The Golden Age of Virtue, which Article V opponents attach to our early republics, never existed.
This isn’t to say the literature and political writings by gentry and revolutionary leaders of the day did not appeal to virtue. After Benjamin Franklin wrote, “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” he warned that without virtue, people are doomed to ever more oppressive masters. Similarly is John Adams’ famous, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”1 We read these reminders, especially those of John Adams, on a regular basis at conservative websites and social media. They’re typically superimposed over John Adams’ image. It makes for evocative copy in this short-attention-span Facebook and Twitter era.
It is also the primary excuse for Article V opponents. Since, they say, virtue is an essential element in republican government, and modern society is horribly unvirtuous, they would keep We the People and states as far away from the Constitution as possible. It is an easy out, but it doesn’t stand up to history or scrutiny.
What is virtue? More pointedly, what did it mean and did it apply some 230 years ago? Is it applicable today?
The perception of virtue evolved over the millennia. To the Roman kingdom and republic, virtu’ was a manly trait that encompassed bravery, strength, fortitude and cunning. Virtu’ extended to defense of the nation. Christian virtues of wisdom, fortitude, temperance and justice form the foundation of character. To these, Christianity adds the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Christian virtue is the path to personal happiness.
A common element to both classic virtu’ and Christian virtue is that of self-sacrifice. Good parents put off many personal pleasures as they devote their lives to raising their children. In the closing days of America’s colonial era the concept of self-sacrificing virtue went beyond the family and extended to the best interests of the community. Known as public virtue, this was the virtue our Founders cherished. As the colonial’s self-image shifted from monarchical subject to republican citizen, it found intellectual support in Charles de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, which identified virtue as the “spring,” the necessary prime mover of republican self-government. Montesquieu was right. Public virtue was indeed the short-lived spring to the American revolution.
American public virtue peaked in the two years leading to revolution. In response to Britain’s Coercive Acts, the first Continental Congress recommended a boycott of British imports. Since the colonies imported nearly all of their finished goods this was an enormous hardship on consumers and especially American retailers. Congress encouraged frugality, economy, industry, agriculture, and manufactures, and discouraged every species of extravagance and dissipation, such as gambling, stage plays and other frivolous entertainment. Such was public virtue’s bright shining, which rapidly dimmed after the Declaration of Independence.
Upon independence, it was thought public virtue in the thirteen republics would replace the factious divisions and friction between Royalists and Patriots that endangered public safety and happiness. Our revolutionary leaders assumed the state-level emergence of generally unified peoples, semi-homogenous bodies of similar interests filled with public virtue.
The historian Gordon S. Wood expressed it this way: founding era politics wasn’t conceived as reconciling interests, but rather transcending the different interests of society in search for the single common good. Politics did not simply reflect the sum or consensus of the various interests of the community. In those heady early days, our classicist Founders assumed only small territories, in which the people held common interests, were suitable for new experiments in self-government. Here, naturally self-sacrificing societies elect men of high public virtue to their legislatures where petty interests never make it across the state-house door. Only in this way, through self-denial, could republican government work and survive.
Except, these lofty theories didn’t work out it practice. What happened in the 1780s was regarded by John Adams in 1776 as a theoretical contradiction – democratic despotism. Instead of public virtue, the people were quite capable of oppression through confiscation of property, paper money, and tender laws. From a 1786 Massachusetts newspaper: “Formerly, political distinctions originated in the prevailing sentiment of patriotism. In the present times, they seem only relative to particular principles of interest, namely credit, debt or religion.” America repudiated the classical republican ideal that legislators could serve as disinterested umpires standing above the play of private interests.
What we take for granted and despise today, the legislative deal making and pork-barreling that benefits special interests, began at our founding.
Article V opponents should realize the public virtue they view as a return to first principles, and on which they hang their hopes for free government renewal, is not only an impossibility today, it went out the window upon Independence. Despite the shortage of public virtue, American liberty and prosperity flourished from 1789 to 1913 because the Constitution assumed and accounted for a government of public rascals. It turned man’s self-interest toward the public interest through its different sets of electors to the House, Senate, Presidency, and Courts.2
Article V opponents’ appeal to electing self-sacrificing, publicly virtuous politicians is a blind alley; it never did and never will lead to free government. What can lead to free government renewal is an appeal to the self-interest of state legislators to call for an Article V COS to repeal the mistaken, progressive, and democratizing 17th Amendment. Nothing else will do.
1. “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 that any form of government will secure 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’s response to Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 20, 1788.
2. Thanks to the natural pull of democracy, we can thank the popularization of Senate elections for both progressive federal courts and the National Popular Vote Movement. Progressives understand that an ever-expanding franchise, in which one and all elect Representatives, Senators, and Presidents is their key to one-party rule.
Reference: Wood, G. S. (1969). The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.