The Rise & Decline of
Constitutional Government in America
by Thomas G. West and Douglas A. Jeffrey
A Publication of The Claremont Institute
This essay explains the principles of the American founding. It shows how those principles gave rise to constitutional government and a free society, and how freedom was extended to all Americans after the Civil War. It will also show how the Founders' principles were opposed by a new theory that arose in the Progressive Era; how that new theory finally came to dominate American politics in the 1960s; and how that theory has changed our government and our society, and threatens our liberty.
Morality and Republican Citizenship
Madison wrote at the end of The Federalist 55: "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form." In other words, the more democratic a government is, the more important is the people's character. In a monarchy, the moral qualities of the people matter less, because as long as the king is sober and sensible, the government will be so too. But in a democracy, a mindless and barbarous people will not respect each other's rights. They will elect rulers who promise to exploit those not in the majority, and their liberty will soon be lost.
According to the Founders republican government requires three kinds of civic virtue. First, the people must be enlightened about and devoted to the theory of natural rights, and committed by this knowledge to democracy and the protection of equal rights. They must be clearheaded enough to discern and elect those who are well qualified for public office.
Second, the people must possess self-restraint. They must be able to control their passions at least enough to respect the rights of others. They also need the capacity to postpone immediate gratification of their desires. They must respect those who deserve respect, pay their debts, obey the law, and perform their daily duties. In a word, they must be capable of living responsibly.
Third, the people must also be self-assertive. They must have the spirit of the old Revolutionary War flag: "Don't tread on me!" They must be vigilant against those, at home or abroad, in or out of government, who might wish to trammel on their rights. They must be courageous and manly, with a sense of honor, so that in hard times they will stand up and fight, and not slink away slavishly so as to avoid trouble and danger.
The Founders were concerned with virtue not merely in a utilitarian way, as a necessary condition for republican government. They also believed that private happiness is dependent on restraint of the passions, and they said so frequently. George Washington, for instance, wrote, "there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness." In short, to be truly happy a people must be virtuous, and if a people are virtuous they will be happy.
The Founders employed or endorsed several means to promote moral education. Generally, these consisted of political means (that is, constitutions, laws, and the examples of statesmen); schools, both private and public; and private institutions such as families and churches.
Political freedom itself, if it is decentralized, fosters citizen virtue. We have already cited Tocqueville's Democracy in America to the effect that "Local institutions…put [liberty] within the people's reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it."
Specific constitutional provisions are also helpful for purposes of education. Bills of Rights are an example. Madison said of them: "The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free government, and, as they become incorporated within the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion."
John Adams credited state militia laws (requiring most adult males to be armed and ready to fight) and the habits of local self-government with being a source of "that prudence in council and that military valor and ability, which have produced the American Revolution." Other examples were laws upholding public decency and providing support to family life.
Of increasing importance after the American Revolution were laws to protect property. Their emphasis was not on existing property-though they protected it as well-but on the right of all to acquire and use property. Thus these laws too had a moral purpose: to make it possible for families to be independent by producing enough wealth to do away with degrading dependence on others, and to foster such self-reliant virtues as sobriety and industry.
The tone of American life was also affected by the speeches and actions of statesmen, who are looked up to by the people as models. In our early history, this was most evident in the respect accorded George Washington. As Washington said in his First Inaugural Address, the foundation of American national policies "will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality." When Washington died, President Adams said in an address to Congress: "His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations. . . ."
Vigorous public school systems and state-supported universities could be found in the North, and occasionally in the South, well before the Civil War. Of the leading Founders, Jefferson devoted the most thought and effort to this cause. The main purpose of pre-university education, he wrote, was to "instruct the mass of our citizens in . . . their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens." This included reading, writing, arithmetic, and the information they might need for their own business.
As for university education, Jefferson said it was "to form the statesmen, legislators and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend." The university is to "develop their reasoning faculties" and "enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order." All of this is in order "to form them to habits of reflection and correct actions, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves."
Ordinarily, the federal government had no role in public education. The Constitution reserved that power to the states. However, Congress does have exclusive responsibility over the national capital and federal territories that have not yet become states. The first six presidents tried to persuade Congress to establish a national university in Washington. And in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, organizing the lands north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania, Congress called for schools in which moral and religious instruction would take place: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
The Founders did not expect education to be conducted only by public authorities. In those days, as today, the main educational institution was the family. The precepts, discipline, religion, and example of parents were foremost in the moral and intellectual development of children. Accordingly, as noted above, laws were designed to support the strength of the family.
Religion was also important. Of course, America's Founders supported the separation of church and state. They enshrined that separation in the First Amendment, no less than the prohibition against religious tests for public office found in Article VI of the Constitution. There would be no sect or faith designated as the official religion of the nation which citizens would be penalized for failing to accept.
But government approval and support of religion was thought to be not only compatible with liberty, but indispensable for it. For instance, Jefferson and Madison supported a Virginia bill prescribing penalties for anyone doing business on the Sabbath. They did so in the very same year that Madison successfully persuaded the Virginia legislature to pass Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, an outstanding expression of freedom of conscience.
President Washington expressed the consensus of the Founders on the need for government support of religion: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
The crises of 1787 and 1861-years when consent was at odds with equal rights and America's survival hung in the balance-illustrate the importance of citizen virtue to democracy. The second-last clause of the Virginia Bill of Rights says: "no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles." The cultivation of virtue-through laws and through various means of upholding property rights and local self-government, schools, religion, and strong families-was considered one of the government's chief duties.