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or Twitter @constitutionled.
[i] Alexander Fraser Tytler, aka Lord Woodhouselee, calculated the average term of a republic to be 200 years.
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Alexis de Tocqueville announced the end of our our Republic and Tyler the end of any Democracy.
“A Democracy will continue to exist up until the time that the voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury”.
– Alexander Fraser Tyler.
“The American Republic will endure until the day that Congress discovers that it can bribe the people with their public money”.
– Alexis de Tocqueville
You stated that Tyler’s quote as “Not a very encouraging prediction.” Tyler’s quote may be a bit too subtle for some people. The Tyler and de Tocqueville quotes I selected are to the point. They will catch the attention of those that pay income taxes. These quotes may not make a difference to the 50% that don’t pay income taxes. I am going to stop here, before I go off on a tangent.
Thank you for the fine selection of quotes for celebrating Independence Day.