“Ricks writes: ‘In a nutshell, Washington was sensing the limits of virtue as a driver of the new country. He is not often seen as a political philosopher, but in his own quiet way he was ahead of most of his peers.'”
lthough it is currently in vogue to trash American constitutionalism, the consensus has long been that the Constitutional structure devised by the Philadelphia Convention’s delegates in 1787 is nothing short of genius. In particular, the Constitution’s foremost defenders have lauded its enshrinement of the Madisonian objective to allow “ambition to counteract ambition” by meticulously dividing power between branches and levels of government.
The praise is warranted. An honest assessment of human nature—in particular, our fallen, imperfect nature and our propensity for depravity—counsels against any undue concentration of power. The framers understood this, and we ought to be most grateful that they did. Without such understanding, it is hard to imagine that our multiethnic, diverse, continental union that houses about as many worldviews as it does people would still be standing, as it is today, under a system of democratic republican self-governance.
Without casting aside our requisite gratitude, however, we should ask ourselves: Might the Constitution be too good at blunting the potentially destructive force of the worse angels of our nature? Might our Constitutional system be so capable of keeping the ship of state afloat even in the face of putrid political conduct that it, in fact, opens the door to said conduct? Might the stabilizing, moderating, and constraining influences imposed on American public affairs by the Constitutional genius of the framers be, in part, to blame for the unstable, extreme, rancid political behavior that permeates our public life?
“Don’t worry about the public good,” whispers the Constitution to the conspiracy-prone citizen or demagogic politician, “I’ll take care of it.”
The constitutional structure devised by the framers—and by James Madison, in particular—has proven quite stable and durable, even in the face of immense bombast and bad faith acting over the years. I suspect that the poverty of public virtue in our public life and the unflappable character of American constitutionalism might be connected. The Constitution has lowered the stakes of poor political conduct; it has implicitly communicated to citizens and political leaders alike that they can indulge their worst impulses because, after all, the system will prevent disaster from striking. “Don’t worry about the public good,” whispers the Constitution to the conspiracy-prone citizen or demagogic politician, “I’ll take care of it.” The most recent example of this dynamic has been the durability of the system in the face of President Trump, et al.’s post-election ginning up of utter stupidity and bad faith, conspiratorial argumentation. In the face of this onslaught, as The Dispatch’s David French recently wrote, “the majesty of the American system of government” did not crack.
How did we get here? How and why did the framers conclude that people were, in fact, not to be trusted as they devised a government premised on popular sovereignty? By grappling with such questions, we might complement our appreciation for the Constitution’s genius with newfound insights into how to restore a bit more virtue, good faith, and prudence to our public life.
In his recently published book, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks expertly outlines the process through which the framers reached the consensus that human nature was not to be trusted in devising a government. Ricks relates that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—our first four presidents and some of the most pivotal players in America’s Revolutionary effort and subsequent Constitution-making process—were deeply shaped by the thought and the examples of the classics. Through their study of Greek and Roman philosophy, history, and rhetoric, as well as their imbibing of classics-infused 18th-century Anglo-American culture, these founders were schooled in the importance of republican virtue.
To the founders, Ricks writes, such virtue consisted in “public-spiritedness, or putting the common good above one’s own interest,” which was, in turn, regarded as “the essential element of public life.” Ricks argues that the founders were hyper-focused on the demise of the Roman republic and were influenced in particular by the words and deeds of Roman statesmen like Cicero and Cato. As such, they would have agreed with the following assessment regarding the importance of virtue in republican politics made by John Adams in a letter to Mercy Otis Warren in April of 1776:
“Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions.”
During the war, however, the Founders began to question whether virtue was indeed both necessary and sufficient for sustaining democratic republicanism. Somewhat surprisingly, George Washington was at the forefront of this halting intellectual shift away from an unquestioning faith in the importance of virtue and towards an acceptance of the role of self-interest in public life. Ricks writes that though Washington lacked the formal classical educations of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, he was “the most Roman of them in character”—the most self-consciously committed to living a life defined by public virtue, duty, and respectability. Yet, the unschooled man who styled himself as an American Cato—the embodiment of classical republican virtue—was the first “to sense that relying too heavily on the public-mindedness of Americans was becoming a dangerous course.”
In a pair of 1778 letters to the Continental Congress and to Congressman John Banister of Virginia, General Washington expressed how the war had changed his understanding of virtue’s relation to self-government. Washington understood that the war effort—and, by extension, the project of self-governance—could not be sustained on patriotism or public spiritedness alone; the ultimate success of such collective action hinged on whether it accorded with and leveraged individuals’ self-interest. Ricks writes: “In a nutshell, Washington was sensing the limits of virtue as a driver of the new country. He is not often seen as a political philosopher, but in his own quiet way he was ahead of most of his peers.”
In due time, Washington’s wartime insights would be expanded, enriched, and then codified in the Constitution by James Madison. The troubles under the Articles of Confederation ushered in Madison’s Constitutional masterpiece, as they hastened the founders’ intellectual flight from the power of virtue (and thus, of classical republicanism) to that of self-interest. Writing in “The Continentalist No. VI” on July 4, 1782, Alexander Hamilton proclaimed: “We may preach till we are tired of the theme, the necessity of disinterestedness in republics, without making a single proselyte.” As Ricks notes, Washington himself would continue finding virtue to be an insufficient basis upon which to construct a republic. In the aftermath of Daniel Shays’ rebellion in Massachusetts and the sustained failure of the Confederation Congress to compel states to comply with their requisition payments, Washington wrote to John Jay in August 1786: “We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation…We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.”
With his penning of “Vices of the Political System of the United States” in April of 1787, James Madison heeded Washington’s advice. As Ricks notes, Madison concluded that differing interests and factions in society “were inevitable,” such that “faction would have to be accepted and interest would have to be seen not as sinful but as natural.” Madison’s acceptance of the inevitability of faction—and thus, the necessity of placing that reality at the center of republican government rather than the illusory promise of disinterested virtue—would prove to be the central feature of the Constitution he shaped in Philadelphia and then defended in the pages of The Federalist Papers.
Ricks is especially instructive in his discussion of Madison’s rejection of the importance of virtue in constructing and sustaining republican government, noting that “it was James Madison who would delve deepest into the classical world—and also would begin to explore how to move beyond its limitations.” Madison and the other founders were shaped a great deal by classicism and its emphasis on the importance of public virtue in the shaping of a republic, yet they ultimately rejected that line of thinking, opting instead for a democratic republic that would balance vice with vice. “In a way,” writes Ricks, “the drafters [of the Constitution] used classical thought to escape its influence.” Indeed, Ricks notes:
“In the world of the Federalist Papers, the pillar of ‘virtue’ has fallen. When Madison does write about virtue, it often is not to invoke it but to emphasize that it is a finite resource in humans. For example, in an aside in Federalist 53 he refers to ‘the period within which human virtue can bear the temptations of power.’ He is not saying that humans are wicked and have no virtue, just that virtue alone is insufficient. In other words, ‘a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.’”
Ricks documents that even as the role of classical virtue in public life faded in the 1790s and 1800s, Federalists like John Adams held on to its promise and importance. Distressed by the emergence of Jeffersonians’ populist backlash to Federalist administration, Adams and other like-minded, classicist Federalists were fighting an uphill battle. “A new social order, stripped of classical republicanism, and even opposed to it, was emerging in America. The Federalists rejected it, and it in turn rejected them.” The rise of American democracy was under way, with Jeffersonian democracy and Madisonian party politics—where faction balanced faction—at the vanguard.
Roughly two centuries later, we are still living in Madison and Jefferson’s America—not Adams’. This is an America, as Gordon Wood has noted, mixed with Jeffersonian paeans to the people and Madisonian governing structures that slowly plods along, restraining our worst impulses.
But we must not let that capability of trudging along legitimize our slippage into our worst political impulses.
Without forsaking the blessings of our principled commitment to democratic equality and the genius of our Constitutional structure, perhaps we should engage once more with the wisdom of the ever brash yet impeccably learned John Adams—a vain but brilliant man who could never quite loosen his grip on the classicist devotion to republican virtue. In a letter to the Massachusetts militia in 1798, Adams wrote that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other[.]” Adams was wrong. If our present political moment has proven anything, it is that the American system of government can stand strong in the face of an onslaught of bad faith acting, poor political leadership, and a distrusting citizenry ridden with contempt for one another and their institutions.
But that is not to say that such a politics is deserving of praise. Yes, perhaps our polity can trudge along, thanks to the Madisonian genius of our system of government, even when virtuous people seem rather hard to come by in our public life. But we must not let that capability of trudging along legitimize our slippage into our worst political impulses. Sure, the system can persist via the clashing of raw self-interest. But persistence is not flourishing.
Adams would have been correct if he had simply added two words to his observation: Our Constitution was made to flourish only for a moral and religious People. Only with a revivification of public virtue can American politics extricate itself from idiocy and recommit itself to great, worthwhile pursuits—the sort of pursuits a robust conception of civic virtue allows us to imagine. When it comes to the task of government, of course the restraint of our worst human impulses in the interest of safeguarding public order is step one, but government should not be content simply with averting violence and preventing social breakdown. To get off the low road, we have to think as though we were on the high one. Madison himself understood this, as he wrote in Federalist No. 45 that “the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.”
A richer vision of politics—dare I say, a more classical vision of politics—is what the United States needs today. American government must get beyond its framework of restraint and get back into the business of proactively shaping the moral character of the society and individual citizens which it governs. Texts like George Will’s 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft articulate this point far better than I. However, the point needs constant rearticulation.
When books like Statecraft as Soulcraft are coupled with works like Ricks’ First Principles, we can begin to get a better sense of how the Founders might have gone a tad too far in their rejection of public virtue’s necessary role in undergirding republican governance. Yes, we cannot expect a government of angels, but we need not settle for a government of devils. Perhaps we can at least bring discussions of self-interestedness and public spiritedness back into our public discourse. We can begin to expect more from ourselves, our leaders, and our government. If we fail to do so, we risk being left with our present situation—a Constitution of genius and a nation of imbeciles—for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it is high time that we resurrect the concept of public virtue, brush off the dust from our copies of Adams and Cicero, and quit living down to the Constitution’s expectations of man.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98