Epilogue: Securing the Republic



To found a republic was one thing; to have and to hold it, yet another. When Dr. Franklin replied to the lady eager to be the first to learn what the Philadelphia Convention had wrought in secrecy, his answer was as revealing of the problem as it was expressive of his peculiar turn of mind. "Well, Doctor, what have we got--a republic or a monarchy?" "A republic--if you can keep it."

One need hardly say that the Founders were concerned with more than the act of founding, however pressing and difficult that great effort was to be. As men of affairs they thought of the problems of the morrow as well. A proper founding implied a proper regard for the principles of preservation. To be sure, the future could not simply be foreseen or foreclosed; the care and thoughtfulness of the past could not render superfluous the care and thoughtfulness of each succeeding living generation. And yet it would be trifling with matters of vast concern to propose a form of government without giving heed to how it might best be preserved against the most likely sources of internal corruption and external danger.

The whole elaborated system of federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, enumerated powers, secured rights, periodic accountability of officials to the electorate, and the other arrangements that were to give American constitutionalism its special character were so many barriers against the persistent and predictable forces that might make popular government a hollow or cruel mockery. But governmental institutions could go only so far. While a constitution and its institutions might elicit and shape certain kinds of conduct, it also was true that a corrupt or slavish people could ruin even a very good constitution. What really mattered, in the last analysis, was the kind of people who would make up the American public. Their strengths, their limits, were the outer boundaries of what was possible.

The civic character of that public was neither a given, fixed beyond the power of statesmen to alter or redirect, nor an infinitely malleable substance to be shaped by institutions at will or whim. It was, after all, for this people in this land that a government was to be founded. American circumstances offered expanded possibilities, to be sure. Thus Americans could aim at a fuller measure of liberty and self-government than others had achieved. But like Solon, the American founders also knew that circumstances were a powerful restraint on plans and dreams; it was their business to propose not the best that they could imagine, but the best that their people would accept. See Farrand 1:125 (Butler), 491 (Bedford); Federalist, no. 38 (Madison). Within those limits much--but not everything--could be done.

From our vantage point the preoccupation of that founding generation with what they called "manners" seems extraordinary. Their concern was less with the fine points of etiquette (though that too was within their purview), than with the habits and moral tastes of a people who were about to take a new turn in their career of self-government.1 This also used to be called "civility." If we have any terms in current speech corresponding to "manners" they might be "values" or "opinions" or even "philosophy" (in the sense in which a television interviewer may ask a professional athlete or the manager of an election campaign what his "philosophy" is). Those manners were the matrix as it were of public life; but they might also be guided or reinforced or restrained by the institutions and workings of a particular governmental system. Given the right manners, Americans might long enjoy the benefits projected in the Preamble. In the absence of those manners, or with those manners present only in a weak and attenuated form, the government would stand only till external or internal shocks reduced the whole to rubble. That possibility seemed neither remote nor unlikely if the history of earlier efforts at self-governance were any indication. To be concerned about the chances of political decay or even ruin was a sign of practical sense informed by long experience, not the flutterings of a paranoid imagination.

The Character of a Self-governing People

What kind of a people, then, did a republic require? How were they to be distinguished from those who were fit only to be ruled by others placed permanently above them? What might be expected of a self-governing people in the way of maintaining their fitness for self-government? At least this much was certain: nothing was easy or automatic. Free air or free soil did not assure the continuing succession of free citizens. Liberty, as Algernon Sidney had argued, might indeed be the precondition for the desired kinds of excellence, but it would be a mistake to rank good republicans among the promiscuous productions of nature. Yet what precisely were the desired kinds of excellence? Very much turned on how one answered that question.

The thinker to whom political writers regularly recurred in these matters was Montesquieu. His Spirit of Laws (no. 3) had proposed a taxonomy of regimes based on their several principles--the spring or activating passion that constituted and sustained a particular regime. Popular or republican government depended on virtue, but virtue understood in a special sense. Montesquieu took pains to make it clear that he was speaking of political virtue, the virtue not of the Christian but of "the political honest man," the man who loves the laws and is moved by that love. "Now, a government is like every thing else: to preserve it we must love it." Was such love possible in a world preoccupied with private wants and private pleasures, with manufactures, commerce, and luxury? Was such love possible in a world where people are all too well instructed in contradictory duties, where what we learn from our parents and teachers is "effaced" by what we learn from the world? Nowhere was "the whole power of education" more surely needed than in a republic, for nowhere did more depend on the presence of a public-spirited citizenry. Without such a citizenry--one able to preserve "the spirit of equality" without falling victim to the corruption of extreme democracy--no self-government was possible.

Republican writers such as Samuel Adams (no. 6) came to view such an education as the fundamental task of statesmanship. Manners made certain laws possible or effective, but laws might also be used by magistrates to form the manners of a people. Whatever else they might tolerate or accept, republicans could not afford to brook a spirit of public indifference and private corruption. It was to those evils that public policy ought to be addressed. But how? The high-toned admonitory language of the Proclamation of the General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay (23 Jan. 1776) could not be used everywhere nor for very long even in Massachusetts. And yet it seemed evident to John Adams that a low-toned citizenry could retain neither a republic nor its liberty (nos. 7, 9).

There were those who argued against simplistic readings (or misreadings) of Montesquieu. The collapsing of public and private virtue into one another was preposterous, and resting one's political expectations on a general, widespread "disinterested attachment to the public good" was no less preposterous. So at least thought Carter Braxton (no. 10) in a pamphlet opposing John Adams's Thoughts on Government and in which Braxton argued for continued adherence to what he saw as the uncorrupted principles of the English Constitution. To speak of agrarian and sumptuary laws in any but naturally sterile lands was to be blinded by theory. A republic that required those means to preserve itself from decay was no fit form for a people living in a bountiful land. Whatever theory might prescribe, such people "will always claim a right of using and enjoying the fruits of their honest industry, unrestrained by any ideal principles of government, and will gather estates for themselves and children without regarding the whimsical impropriety of being richer than their neighbours." Hamilton agreed: the model for Americans could not be early Sparta or Rome, and crying up to the heavens the necessity of disinterestedness would not make Americans into what they were not (no. 15).

Although John Adams might agree with Braxton and Hamilton in this respect--that Americans never were nor ought to be Spartans (Letter to James Warren, 4 July 1786)--he was not quite as ready as they to let matters rest there. Republican government presupposed a degree of popular enlightenment: popular understanding and morals had in some way to be improved; "vulgar prejudices and popular superstitions" had in some way to be dissipated where these opposed themselves to good government. Republican virtue was then the order of the day, but it could not be classical or Christian or even Montesquieuan virtue (if by that one means an absence of ambition and avarice). As a general rule men could not be expected to love the whole better than their particular selves, or to prefer the public to the private. Only a system of well-digested laws could embody that degree of public-spiritedness. What could be expected of ordinary folk was a degree of "reverence and obedience to the laws" that would bend the actions of self-regarding men in public-regarding directions (no. 17). (See also J. Adams to S. Adams, 18 Oct. 1790, in ch. 11, no. 16.)

For many Anti-Federalists this was not enough. The Virginian author of a Proposal for Reviving Christian Conviction (no. 19) argued that it is especially republican government that requires a support for moral rectitude. A desire for popularity would commend a lax enforcement of the laws; "the allurements of self-interest and self-gratification" would prove irresistible, whatever the cost in public welfare and happiness. To hold men to their duty something more than self-interest was needed: it was "necessary to call in the aid of religion."

Fears and Hopes

Federalist responses to the problem of republican manners were quite diverse. Some, like Madison (see ch. 4, no. 19), thought it futile to expect that religious exhortation would suffice to restrain injustice. However valuable it would be to have a people sharing enlightened faith and morals, these alone would not secure the conditions of self-government. The intricacies of institutional arrangements, the variety of modes of working and living in a large country, the gradual enlistment of enlightened self-interest in support of a government that met general expectations of fairness and security, the transmutation of politically ruinous passions into civilly acceptable levels of competition: all these would work more surely and quietly to preserve republic and republicans. Others, like Noah Webster, were less hopeful. Ultimately, corruption was the destiny of every people possessed by possessiveness; wealth and vices would flourish in tandem. That destiny might be retarded, or at least not accelerated, by a careful regard to a revolution in manners that ought to complement the act of political revolution. America had yet to declare its independence of European manners, European corruption. (See Remarks on the Manners . . . of the United States, 1787.) Still others, like Hamilton (see ch. 13, no. 38), thought the agitation over republican virtue mistaken and misleading. In time, growing economic inequality would strip the problem of any practical significance. "As riches increase and accumulate in few hands; as luxury prevails in society; virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard." There was no point in viewing the political problem as one of virtue and vice contending for preeminence, still less in terms of an especially virtuous class of men struggling against the wicked. In actuality there were different kinds of vice, and here sound policy dictated favoring those kinds that were most likely to promote "the prosperity of the state."

Hamilton's calm acceptance of the ultimate (and not far distant) corruption of the republic was in several respects singular. Most republicans did not view the prospect with comparable equanimity or resignation. Following Harrington and Montesquieu, they tried to discriminate among the probable moral causes of ruin and sought to forfend, counter, or mitigate those causes wherever possible. It was not only revolutionary ardor that led John Adams to proclaim that "a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory [must be] established in the Minds of the People," and that "this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions" (no. 9). For in almost the next breath Adams feared that even in most-favored New England "Selfishness and Littleness" were common, the insinuating "Spirit of Commerce . . . rampant," and the whole project of building a republic doubtful.

Their often-remarked preoccupation with corruption testifies to the Founders' keen awareness of the gap between aspirations and the matter at hand. The founding of a durable republic in America was to be the preeminent act of philanthropy. Their grand dreams of setting a universal example and their desperate efforts to cope with a host of difficulties and embarrassments, petty and large, colored their views of today and tomorrow. They searched for means of bringing low circumstance up to the level of high hope. Richard Henry Lee (no. 12) was ready to purge the Continental Congress of its scoffing Mandevilles "who laugh at virtue, and with vain ostentatious display of words will deduce from vice, public good!" Samuel Adams dreaded the new Massachusetts government's easy slide into "Pomp & Parade," seductive invitations from on high to a more general dedication to "Idleness Dissipation & Extravagancy" (no. 14). By 1786 it was clear to James Warren that Massachusetts was "verging to confusion and anarchy," a predictable consequence of the manifest "total Change in principles and Manners" that had taken place during John Adams's absence abroad (30 Apr. 1786). John Adams was not as gloomy, if only because he could not recall so resplendent a past as Warren had imagined (4 July 1786). Even when events supplied Warren with what he took to be his trump card bearing the face of Capt. Daniel Shays (22 Oct. 1786), Adams still would not fold. Going back to 1760, 1755, even 1745, "You will be very sensible that our Countrymen have never merited the Character of very exalted Virtue. It is not to be expected that they should have grown much better. I find myself very much averse to believe they are grown much worse" (9 Jan. 1787).

Yet it was arguable that the proposed Constitution would establish a government and encourage policies entailing dangers beyond those hitherto known and feared in American political life. Here was indeed a government well mounted, affording a wealth of temptations and opportunities to the ambitious and unscrupulous (see Impartial Examiner, no. 1, 5 Mar. 1788). Patrick Henry saw a "perilous cession of powers," unchecked by any body within the government that might be moved to act for the public good by the "powerful irresistible stimulous of self-love" (see ch. 11, no. 13). Was everything, then, to depend on "fair distinterested patriotism"--on so slender a reed? Madison, as always, drew back from rigid dualism (see ch. 13, no. 36). All was not being ventured on the assumption that one should "expect nothing [in the Congress] but the most exalted integrity and sublime virtue." But then neither should one assume that the electorate would be lacking in "sufficient virtue and intelligence" to choose soberly and well. If it were in fact the case that such discretion was beyond the people's capacity, then Americans would indeed be in a wretched situation and quite plainly unfit for any form of self-government (no. 22).

Securing the republic would demand the attention and care of statesmen and legislators at all levels, as well as of the general community from which they would be drawn. Readers of Burgh, Trenchard and Gordon, Sidney, Harrington, and Machiavelli knew that frequent recurrence to fundamentals, the formative principles of constitutions, was indispensable for safety and preservation. This was as true at the level of a small military unit (no. 5) as it was for the society as a whole (see Virginia Declaration of Rights, art. 15, in ch. 1, no. 3). Then, too, the objects of ambition could be redirected by judicious laws and institutional arrangements, and the pursuit of fopperies or domination replaced by the "sober, industrious and frugal" civility, the "conscious dignity, becoming Freemen" (no. 8). None of this presumed a radical transformation of human nature; projects premised on the sufficiency of high motives were doomed. Patriotism, to be sure, existed and had done much, but on its own could not support the conduct of a great and lasting war; "it will not endure unassisted by Interest" (Washington to Banister, 21 Apr. 1778). From all these devices--the resort to first principles, the taming of ambition, and the unsentimental reliance on self-interest--much good had been achieved and could yet be expected. But most promising of all, at least according to some of the most prominent Founders, was a properly constituted system of education.

The Education of a Self-governing People

Our present-day awareness of propaganda, indoctrination, and even brainwashing trying to pass muster as education complicates the task of recovering the Founders' intentions. The very notion of the political uses of education conjures up visions of Nazi schools for barbarians or heavy-handed re-education camps for slow learners of Marxist truths. But if we resist that easy ellipsis and refrain from reading twentieth-century refinements into eighteenth-century proposals, it is possible to recognize an honorable attempt to deal with a continuing problem. What if the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 were correct in asserting (no. 13) that "wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties"? Would it then not be a high duty of legislators and magistrates to consider appropriate means of encouraging that diffusion with a view to promoting "sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people"?

Of course the means of pursuing that great good might take many forms. One critic of the Constitution thought it made better sense to "render the people more capable of being a law to themselves"--through an education in Christian piety and morals--than to resort to ever higher toned constitutions in an effort to restrain "turbulent vice and injustice in society." (See Charles Turner, Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, 6 Feb. 1788.) Mercy Warren in her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) suggested countering the postrevolutionary "relaxation of manners" by catering to individuals' natural desire for distinction. Acts of disinterested greatness were the preserve of only a few; but might not more people be induced to make great exertions for the public good if their ambition to be noticed could be satisfied thereby? It was at least a question to be considered, "how far honorary rewards are consistent with the principles of republicanism." In any event rulers and people alike had to be weaned from unwholesome principles and unwholesome tastes.

This was a subject to which Dr. Benjamin Rush warmed. A properly republican education was vastly more economical than society's time- and money-wasting preoccupation with punishment. And in this task of setting young minds aright, nothing was more useful than religion, the principles of Christianity, and especially the Bible. Since Rush believed that "a Christian cannot fail of being a republican," he was eager to blend "religion, liberty and learning." These would "mutually assist in correcting the abuses, and in improving the good effects of each other." His scheme of enlightened patriotism for Pennsylvania would not eschew the "reinforcement of prejudice," the memories of shared experiences that through "one general, and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous" and more tractable. A republic depending on the wills of the people must see to it that those wills are themselves republican. With the right mode of education it would be possible "to convert men into republican machines" fit to perform their parts "in the great machine of the government of the state" (no. 30). Rush's plan for a federal university, proposed hot on the heels of the adoption of the Constitution (29 Oct. 1788), reflected his own sense of priorities. Here was one of the more urgent tasks facing the new Congress. "We shall never restore public credit, regulate our militia, build a navy, or revive our commerce until we remove the ignorance and prejudices and change the habits of our citizens"; and to do that the people needed to be inspired with "federal principles." That inspiration would take place in a mode already marked out by Hobbes (Leviathan, "Review and Conclusion," end). The true doctrine imbibed by young men during their two or three years' association in a national university would afterwards be disseminated by them "through every county, township, and village of the United States."

Washington himself made a major effort to disseminate federal principles through his Farewell Address (no. 29). It was an argument that took for granted the Americans' love of liberty; what required argument and elaboration was rather the means of securing the blessings of liberty. It is in this context that union is cherished, faction condemned, the spirit of innovation viewed askance, and religion and morality pronounced "indispensable supports," "great Pillars of human happiness." If indeed "virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government," then it follows for Washington that institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge must be "an object of primary importance." While Washington's (and Madison's) repeated efforts to establish a national university came to nought (see Farrand 2:321, 616), there were others at work proposing a model of education that might be adopted in all of the states. Among these, Noah Webster and Thomas Jefferson were preeminent.

In Webster's emendation of Montesquieu (see ch. 16, no. 17), not virtue but "a general and tolerably equal distribution of landed property" was the basis of national freedom. Nonetheless, education remained an "auxiliary support," a means whereby the people might remain informed of the rights of men and the principles of government and watchfully jealous of those who sought their support. A closer look at the subject (no. 26) disclosed that a distinctively American education was needed--American history, American principles, learning directed to the kind of lives and habits befitting a republican yeomanry. This ought to be made available to all through a system of universal public education. Webster's speller, reader, dictionary, and even his grammar might fairly be regarded as his practical contribution to that political project.

Jefferson's involvement with public education extended over a half-century, but perhaps he never put the matter more pithily than in his preamble to a Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (no. 11). All the major ingredients of his educational system are there: the great political end to be sought, the distinct practical means to be used, the enlistment of human inequality in the struggle to safeguard the equal enjoyment of rights, the unwavering dedication to utility. All that followed (and in Jefferson's case it was a great deal), was commentary. His elaborate restatement of the principles of the Bill in Notes on the State of Virginia (no. 16) shows in detail Jefferson's understanding of the maxim, "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Under his pyramidal scheme there would be an annual raking of "the best geniusses . . . from the rubbish" for further education at public expense. That which the rich could buy, the poor could deserve. The largest part of Jefferson's discussion is directed to what all would learn, for "of all the views of this law none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty."

Jefferson's later preoccupation with higher education in no way eclipsed his concern for the education of the general population. The snippy self-sufficiency of "our postrevolutionary youth" made more vivid the impoverished state of education in America (no. 32). But while the protracted efforts to found the University of Virginia were Jefferson's response to that social need, the context of higher education, too, remained political and expressed (with appropriate transformations) the urgent civic objectives of primary education (no. 33).

Madison's lifelong partnership with Jefferson never precluded his own gentle glosses to the senior man's orthodoxies, or quiet demurrers to his enthusiastic excesses. To the end, Madison's voice and hands remained his own. His thought about the preservation of the republic was no exception. In his party press essay on the optimal republican distribution of occupations (no. 28), Madison introduced his attempt at "a perfect theory on this subject" with an immediate denial that the theory could conceivably be legislated into practice or that it "ought to be attempted by violence on the will or property of individuals." Yet the political and social benefits of a largely agrarian (though not necessarily noncommercial) life were worth bearing in mind--by "public authority" tempted to "empirical experiments by power" (a nod toward the Secretary of the Treasury) and by ordinary folk choosing freely among alternative occupations. For occupations were ways of life and did not conform equally well to the preconditions of self-government. (This was a truth Madison could have gleaned from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as readily as from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia.) Sound policy, then, would not force or foster the growth of that sector of the economy least likely to produce good republicans. But, if Madison's silence is meaningful, neither would sound policy try to thwart the growth of such occupations. Over the long run the preservation of free institutions could not depend on the preponderance of farmers and cottage industry. Nor could preservation depend on the support of religion. In truth, any sort of alliance or coalition between government and religion only worked to corrupt both. Because of "a strong bias towards the old error" in some parts of America, public opinion ought to be instructed and confirmed in the truth--verified by the experiences of Virginia and others--that "religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together" (no. 34).

Like Gouverneur Morris (no. 31), Madison looked for the source of American greatness in the same quarter where he looked for American survival. Perhaps both Founders indicated thereby their belief that what was at issue was not mere survival but the preservation of something especially fine and rare. Morris located that source in something he called national spirit--"a high haughty generous and noble Spirit." In revulsion at one extreme--a hypothetical "Herd of piddling huchstering" wretches--Morris held forth the other extreme, "the brave Band at Thermopylae." America would find itself somewhere on that continuum, but where? Morris's tone is high, the speech is of inflexible will, the resonance is of Greece and Rome.

Madison, in contrast, placed his reliance upon a general system of education, for "popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both" (no. 35). Here lay "the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty." A publicly supported system would counter the monopoly of superior information otherwise enjoyed by the rich and hence reduce their disproportionate influence. But the political benefits accruing from such public support, Madison thought, clearly transcended class interests. For in the last analysis it was here, in the spectacle of "Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support" that America would establish "its truest and most durable celebrity."

  1. "By Manners, I mean not here, Decency of behaviour; as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the Small Moralls; But those qualities of mankind, that concern their living together in Peace, and Unity." Hobbes, Leviathan, Pt. 1, ch. 11, beginning (1651).

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 18, Introduction
The University of Chicago Press

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