Friday, October 19, 2012

How important is Virtue in the stability of a Republic? Part II

(Ok, here's the rest of the post on the importance of virtue in the stability of a republic. Sorry it's in two parts...I didn't get a chance to finish it yesterday, plus it's kinda long!)

And so the Founders of this great nation (some may say it's the greatest nation ever, myself included) believed firmly in the idea of public virtue. This idea was taken a step further in the ideology of Republicanism. Republicanism (having nothing to do with the currant Republican Party except the name) was borne of the idea that corruption in government had a root in personal corruption. The greatest threat to liberty in America was depicted as corruption...not just in England but at home as well. The corruption of the British government was viewed as being associated with the corruption of the aristocracy. The colonists associated that with luxury and ostentation. In the minds of the Founders, luxury and greed led to more luxury and more greed which resulted in corruption. Therefore most colonists were committed to republican values, which required people to put civic duty ahead of their personal desires. People had a duty to be prepared to fight for not only their rights and liberties, but had to be willing to put aside all personal luxury and comfort in order to fight for their countrymen and countrywomen as well. This idea so permeated the culture that for women, "republican motherhood" became the ideal, exemplified by Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren; the first duty of the republican woman was to instill republican values in her children and to avoid luxury and ostentation.

With Republicanism the main ideology of the Founders, personal virtue became just as big an issue as public virtue. In fact, it was John Adams who said in a letter to Mercy Warren that "public virtue cannot exist without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics." The Founders had recognized that in republics of old, when the virtue of the people was lost, the republic crumbled. Drawing from history and intellectuals such as Montesquieu and Rousseau, the earliest Americans concluded that in a republic the balance of power experiences periodic, unstable shifts, but stability can be recovered. The loss of public virtue, however, occurs slowly and is not recoverable.

In the eyes of our Founders, this idea of virtue was supreme. Samuel Adams even went so far as to say: "We may look up to armies for our defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any state should long remain free, where virtue is not supremely honored." Yet the Founders realized that the past republics, with an emphasis on public virtue alone, still crumbled into tyranny. They were determined to not allow the mistakes of the past republics be repeated in the new American Republic. And so, private virtue was raised to the same level as importance as public virtue. John Adams put it this way:

"The form of government, which you admire, when its principles are pure is admirable, indeed, it is a production of every thing which is great and excellent among men. But its principles are as easily destroyed, as Human Nature is corrupted. Such a government is only to be supported by pure religion or austere morals...

Our dear Americans perhaps have as much of it as any other nation now existing, and New England perhaps has more than the rest of America. But I have seen all along my life such selfishness and littleness even in New England, that I sometimes tremble to think that, although we are engaged in the best cause that ever employed the human heart, yet the prospect of success is doubtful, not for want of power or wisdom, but of virtue.

The Spirit of Commerce, Madam, which even insinuates itself into families, and influences holy Matrimony, and thereby corrupts the morals of families as well as destroys their happiness, it is much to be feared as incompatible with that purity of heart and greatness of soul which is necessary for a happy Republic."

In these statements, John Adams brings up the concerns the Founders had over the success of the nation. Interestingly, he says that "such a government is only to be supported by pure religion or austere morals." Dr. Seaver also mentions the role that religion played in the success of the American Republic by saying, "religion, and anglo-protestantism in particular (of concept not people), focused on doctrine and the individual over collective ritual which reinforced public virtue." The religious predilections of the earliest Americans led to a belief in the importance of private morals and virtue. Virtue wasn't just seen as a value for political leaders alone, but for everyone as encouraged by Christianity. Morals and values had a deeper, personal importance to the majority of Americans due to their religious beliefs. And to those without religious beliefs, John Adams says that "austere morals" are still necessary. So the Founders believed that a sincere personal morality was deeply important to each citizen of a republic.

Samuel Adams echoed that sentiment when he wrote:
"Since private and public vices, are in reality, though not always apparently, so nearly connected, of how much importance, how necessary it is, that the utmost pains be taken by the public to have the principles of virtue early inculcated in 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...

Therefore "wise and able politicians will guard against other vices," and be attentive to promote every virtue. He who is void of virtuous attachments in private life, is, or very soon will be, void of all regard for his Country. There is seldom an instance of a man guilty of betraying his Country, who had not before lost the feeling of moral obligations in his private connections. Before [Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.] was detected of holding a criminal correspondence with the enemies of his country, his infidelity to his wife had been notorious."

The idea of the connection between public virtue and private virtue was so strong that the Adams cousins (as well as many of the Founders) believed that someone's personal life was a good indication of their public life. How different is that idea today! In today's society, we choose to believe that someone's personal life is no one else's business and that as long as no one gets hurt, personal choices have no impact on public affairs. In the Founder's minds, infidelity to one's wife was a cause for concern; in today's society infidelity (even by the president of the United States) is dismissed as unimportant to public success.

The Founders sincere belief in private virtue being a measure for public good had a tremendous impact on how the new American country was set up. Realizing that private virtue may be easily corrupted, a system of government was established to limit power to any one person or group of people. As described by Bernard Bailyn in his 1992 book, "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution":

"Yes, people were innately evil and self-seeking, and yes, no one could be trusted with unconfined power. That was true in America as anywhere else. But under the Constitution's checks and balances power would be far from unconfined, and for such a self-limiting system there would be virtue enough for success."

And so the Founders decision to separate powers was based upon their belief that while certain men may lose their virtue, the government as a whole would continue to operate under an umbrella of virtue. They were not so naive to think that all people would remain virtuous...but their hope was that enough people would retain virtue enough to sustain the republic. They knew that Human Nature could corrupt private virtue, but they also believed that as long as the majority of individuals in the republic remained virtuous, the government would run successfully.

They eschewed personal avarice and luxury. They understood that in the capitalist system, the desire for more power and greed could enter the heart of men and women. They believed that in order to avoid the mistakes of past republics and to ensure liberty, that a degree of personal virtue and morality was necessary to keep the republic free from corruption. They understood that Human Nature leads a person more towards a life of comfort and apathy...and the idea of Republicanism attempted to thwart that slide away from concern of the public good towards concern solely for private good. The Founders understood that, even in their day when patriotism and asceticism were considered equal, the hearts of men and women were easily drawn towards comfort and luxury...and while comfort and luxury are not evil in themselves, they do tend to lead to greed and apathy. John Adams stated it this way to Mercy Warren:

"But, Madam, there is one Difficulty which I know not how to get over.

Virtue and Simplicity of Manners are indispensably necessary in a Republic among all orders and degrees of men. But there is so much rascallity, so much venality and corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a rage for profit and commerce among all ranks and degrees of men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic. There are two Vices most detestably predominant in every part of America that I have yet seen which are as incompatible with the Spirit of a Commonwealth, as Light is with Darkness; I mean Servility and Flattery. A genuine Republican can no more fawn and cringe than he can domineer. Shew me the American who cannot do all. I know two or three, I think, and very few more. However, it is the part of a great politician to make the Character of his People, to extinguish among them the follies and Vices that he sees, and to create in them the Virtues and Abilities which he sees wanting. I wish I was sure that America has one such Politician but I fear she has not."

The greatest fear of the Founders was not war or poverty. It was not about money or power. The greatest fear of the Founders was that in this great republic, the virtue of the people would be overwhelmed by greed and corruption. Thomas Jefferson said, "Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character (virtue) is the path of destruction."

The Founders did all that they could to protect the republic from corruption by separating powers and instituting checks and balances. But they knew that in order for the republic to succeed, the citizens of that republic would need to retain a certain degree of virtue; of moral clarity and austere values. They knew that if the virtue of the people was lost, the republic would fall...just as all republics in the past had fallen. The lesson that they tried to instill in the American people, the one thing that they wanted all Americans to know, was that the strength of the nation depended on the private virtue of its citizens. This lesson has been buried in today's America...and private virtue has been replaced with personal gain and material abundance. The public good has become second to people's personal comfort, and the welfare of others is given a back seat to our own desires and luxuries. What is the greatest problem in America today? There would be many different answers if that question was asked of Americans today. But virtue, the main concern of our Founders, might not even make the list. What is the greatest problem in America today? If the Americans of 1776 were asked that about America 2012, I'm sure that the loss of virtue, both private and public, would be at the top of their list. I wouldn't disagree. And without Virtue, no republic has lasted. Can America?

"For no people will tamely surrender their liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffused and virtue is preserved. On the contrary, when people are universally ignorant, and debauched in their manners, they will sink under their own weight without the aid of foreign invaders."

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