This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
The Declaration of Independence served a dual function at the momentous occasion of its adoption, July 4, 1776. The first was that it was the issuance of a statement of political independence containing within it a rational defense of our dramatic break with the government of Great Britain and its unaccountable king. The second, however, was the annunciation of the principles animating that declaration. According to the Founders, it was the violation of these principles that justified separation; their defense demanded the birth of a new nation.
These principles are outlined in the document’s most famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights to life and to liberty suggest the autonomy of the individual, whereas the statement that men are created equal highlights the universal dignity of all. The dynamic tension between these two principles, liberty and equality, underlies the ongoing left-right dialectic that has characterized American politics from the beginning. For this reason, it may be easy to overlook the last phrase in this statement, “the pursuit of Happiness.” It reads to modern eyes, perhaps, like a poetic after thought to the weightier philosophical statements that precede it. Yet it is in the pursuit of happiness that we are called upon to exercise the virtues needed to weave the fabric of a nation.
It is the role of virtue in realizing happiness through community — especially a community of free and equal citizens — that conservatism should remind us of today.
What is virtue? Before offering an answer, it is worth noting that it is a term that exists in our moral vocabulary today largely as an artifact of classical literature and our Christian heritage — rather like a poetical term sapped of substantive meaning. We think of moral questions today predominantly in deontological or consequentialist terms, rather than in terms of the virtues. Deontological ethics holds that an action is right or wrong depending on whether it conforms to some rule or maxim (“It is always wrong to do X,” “It is my duty to do Y.”). Consequentialism, by contrast, holds that we should evaluate an action based on its outcomes or consequences. In the political sphere, we often waver between these two, incompatible approaches to moral questions.
Take just about any debate in the realm of policy. The right to own a firearm or the right to health care is often met with arguments about why such alleged rights may or may not be practical. The right to bear arms makes it too easy for bad actors to buy guns; universal health care is too expensive or will have other harmful consequences, etc. Some oppose abortion on the basis of the right to life for unborn children, whereas opponents object with practical arguments about the difficulty of raising children in certain conditions. These disagreements, however legitimate, leave us speaking conflicting moral languages that offer no path to resolution. More importantly, both moral languages overlook the importance of moral character, which is what yields meaningful happiness and establishes the basis of flourishing community.
The virtues are habits of moral character. In the classical tradition, these include such qualities as fortitude or courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. The Christian tradition adds the “theological virtues:” faith, hope, and charity (love). We might easily add qualities such as honor, nobility, fairness, equanimity, and wisdom (the cornerstone of the good life, according to Aristotle). According to the tradition of virtue ethics, we should aspire to cultivate these habits, which conduce to lives of human flourishing, rather than basing our actions on rules or consequences.
This classical understanding informed the founding of the United States. Though the empirical orientation of the Enlightenment had much to do with setting us on a course away from virtue as the ground of morality, the founding fathers nevertheless recognized the indispensability of moral virtue in securing the project of liberty, representative government, and the pursuit of happiness. As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Or Thomas Jefferson: “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” Or, finally, George Washington: “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists … an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”
This is not to downplay the glaring vices present in American society at the founding. The point is that the Founders were at least minimally aware of the vital role virtue plays in establishing a political society capable of securing individual liberty and the common good. Whence the motivation for John Adams’ saying: “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”
American society today has reaped the benefits of a prosperous economy aided by a political system that is the legacy of previous generations of Americans bound by more than the pursuit of riches. Indeed, the political liberalism of the Enlightenment has had much to do with the quest for a more egalitarian society in America, rooted in the dignity of the individual. However, the moral basis not merely of the Founding but also many of the great periods of moral progress in our history since the Founding can be traced to a religious consciousness that has stirred popular demands for social reforms, expressed through a moral language preserved by a Christian culture far older than classical liberalism.
Examples of this include the Abolitionist Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. William Lloyd Garrison, apart from Frederick Douglass perhaps the most well-remembered figure of the late abolitionist movement, might be described as less orthodoxly Christian than some of his peers in the movement. Yet, he could not have been more Christian in the framing of his moral arguments against slavery and the institutions that abided it, decrying both South and North in the years preceding the Civil War for their complicity:
The reason why the South rules, and the North falls prostrate in servile terror, is simply this: with the South, the preservation of slavery is paramount to all other considerations above party success, denominational unity, pecuniary interest, legal integrity, and constitutional obligation. With the North, the preservation of the Union is placed above all other things-above honor, justice, freedom, integrity of soul, the Decalogue and the Golden Rule-the infinite God himself.
Such language leans heavily upon conceptions of virtue harvested from Christian ethical teachings. Similarly, the sermons of Quaker minister and women’s rights activist Lucretia Mottemphasized the ethical substance of New Testament teachings against dogmatic interpretations that justified the subjugation of women, emphasizing religious behavior over rigidity of doctrine.
The nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., should be understood as the application not only of the methodology of Gandhi but also the moral substance of the Gospels. “Christian love” demanded more than a belief in equality. One of the most important and distinguishing elements of nonviolence, according to Reverend King, was that it “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.” Love was not only the preeminent value but also the preeminent virtue of the Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. The embrace of love as a virtue required the embrace of attendant virtues such as patience, courage, forgiveness, humility, and the suite of moral attributes that lent such ethical force to the work of King and those who followed his moral path.
If the importance of virtue is evident in great social movements it is also visible in the ideational edifice of America’s long-standing institutions. The United States Armed Forces is not merely as a functional organization that safeguards our national security, it is also, at its best, an institution that models and cultivates in its soldiers many of the virtues that we associate with what is most admirable in the American character. “The Army Values” lists seven key virtues that soldiers are trained to adhere to: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. In a similar way, the judicial oath taken by every judge or justice of the United States requires that they “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and the rich,” and to do so “faithfully and impartially,” clearly implying the virtues of faithfulness and impartiality as necessary to the moral character of a proper judge or justice. Even the traditional etiquette of reference that attends the addressing of members of congress (‘the honorable senator…’) expresses the hope that our elected officials possess, or should be held accountable to, the virtue of honor.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that virtue alone serves as the enforcer of all social contract and civic obligation. There are practical arguments that may justify the existence of our institutions, and there are rules, more or less reasonable, that might compel certain behavior from individuals or groups. But if the inward motivation to act in accordance with these rules or to seek the common good through participation in these institutions is lacking, what prevents any of us from subverting our institutions and social relationships for our own gain or becoming altogether alienated from them and one another?
The institution of marriage requires its participants to practice the virtues of selflessness and fidelity in order for it to be sustained. To be a proper friend, one must exhibit the qualities of understanding, patience, and helpfulness. To be a good parent, educator, or really anyone in a position of authority, one must be temperate, fair-minded, and balanced. To be a good student, employee, or soldier, one should be humble and coachable. To be a good leader, one ought to have courage, integrity, and, perhaps, even nobility.
Virtue, as opposed to legal compulsion or mere rationality, forms the basis of genuine interpersonal and social trust. The more we are able to see in and demonstrate for each other those habits of character necessary for flourishing, the more we find ourselves able (as both a reflection of our own virtues and those of our fellows) to collaborate with others, bear with each other’s faults, accept each other’s legitimate authority, and refrain from doing one another harm, whether out of fear, contempt or ambition.
Individual virtue breeds communal virtue, and vice versa, making virtue the great nourisher of our social fabric. If virtue seems to be vanishing from our social, political, and cultural spheres — if it is no longer something that we even pretend to demand of our politicians — this may be because virtue is vanishing from our moral language. At a moment when our political discourse is increasingly limited to our commitments to equality or individualism, and the policies they may seem to imply, American conservativism would do well to reintroduce the virtues into our moral vocabulary — those inward qualities of moral character have always formed the basis for our national excellence and our political community.
President Obama has dangerously surrendered the nation’s global leadership, but it can be ours again—if we choose his successor wisely.
By Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney • Wall Street Journal
In 1983, as the U.S. confronted the threat posed by the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan explained America’s unique responsibility. “It is up to us in our time,” he said, “to choose, and choose wisely, between the hard but necessary task of preserving peace and freedom, and the temptation to ignore our duty and blindly hope for the best while the enemies of freedom grow stronger day by day.” It was up to us then—as it is now—because we are the exceptional nation. America has guaranteed freedom, security and peace for a larger share of humanity than any other nation in all of history. There is no other like us. There never has been.
Born of the revolutionary ideal that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we were, first, an example to the world of freedom’s possibilities. During World War II, we became freedom’s defender, at the end of the Cold War, the world’s sole superpower. We did not seek the position. It is ours because of our ideals and our power, and the power of our ideals. As British historian Andrew Roberts has observed, “In the debate over whether America was born great, achieved greatness or had greatness thrust upon her, the only possible conclusion must be: all three.” Continue reading
HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY! LET FREEDOM RING!
“Taxation without representation!” was the battle cry in America’s 13 Colonies, which were forced to pay taxes to England’s King George III despite having no representation in the British Parliament. As dissatisfaction grew, British troops were sent in to quell the early movement toward rebellion. Repeated attempts by the Colonists to resolve the crisis without military conflict proved fruitless.
On June 11, 1776, the Colonies’ Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and formed a committee whose express purpose was drafting a document that would formally sever their ties with Great Britain. The committee included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson, who was considered the strongest and most eloquent writer, crafted the original draft document (as seen above). A total of 86 changes were made to his draft and the Continental Congress officially adopted the final version on July 4, 1776. Continue reading
by Peter Roff
On the morning of July 3, 1776 John Adams, delegate to the Second Continental Congress from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote his wife Abigail:
“Yesterday the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony ‘that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, and as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all the other acts and things which other states may rightfully do.’ You will see in a few days a declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty revolution and the reasons which will justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will be taken up in a few days.” Continue reading
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Continue reading
In a 2006 interview, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said the Constitution is “basically about” one word — “democracy” — that appears in neither that document nor the Declaration of Independence. Democracy is America’s way of allocating political power. The Constitution, however, was adopted to confine that power in order to “secure the blessings of” that which simultaneously justifies and limits democratic government — natural liberty.
The fundamental division in U.S. politics is between those who take their bearings from the individual’s right to a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom, and those whose fundamental value is the right of the majority to have its way in making rules about which specified liberties shall be respected. Continue reading
“America needed to define its interests. . . . The first, foremost obligation is defense of the homeland. . . . (2) We are a trading nation. We need access to our markets and we need for those markets to be reasonably secured. . . . (3) We are a communicating nation which needs access to space, access to the seas. (4) We are a studying nation. Scholarship from science is important to the whole world and those people need to be able to be safe and secure in what they do. (5) Our hemisphere is quite important. If there’s not security in our hemisphere, there’s not security in the homeland. (6) Finally we are a nation with some conscience. It means alliances are extremely important when they’re based on a national interest. We have to have the ability to sustain our presence within those alliances.”
by Rick Henderson & William H. Mellor III*
November 1, 1995
In the introduction to The Almanac of American Politics 1996 , Michael Barone asserts that the election of 1994 signaled that the nation seems to be returning to a “Tocquevillian America, to something resembling the country that French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 and described in his Democracy in America. Tocqueville’s America was egalitarian, individualistic, decentralized, religious, property-loving, lightly governed.” Continue reading
From the beginning our nation was charged “with a responsibility to all mankind.”
by Scott L. Vanatter
In one of this first public speeches Ronald Reagan offered the Commencement Address at his alma mater, Eureka College. It was June 7, 1957, four months before Sputnik was put into orbit by the Soviet Union. America was in the height of the Cold War and Ronald Reagan was already speaking of American as a land of destiny, a theme he would return to again and again throughout his career as an elected official. “This is a land of destiny and our forefathers found their way here by some Divine system of selective service gathered here to fulfill a mission to advance man a further step in his climb from the swamps.”
He characterized the Founding Fathers as “a group of disturbed men,” who “met in the small Pennsylvania State House [as] they gathered to decide on a course of action. Behind the locked and guarded doors they debated for hours whether or not to sign the Declaration which had been presented for their consideration.”
So disturbed were they, that they risked all. “For hours the talk was treason and its price the headsman’s axe, the gallows and noose. The talk went on and decision was not forthcoming.” Continue reading
by Kathrine Kersten
On Nov. 6, Americans will vote in an election whose importance rivals that of the election of 1912 — 100 years ago. That election, which put Woodrow Wilson in the White House, ushered in the progressive movement, of which President Obama is the heir and today’s leader.
Progressivism views the roles of citizen and state very differently than our founding fathers did. The founders anchored the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in three principles. They believed that human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inherent in nature and human dignity, and preexist the state. They believed that government should be limited, and that its primary purpose is to protect these rights. Finally, they crafted our Constitution to disperse power and curb its abuse through mechanisms such as checks and balances, and federalism. Continue reading