The American political experiment in self-rule begins with everyone ruling himself. James Madison stated it explicitly: “We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government.” The two essential elements which undergird self-government are freedom and personal responsibility. Without that, the self-government which we Americans enjoy will degenerate either to tyranny or anarchy (which would soon be followed by tyranny).
The sickening corruption in American politics today was foreseen by our Founders as a very real and dangerous possibility. That is why the Constitution authorizes impeachment for high crimes (violations of law) and misdemeanors (grossly immoral behavior).
Our Founders understood that, as Madison put it, men are not angels. They understood, with Jefferson, that “virtue is not hereditary.” They understood the difference between liberty and libertinism is moral self-restraint and respect for the rights of others. They understood elected officials would be drawn from the seedbed which produces all candidates for office, the American society. Without a moral citizenry committed to public virtue, they said, this republic will not endure. Virtue and morality, along with an alert, informed and involved electorate, are the best safeguards against political corruption. Therefore they spoke of America as “a republic of virtue.”
The idea was derived from the Baron de Montesquieu’s 1748 The Spirit of the Laws, which discusses different political systems, from tyranny and monarchy to a republic. Montesquieu said that each regime has different requirements of its people. A tyranny must cultivate a capacity for fear in people, a monarchy must cultivate a capacity for honor and a republic must cultivate a capacity for virtue.
Self-rule, the Founders said, must always be moral. Even more strongly, they said it can only be moral. Otherwise, politics will degenerate by the action of dishonorable and dishonest officials, urged on by dishonorable and dishonest citizens seeking access to power. That undermines our happiness, our security and our future. It will lead straight to social and economic chaos, which is always followed by tyranny.
Listen to the Founders:
In a 1788 speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention for the Constitution, James Madison said: “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 [vain] idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of…men [to hold federal office]. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.”
John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, put it simply: “civil liberty cannot be long preserved without virtue” and a republic “must either preserve its virtue or lose its liberty.”
Patrick Henry, the American Revolution’s “voice of liberty,” said it plainly: “Bad men cannot make good citizens:…A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.”
Likewise, Benjamin Franklin warned that as nations become corrupt, they have “more need of masters” [dictators] and therefore “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
So did John Adams: “The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families.…Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private virtue, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”
George Washington agreed in his Farewell Address: “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” While praising the Constitution, he said that it would survive “only so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.”
Lack of virtue among the electorate will lead to election of nonvirtuous officials. Misuse of freedom—nonvirtuous action—ironically results in slavery to our appetites and addictions, which in turn leads, via the political process, to anarchy or dictatorship.
The preservation of freedom is therefore everyone’s responsibility, and it begins with personal moral alertness and moral commitment. Unless we have sufficient good character (moral rectitude) and self-discipline (moral fortitude), we will not be able to govern ourselves, individually or collectively. And what follows from that? We will get exactly the government we deserve: dictatorship and tyranny.
That is why the first level of government in the American system is the family. That is where newborn citizens receive their basic education in self-rule and have their character moulded to take personal responsibility for that understanding. That is where they learn self-control, respect for property and the rights of others, respect for duly constituted authority, the value of education, thriftiness, civic responsibility, public decorum and other fundamentals of the American way of life.
Reflect on the words of Samuel Adams, the Father of the American Revolution: “He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of this country who tries most to promote its virtue and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chose into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man…The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy this gift of heaven [a free and independent nation], let us become a virtuous people.”
# # #