Revolutionary Virtue: The Founding Fathers Believed What Today Might Be Deemed a Revolutionary Idea: That Only a Virtuous People, Grounded in Morality and Religion, Can Ever Hope to Remain Free

By Akers, Becky | The New American, March 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

Revolutionary Virtue: The Founding Fathers Believed What Today Might Be Deemed a Revolutionary Idea: That Only a Virtuous People, Grounded in Morality and Religion, Can Ever Hope to Remain Free


Akers, Becky, The New American


"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," John Adams famously announced in 1798. "It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

He was paraphrasing a line he'd written in 1776--"The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue"--when the new nation was but a dangerous dream. Three years later, cousin Sam observed, "While the People are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their Virtue they will be ready to surrender their Liberties to the first external or internal Invader.... If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslavd [sic]."

Only the Virtuous Can Live Free

The Adamses were echoing an idea so common among the Founding Fathers it was almost a cliche: only a virtuous people can live free. However they phrased it, whatever synonyms they used for "liberty" (including, impossibly enough, "government") and "virtue" (including, logically enough, "Christianity"), the Founders insisted that liberty requires virtue. They were equally adamant that political slavery punishes immorality.

"Virtue" has a quaint ring to it, as 18th-century as "mobcap" or "syllabub." And Americans then obsessed about nourishing it as much as their descendants do about starving themselves into tight jeans.

Easy job, some might think. Who could be anything but virtuous in an age without MySpace and half-clothed Hollywood hussies?

Things were simpler then. You'll hear that same reasoning applied to the War on Terror: pundits often claim it's rendered the Bill of Rights obsolete. After all, muskets and bayonets were about as scary as it got in the 1700s; if the Founders had to worry about hijacked planes hitting skyscrapers, they'd have empowered government to whack bad guys instead of fretting over habeas corpus. But Redcoats with muskets seemed as deadly then as terrorists with box-cutters do now. Meanwhile, future generations, facing weapons we can't conceive, will laugh at our fears while envying our more innocent times.

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Revolutionary Americans hoped their young country would light the world's way to liberty and righteousness. To that end, each man should school himself in virtue: a free, virtuous country is merely a collection of free, virtuous individuals.

Many turned the task into an art. Young Ben Franklin not only listed 13 disciplines he considered essential ("Temperance, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Moderation, Industry, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Silence, Sincerity, Justice, Chastity, Humility"), he charted his daily progress in practicing each. And almost every Founding Father, from George Washington ("Can it be," he asked in his Farewell Address, "that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?") to Benjamin Rush ("Without [religion] there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty," averred this physician from Pennsylvania and Signer of the Declaration of Independence), testified at one time or another to the link between liberty and virtue.

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So virtue was as fashionable then as ridiculing it is now. What trendy Founders to connect it with freedom! Or were they espousing an eternal truth? If so, why does liberty depend on virtuous citizens? What exactly is "virtue," and are all virtues created equal? For example, is chastity or courage as essential for liberty as honesty? And how do these characteristics produce freedom? Does their rejection truly guarantee tyranny, or were the Founders just trying to scare us into behaving?

Necessity of Morality

Dictionaries define "virtue" as "the quality of being morally good or righteous; moral excellence." Morals determine how we interact with others. The moral man doesn't lie, doesn't steal, doesn't murder. He follows the Ten Commandments and the Christian shorthand for them, the Golden Rule. …

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