Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath
John Adams, author of “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” and principal drafter, Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



The direct and essential connection among education, civic virtue, and good republican government was a self-evident truth for many late-18th-century American political and religious leaders. There was far less agreement, however, as to what exactly constituted virtue, to what extent “the people” were capable of exercising civic virtue, and if one could count on virtue to restrain political leaders, either because the leaders themselves would possess a sufficient measure or because the people would use theirs to keep the leaders in check. During the debates in 1787 and 1788 over the adoption of the new federal constitution, civic, or public, virtue was a frequent topic of discussion. To opponents of the proposed government, it was axiomatic that, however virtuous the people might be, they would not be able to control corrupt factional leaders in a far-away central government. Supporters, in turn, scaled heights of flattering rhetoric to extol the strength of republican virtue among the American people.

Virtue might be the coin of the realm for good government in the minds of American republicans of the time, but there was no consensus about its proper alloy. To New Englanders, such as Adams, their Puritan heritage saw virtue in private frugality and sobriety, and public virtue in service and sacrifice for the common good. Moreover, public virtue necessarily arose from private virtue. “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics,” John Adams wrote to the historian Mercy Otis Warren in April, 1776. Moreover, republican government was essential to “true Liberty.”

However, man, being fallen, lacked virtue by nature. Virtue had to be taught, but that was a difficult project. Education, though necessary, was not sufficient. Coercion must always be kept near at hand. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in October, 1787, “I have long been settled in my own opinion that neither Philosophy, nor Religion, nor Morality, nor Wisdom, nor Interest, will ever govern nations or Parties, against their vanity, their Pride, their Resentment, or Revenge, or their Avarice, or Ambition. Nothing but Force and Power and Strength can restrain them.”

It should be noted that Adams, like many others of the founding generation of American republicans, distrusted pure democracy. In a letter in April, 1814, to the Southern agrarian philosopher John Taylor of Caroline, he wrote, echoing classical political thought,

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.”

There were limits to the degree to which all people could be trained to civic virtue, limits which inhered in man’s corruption through the passions and in the frailty of the human mind to control them.

For Southern agrarian republicans, private virtue, even if successfully inculcated in the people, could not guarantee civic virtue in the halls of government. Adams’s assertion, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics,” might well be true as far as it went. However, as John Taylor of Caroline wrote, “By expecting publick good from private virtue, we expose ourselves to publick evils from private vices.” The New England solution of using the strong hand of an intrusive government to control private vices was unpalatable to the Southern agrarian class. Instead, they agreed with James Madison in The Federalist No. 51, that there was a “need for auxiliary precautions.”

Those auxiliary precautions included a structure of divided powers where “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Good republican government could be fostered by relying not on the public virtue of either political leaders or a civically militant people, but on embracing the reality of conniving and power-hungry politicians whose mutual jealousies would check each other. In similar manner, political factions, that bane of good republican government, being driven by self-interest, would jockey for influence in constantly changing coalitions. Among factions, none would become entrenched, as there were no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests, to borrow from Lord Palmerston’s policy description of 19th-century British international relations.

National republicans, such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, rejected a fundamental premise that underlay other conceptions of civic virtue. Rather than treat virtue and passions or self-interest as antithetical, and fusing public virtue to private virtue, national republicans simply redefined that relationship. Some private vices were rooted in self-interest, such as the desire for fame, honor, or even wealth, but they could be harnessed to produce great public benefit and, therefore, should be considered civic virtues. Government could create incentives for persons to engage in such “good” passions to produce great public benefit.

Nor were all members of the American elite without doubt about the scope of virtue among the American people or about their capacity to attain a sufficient measure of it. John Adams, as prolific a writer on the connection between virtue and good republican government as lived at the time, warned in a letter in June, 1776,

“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.—They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.”

Whatever their differences about the meaning of virtue and about the capacity of private virtue to produce sufficient public virtue, the expositors of virtue politics generally agreed with Aristotle that education and training in private virtue were necessary to its practice. For most of them, only the broad distribution of land ownership rivaled virtue in promoting and protecting liberty and republican government. Thus, education to virtue was an essential task, even if the outcome was uncertain and incomplete. Education had to be grounded in religion and morality, as those were the sources of virtue. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, perhaps the greatest peacetime achievement of the Confederation Congress, codified this premise:

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

President George Washington in his lengthy Farewell Address, published in September, 1796, gave a succinct rhetorical overview of the connection among religion, morality, virtue, and good republican government:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality     are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens….And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

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….

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.”

There was cause for optimism, as the American population had a high rate of literacy compared to that even of European countries. “Ours are the only farmers who can read Homer,” a self-satisfied Thomas Jefferson boasted in a letter to St. John de Crèvecoeur in January, 1787. Jefferson is well-known for his efforts in the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819, for the design of which he also developed architectural plans. His educational activism was not limited to creating a university. As early as 1785, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson laid out a plan to educate younger children of both sexes for three years at public expense, with higher grades open to the boys of parents who could afford the tuition and to a limited number of other boys selected on the basis of their intellectual capabilities. In Jefferson’s somewhat indelicate language to modern ears, “By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.” His ambitious plan was not realized in any form in Virginia until after the Civil War.

Along with the general goals of imparting knowledge for its own sake and for practical pursuits, Jefferson saw education as a necessary process for republican government. Perhaps his best-known aphorism regarding the importance of education appeared in a letter he wrote to Colonel Charles Yancey in January, 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The antidote to such a doomed expectation was education. “The qualifications for self government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training,” Jefferson wrote to Edward Everett in March, 1824.

Other famous Americans echoed these sentiments. As supposedly worldly and skeptical as he was, Benjamin Franklin nevertheless advised, “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.” James Madison declared that the Constitution required “sufficient virtue among men for self-government.” Otherwise, “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” The old Son of Liberty, Samuel Adams, opined in a letter to James Warren in 1779, “If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslav’d. This will be their great Security.”

None of the founding generation appear as convinced of the importance of education and religion to virtue and of virtue to liberty preserved through republican government as Samuel’s cousin John Adams. Despite his occasional doubts and pessimism, Adams was a staunch virtue republican. His writings are filled with quotable passages about the subject. A few will give the essence of his thoughts. Perhaps his best known, expressed in a letter in October, 1798, to officers in the Massachusetts militia, is “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This sentiment, embraced the then-common belief that the American experiment in self-government, more than aristocratic or monarchic systems, relied on virtue widely diffused among the general population, or at least among those who would have the privilege to vote or to hold public office.

In the same letter in 1776 in which Adams expressed concern about the state of virtue among his fellow Americans, he also wrote,

“Statesmen my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”

To complete the causal chain, one may point to his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, where he asserted, “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”

These quotations are not merely a string of disjointed musings. The writers put practical efforts behind their firm and constant beliefs, beliefs shared by Americans generally. Jefferson’s contributions to education have already been noted. Adams was the principal drafter of the historically important Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. That charter declared that “the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality ….” Article V formally encouraged the development of publicly-funded primary and grammar (secondary) schools. To justify that effort, the section began, “WISDOM and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties ….”

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.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

2 replies
  1. Ron Meier
    Ron Meier says:

    Given that the teaching of religion is prohibited in public schools, that private religious practice has declined over the past half century, and that the study of Aristotle and other good and bad philosophers is essentially nonexistent in our schools today, how might we best define public virtue today? Or is public virtue, and perhaps even private virtue, for political purposes, no longer a factor in government?

  2. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    Self government is only for a virtuous people, or it will slide into despotism, like we are seeing now. Our country was founded on religious, judeo Christian of and will only succeed based on these principles.


Join the discussion! Post your comments below.

Your feedback and insights are welcome.
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *