Self-Government for the Self-Governed: The Role of Virtue in a Democratic Republic

Document Type


Publication Date


Conference or Event Name

James Wilson Institute


Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship of Hillsdale College

Institution Location

Washington, D.C.


In Dr. Matthew Spalding’s book We Still Hold These Truths, there are no fewer than 83 references by the framers to the centrality and necessity of virtue to the preservation of both liberty and self-government. For example, in his influential Thoughts of Government, written in in 1776, John Adams wrote, “Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government . . . All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.” George Washington unceasingly tied virtue to the enjoyment of liberty. “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?” he asked. Washington’s belief in the connection between virtue and freedom was the reason he saw real danger in his aides’ impugning each other’s public virtue.

Fearing that the republic could be rent by the mutual animosity of Jefferson and Hamilton, in August of 1792 Washington wrote to each, pleading for calm and forbearance. Writing to Hamilton, Washington said, “I would fain hope that liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of each other; and instead of those wounding suspicions, and irritating charges, with which some of our Gazettes are so strongly impregnated, and cannot fail if persevered in, of pushing matters to extremity, and thereby to tare the Machine asunder, that there might be mutual forbearances and temporizing yieldings on all sides. Without these I do not see how the Reins of government are to be managed, or how the Union of the States can be much longer preserved.” And to Jefferson: “My earnest wish, and my fondest hope therefore is, that instead of wounding suspicions, & irritable charges, there may be liberal allowances—mutual forbearances—and temporising yieldings on all sides.”

Virtually every framer, then, saw and acknowledged the necessity of public virtue for a republic to survive and prosper. Whence came that idea? The most influential writer for the framers was neither Locke, nor Hume, nor Blackstone, nor Newton. It was Montesquieu, who, in The Spirit of the Laws, defined public virtue this way: “Virtue in a republic is a most simple thing: it is a love of the republic; it is a sensation, and not a consequence of acquired knowledge: a sensation that may be felt by the meanest as well as by the highest person in the state.” The opposite of public virtue is corruption, the use of public office for private gain, either in wealth or in power. According to Whig writers of the 18th century, wherever there was corruption, there was, by definition, a lack of public virtue. Ultimately, public corruption leads to tyranny—the exact crime of which King George was accused in the Declaration of Independence—after the list of corruptions that Jefferson had laid at his feet.

Nonetheless, the mere arguments of Montesquieu and the framers did not make public virtue central to our freedoms and to our republic. We were, after all, not the French who sought to impose the speculations of philosophers upon an already formed society. Rather, public virtue in America was embraced because it had become an integral part of the American colonial historical experience. In a Burkean way, it was learned through the living of it. Four elements merged to make what Montesquieu had observed about public virtue into a reality: (1) The English conception of liberty, (2) the Protestant value of self-discipline, (3) the common law’s norm of duty, and (4), paradoxically, the American elite’s adoption of a vice, vainglory.


Video Archive: Other Law School Events