A Republic of Virtue?
White, John, The New American
The American political experiment in self-rule begins with everyone ruling himself. James Madison stated it explicitly: "We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government." The two essential elements that undergird self-government are freedom and personal responsibility. Without that, the self-government that we Americans enjoy will degenerate either to tyranny or anarchy (which would soon be followed by tyranny).
The sickening corruption in American politics today was foreseen by our Founders as a very real and dangerous possibility. That is why the Constitution authorizes impeachment for high crimes (violations of law) and misdemeanors (grossly immoral behavior).
Our Founders understood that, as Madison put it, men are not angels. They understood, with Jefferson, that "virtue is not hereditary." They understood that the difference between liberty and libertinism is moral self-restraint and respect for the rights of others. They understood elected officials would be drawn from the seedbed that produces all candidates for office, the American society. Without a moral citizenry committed to public virtue, they said, this Republic will not endure. Virtue and morality, along with an alert, informed, and involved electorate, are the best safeguards against political corruption. Therefore they spoke of America as "a republic of virtue."
The idea was derived from the Baron de Montesquieu's 1748 The Spirit of the Laws, which discusses different political systems, from tyranny and monarchy to a republic. Montesquieu said that each regime has different requirements of its people. A tyranny must cultivate a capacity for fear in people, a monarchy must cultivate a capacity for honor, and a republic must cultivate a capacity for virtue.
Self-rule, the Founders said, must always be moral. Even more strongly, they said it can only be moral. Otherwise, politics will degenerate by the action of dishonorable and dishonest officials, urged on by dishonorable and dishonest citizens seeking access to power. That undermines our happiness, our security, and our future. It will lead straight to social and economic chaos, which is always followed by tyranny.
Listen to the Founders:
In a 1788 speech, 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 liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a [vain] idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of . …