The Value of Virtue

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I recently dusted off an old friend: Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic 1776 – 1787*.

His research in the newspapers, pamphlets and sermons of the Revolutionary era led him to appreciate how complicated the creation of American political and constitutional structure really was. The individualistic and rights-oriented culture of today was not emphasized at all in 1776. No, the radical republicanism of the era stressed hostility to corruption of all sorts, and emphasized the importance of virtue for the public good.

Perhaps everyone in the eighteenth century could have agreed that in theory no State was more beautiful than a republic, whose whole object by definition was the good of the people. Yet everyone knew it was fragile, and that no society under any form of government could hold together without the obedience of its members to the legally constituted authority. In a monarchy the complicated texture of the society, “the magnificence, costly equipage and dazzling splendors” lavished on the prince, the “multitude of criminal laws, with severe penalties, the very rigor of the unitary authority often with the aid of a standing and an established religious hierarchy, all worked to maintain public order; an order derived only from the passion of fear.”

But in a republic which possessed none of this complicated social texture, where the elected rulers were merely the servants of the public, and where the people themselves shared in a large measure of the governing – in such a State, order, if there was to be any, must come from below.

The very greatness of republicanism, its utter dependence on the people, was simultaneously its source of weakness. In a republic there was no place for fear; there could be no sustained coercion from above. The State, like no other, rested on the consent of the governed freely given and not compelled. In a free government, the laws, as the American clergy never tired of repeating, had to be obeyed by the people for conscience’s sake, not for wrath’s.

In a republic, each man must somehow be persuaded to submerge his personal wants into the greater good of the whole. This was termed “public virtue.” A republic was such a delicate polity precisely because it demanded an extraordinary moral character in the people. Every state in which the people participate needs a degree of virtue; but a republic which rested solely on the people absolutely required it.

Although a particular structural arrangement of the government in a republic might temper the necessity for public virtue, ultimately no model of government whatever can equal the importance of this principle, nor afford proper safety and security without it. Without some portion of this generous principle, anarchy and confusion would immediately ensue, the jarring interests of individuals, regarding themselves only, and indifferent to the welfare of others . . . would end in ruin and subversion of the State.

The eighteenth century mind was thoroughly convinced that a popularly based government could not be supported without virtue. Only with a public-spirited, self-sacrificing people could the authority of a popularly elected government be obeyed, but more by the virtue of the people, than by the terror of punishment. Because virtue was truly the lifeblood of the republic, the thoughts and hopes surrounding this concept of public spirit gave the American Revolution its socially radical character.

*Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. The University of North Carolina Press, 1969.