Over the last several decades, America has watched as politicians and government officials failed the country. Scandals have grown too numerous to count in recent years. Still, some of the more egregious ones have been in plain sight for anyone paying attention to see. It ranged from members of Congress profiting off their public service to federal officials giving the appearance of political favoritism. Still, that’s significantly oversimplifying it.
There are many other issues plaguing America as well. I don’t intend for this article to become a list of grievances. God knows we have enough to write volumes of books. The question is, how did we get here, and what are the answers to the growing plague creating distrust among Americans toward their government and between one another?
Since the 1990s, the country has endured a radical transition. Not long ago, morality was upheld as a virtue that society should guard and protect. Still, for that to occur, there had to be a socially accepted list of moral and ethical behaviors. Postmodernism has all but eroded objective standards of morality. Instead, individuals can decide what it means to them in a new subjective world. The result is hyper-individualism, political partisanship, and general cultural decay.
In some academic and legal circles, the plain meaning of words or historical context is no longer relevant in the study or the application of the Constitution. While an examination is warranted, I want to ask, what did the founders think, and why were their viewpoints just as relevant in the 1780s as they are today?
It’s nearly impossible to understand the 18th-century world in our modern times without deep study. Brown University history professor Gordon Wood wrote a book that didn’t dive so much into the traditional look at the Revolutionary era. Instead, he wrote about the times and culture of the 18th century. Amazingly, those times deeply inform our own American experience.
Regarding virtue, Wood noted that in the 1600s and 1700s, a debate ensued about the virtues of a republic versus a monarchy. At the time, it was rebellious thinking. By the time of the colonists’ revolt from England and the ratification of the US Constitution, people understood the key differences.
The framers wrote that a requirement of liberty and independence was virtue.
So, what was virtue?
While we associate it today with morality, it had a much stronger meaning in the 1700s. It was considered an essential part of public life and meant putting the common good ahead of one’s own interest. It was the glue that held society together. They believed that individuals must be persuaded to sacrifice one’s desires and luxuries for the good of society.
Today, we associate “liberty” with “freedom.” Yet, they are also not the same. Wood said the founders saw liberty as “solely consisting in an independency upon the will of another.” It wasn’t based on birthright, blood, or corruption, as was the case in the monarchial system that dominated America in the 18th century.
Instead, Wood noted the revolution sought to unleash merit, competition, honor, interest, and patriotism.
Is this not the central issue of modern America as forces conspire to erode these ideals?
The Founding Fathers warned that without virtue there could be no liberty.
Politics has morphed into a seesaw of which political party can race to the corrupt bottom the fastest and take voters with them through bribes and empty promises. All so they can wield power and collect more money for themselves.
The fact is, our politics is a reflection of the culture that citizens create. We are responsible for our lack of civics and history education that our leaders take advantage of to lead us astray. Self-governance requires self-regulation of our behavior, ambitions, and passions.
The Revolutionary War was fought against the corruption of England in its day. Consider some of the statements by those who created America:
George Washington said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”
Benjamin Franklin said: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
James Madison stated: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”
Samuel Adams said: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”
Patrick Henry stated that: “A vitiated [impure] state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.”
John Adams stated: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
There was wisdom among these men, regardless of any imperfections they may have had living in their time. The principles of virtue are just important today as they were then for society, politics, and government.
Now that objective truth appears to be a relic of the past, is it apparent that government corruption and lack of virtue among citizens was always the most likely downfall of America?
The Conservative Era, Copyright 2002