Only a Virtuous People are Capable of Freedom
Modern Americans have long since forgotten the heated and sometimes violent debates which took place in the thirteen colonies between 1775 and 1776 over the issue of morality. For many thousands of Americans the big question of independence hung precariously on the single, slender thread of whether or not the people were sufficiently “virtuous and moral” to govern themselves. Self-government was generally referred to as “republicanism,” and it was universally acknowledged that a corrupt and selfish people could never make the principles of republicanism operate successfully. As Franklin wrote:
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
What does it mean to be a virtuous people?
Public virtue is a very special quality of human maturity in character and service closely akin to the Golden Rule. It is agreeing to forego some personal advantage for the betterment of one’s neighbor and society. As a modern historian epitomized it:
“In a Republic, however, each man must somehow be persuaded to submerge his personal wants into the greater good of the whole. This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interest for the good of the community — such patriotism or love of country — the eighteenth century termed public virtue…. The eighteenth century mind was thoroughly convinced that a popularly based government ‘cannot be supported without virtue’.”
When the colonists passed the non-importation acts, it meant that some businessmen could lose their businesses because the very products they were selling could only be obtained from the British. However, they felt the sacrifice was necessary for the eventual good of the entire nation. That is public virtue.
Can virtue be legislated?
The public virtue necessary for freedom cannot be legislated. It must come freely from the hearts of people who have a conviction that each individual is created equal to all others and that he has the same unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It must come as a result of people wanting to fulfill the commandments to love God and to love their fellow men and to not be arbitrary in their treatment of others.
Some do-gooders in our day think that laws can be passed to force people to be kind to others or not to discriminate against people based on some distinguishing feature. This kind of force only invites more and more laws, more legal entanglements, and more hard feelings between individuals, groups, and nations. The purveyors of this thinking give no place for the influence of morality and religion which the Founders felt was the only true basis for lasting virtue. Its basis is free will, not force.
Is there enough virtue among the people to be free?
The people had an instinctive thirst for independence, but there remained a haunting fear that they might not be “good enough” to make it work. Some felt the people were ready, others felt they were not ready. Some of the doubts gradually diminished as their patriotic indignation was aroused by the harsh and sometimes brutal policies of the British crown.
The real revolution was in the hearts of the people toward virtue
It is instructive to study the years immediately prior to the beginnings of the Revolutionary War. Historian Gordon Wood in his book, The Creation of the American Republic, explains:
In the eyes of the Whigs, the two or three years before the Declaration of Independence always appears to be the great period of the Revolution, the time of greatest denial and cohesion, when men ceased to extort and abuse one another, when families and communities seemed peculiarly united, when the courts were wonderfully free of that constant bickering over land and credit that had dominated their colonial life.
These voluntary acts of public virtue accelerated the movement toward independence. Many Americans became so impressed with the improvement in the quality of life as a result of the reform movement that they were afraid they might lose it if they did not hurriedly separate from the corrupting influence of British manners.
Young James Madison gloried in the atmosphere of national purpose, saying that “a spirit of liberty and patriotism animates all degrees and denominations of men.”
The Founders’ counsel to us concerning virtue and morality
It is only in this historical context that the modern American can appreciate the profound degree of anxiety which the Founders expressed concerning the quality of virtue and morality in their descendants. They knew that without these qualities, the Constitution they had written and the republican system of government which it provided could not be maintained. As 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 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 upon their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.”
Thomas Jefferson counseled, “Virtue is not hereditary.” Virtue has to be earned and it has to be learned. Neither is virtue a permanent quality in human nature. It has to be cultivated continually and exercised from hour to hour and from day to day. The Founders looked to the home, the school, and the churches to fuel the fires of virtue from generation to generation.
After serving eight years as our first president, George Washington sensed the tendency of the people in a free republic to begin to forget the bedrock of virtue and morality so necessary to the preservation of the republic the Founders gave us. Thus, in his Farewell Address, he declared:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Is not Washington telling us that without religion and morality, which are the seedbed of virtue, that our free republic would crumble? He then warns us about those who claim to be patriots but reject and even fight against the foundations of morality and religion:
“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….”
The insightful Washington then suggests that without a firm belief in the Creator and our duty to Him, there would be nothing to bind the consciences of men and our oaths would mean nothing:
“Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”
He then warns us of those people who would claim they can be moral and virtuous but need no religion:
“And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Most Americans have heard someone say, “I can be a moral person; I need no religion.” When such persons are asked, “What is your morality?” they respond with, “Well, it is whatever I feel is right.” This is clearly what is called today moral relativism. It has no solid basis. Washington knew that religion is necessary in a society to give standards to morality, and hence to give firmness and consistency to laws of the land.
But Washington is not through. He then seems to foresee the time when the very learned, with all manner of degrees behind their names, will be wise in their own eyes and therefore reject the need for religion. He says:
“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education … reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
A powerful warning from a seasoned Founder!
The Founders’ advice on how to transmit virtue and morality to the next generation
Benjamin Franklin stressed the same point that Washington did and added how precious good teachers are in instilling wisdom and virtue into the next generation. He seemed to say that there is no greater calling in society than the calling of a teacher of virtue. Notice how Franklin described strong character to be the end goal of education:
“I think with you, that nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are in my opinion, the strength of the state; more so than riches or arms….
“I think also, that general virtue is more probably to be expected and obtained from the education of youth, than from the exhortations of adult persons; bad habits and vices of the mind being, like diseases of the body, more easily prevented [in youth] than cured [in adults].
Franklin then gives his opinion that a person who develops the skill to touch the hearts of young people to help them develop a virtuous character has been blessed with a special gift and can consider himself called from heaven to teach:
“I think, moreover, that talents for the education of youth are the gift of God; and that he on whom they are bestowed, whenever a way is opened for the use of them, is as strongly called as if he heard a voice from heaven….”