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David Bouchier: After Virtue

Image by Lynn Melchiori from Pixabay

The Founding Fathers seem distant and mysterious to us, not just because of time but because their education and their whole view of history was so profoundly different. All the Founding Fathers except Washington were educated at small colleges like William and Mary or Dartmouth, where the main business of education was to teach the classics – Greek and Roman history, literature and to some extent philosophy. Roman history in particular provided a vivid model of what a democratic republic had once become, and how the rise of the emperors in the first century BC destroyed it. The Founders were obsessed with this great historical drama. The architectural legacy of their fascination with Rome can be seen very clearly in Washington, D.C. London and Paris don’t look like ancient Rome. Even Rome doesn’t look like ancient Rome. But Washington, D.C., does.

Classic Republicanism of the Roman kind was built around the idea of “Virtue” – an old- fashioned word now rarely used and never in relation to politics. In ancient times Virtue meant putting the public good above one’s own personal interests, what we might today call public spiritedness. A virtuous person was a Roman who acted like a citizen, and was involved in politics in a democratic way. Without Virtue, the Republic would fail. This was the lesson that the Founders absorbed from Roman history. The founding documents mention Virtue far more often than freedom or democracy.

It sounds madly idealistic now, but he Founding Fathers had a generally optimistic view of human nature and built their hopes on Virtue as a source of national solidarity and purpose. They were profoundly opposed to divisive factionalism, or what they called the “baneful effects of the spirit of party,” which was seen as fatal to stability and progress. Their model was the Roman Senate, the longest-lived governing institution in history, which had no parties, although plenty of interests that competed by a free vote. The last thing the Founding Fathers wanted was to recreate the kings and courtiers, the plots and factions of contemporary Europe. Their goal was to create a new nation, not recreate an old one. They devised a Constitution with checks and balances that they hoped would prevent the centralization of power, discourage irrational extremism, and keep religion out of politics.

The Constitution of 1787 was an amazing achievement, and the Founding Fathers were an extraordinary group of men. But they weren’t superhuman. It’s hard to write a constitution for anything, even for a small nonprofit organization with no political aims. For a vast, half-formed nation trying to create itself out of thin air it was an overwhelming challenge. Virtue cannot be written into a Constitution, and human nature cannot be written out of it.

When the Revolutionary War was over and won, business as usual resumed. The national divisions re-asserted themselves: rich versus poor, slave versus free, Federalists versus Republicans. The nation was too big, too diverse and too complicated for Virtue to stand a chance. James Madison, the Fourth President, and one of the most subtle and interesting of them all – saw clearly that Virtue would not be enough to sustain the Constitution, and that the nation would have to find another way of containing the factional conflicts that threatened to tear it apart. Two hundred years later, we’re still working on it.

Copyright: David Bouchier