THE INDISPENSIBILITY OF VIRTUE IN THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC
(note: this is an essay I wrote for a class, and I’ve edited it to fit this blog.)
In The Spirit of Laws, Book V, Chapter 2, 18th century French political thinker Montesquieu defines virtue as it exists in the context of a republic:
…it is a love of the republic; it is a sensation, and not a consequence of acquired knowledge…
The love of our country is conducive to a purity of morals, and the latter is again conducive to the former.
Montesquieu continues to elaborate on this concept in the next chapter:
A love of the republic in a democracy is a love of the democracy; as the latter is that of equality.
Virtue as so described is a necessary element of the “principle of democracy.” Is Montesquieu correct, though? Can a democratic, representative republic maintain its viability without virtue?
The writings of John Locke and James Madison seem to indicate that they both believed so. Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, contends that the sole purpose of government is the protection of property. In this view, virtue is superfluous. The unwillingness of men to return to the “state of nature”—wherein the struggle to protect one’s property places one in a vulnerable “state of war” with others—will encourage them to maintain both civil society and the commonwealth that governs that society. Locke’s emphasis on the pursuit of material wealth and the role of government in maintaining a stable environment for that pursuit indicates his valuation of commerce over—or perhaps as—virtue.
Madison, writing in Federalist 10, suggests that the ambition accompanying factionalism is a potential hazard to a republic. According to Madison, a faction composed of a minority would be controlled by “the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views, by regular vote.” The effects of a majority faction could be mitigated by the American constitution. The elected representatives of the people would serve as a buffer; their wisdom and patriotism would be assumed to filter out the worst effects of any factional passions shared by such a majority. Furthermore, the division of sovereignty—between the state and federal governments—would serve as yet another mitigating structure, with “the great and aggregate interests, being referred to the national, the local and particular to the state legislatures.”
There is little cause to quarrel with Locke’s estimation of the value of commerce in a republic. Nor is there much evidence that belies Madison’s belief that a large republic could be successfully maintained. It is Montesquieu, however, who understands the spirit of the democratic republic. It is he who apprehends and clearly expresses the grave danger posed to this form of government by a loss of virtue.
In the Book III of The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu gives several historical examples of democratic states that were corrupted by such a loss. The example of ancient Rome is most instructive:
She had only the feeble remains of virtue, which were continually diminishing. Instead of being roused from her lethargy by Caesar, Tiberius, Caius Claudius, Nero, and Domitian, she riveted every day her chains; if she struck some blows, her aim was to the tyrant, not at the tyranny.
After the fall of the Republic, the Romans were “incapable of receiving that blessing” of liberty. They had corrupted themselves; they had forsaken their virtue.
When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community.
This particular analysis applies to the Romans, but it also serves as a warning to citizens of the American republic. Montesquieu paints an image of a society unhinged from its moral principles. In such a society, no form of government—no matter how well conceived—is likely to survive such trauma.
The founders of the American republic had a very clear set of principles in mind before they formed their constitution. These principles were based on theories of the nature of man and society as laid out by Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu. The crux of these principles is stated at the outset of the Declaration of Independence; the equality of all men and the purpose of government in securing the “inalienable rights” of man become the ideological backbone of the Constitution.
Despite the soundness of the original Constitution, it quietly facilitated a monumental injustice that eventually threatened the very existence of the republic. The acquiescence of the founders to the institution of slavery was a moral compromise that ran directly counter to the fundamental principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence. This compromise was not made in ignorance of its odious nature. Likewise, the potentially destructive effects of the compromise were not a mystery: Thomas Jefferson—primary author of the Declaration, and a slaveholder—put his concerns in writing.
It was nearly eighty years after the ratification of the Constitution that the effects of the compromise finally brought the nation to the point of civil war. Abraham Lincoln, who was instrumental in preserving the Union, understood the principles upon which the nation had been founded. He also understood the compromise that left intact the institution which belied those principles. Lincoln believed in those principles, and he knew that the republic’s survival depended on the elimination of slavery.
For all their brilliance and courage, the founders had established a dangerous precedent. They had knowingly trampled underfoot the most fundamental societal principle of the republic they created. They did so in the service of fostering commerce and mitigating factionalism, and it nearly came to render both those concerns moot. The warnings of Montesquieu were brought to tragic, though not fatal, fruition.
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s recovery of the Union did not forestall future tests of the republic’s soundness. In the decades following the Civil War, the United States embarked on a perilous path of imperialism. While isolationist tendencies at home precluded exercise of the overt colonialism practiced by European states, the growing industrial might of the U.S. encouraged an economic expansionism of a different hue. Acting on the Monroe Doctrine (and its various corollaries and interpretations), the U.S. began to extend its military and economic influence first into Latin America, then into the Pacific. The strengthening of the U.S. global economic position increased with successive world wars in the twentieth century.
Concurrent to the expansion of U.S. global influence was the development and growth of the modern corporation. With all the rights of natural persons—and with technically unlimited life spans—corporations have come to dominate the U.S. and global financial environments as organs for the generation and accumulation of capital.
The ascendant economic and military prowess of the U.S., combined with the decline and contraction of other global powers, has placed the American republic in a situation similar to that of ancient Rome in the twilight of its Republic. The danger in this situation arises out of the corrupting influences of both consumerism and imperialism.
The exponential growth and global reach of the U.S. economy have created a glut of domestic wealth that has in turn created an excess of what Montesquieu termed “luxury”:
In proportion as luxury gains ground in a republic, the minds of the people are turned towards their particular interests. Those who are allowed only what is necessary have nothing but their own reputation and their country’s glory in view. But a soul depraved by luxury has many other desires, and soon becomes an enemy to the laws that confine it.
Such corruption and depravity will be evident in the representatives of the republic, and the disastrous results will not be long in coming:
To disguise their own ambition, they speak to them only of the grandeur of the state; to conceal their own avarice, they incessantly flatter theirs….
The greater the advantages they seem to derive from their liberty, the nearer they approach towards the critical moment of losing it. Petty tyrants arise who have all the vices of a single tyrant. The small remains of liberty soon become insupportable; a single tyrant starts up, and the people are stripped of everything, even of the profits of their corruption.
The aforementioned conditions were present in the Roman republic at the threshold of its collapse. They were present in the embattled Weimar Republic before the Germans handed power to the Third Reich. Ominously, similar conditions have been gradually developing in the American republic.
Corporate culture has metastasized, and the glut of imperial wealth has served to dull the wits of the electorate enough to soften the impact of the ever-widening inequities in wealth distribution. Growing cynicism among the body politic has resulted from an aristocratic federal government that is beholden to corporate bribery rather than to an enlightened electorate. The electorate has traded Montesquieu’s civically engaged virtue for pursuit of the consumerist American dream, and the corporate class has capitalized by selling that electorate a regime of media-driven, facile, sound byte politics.
To make matters worse, the executive branch has made a habit of wielding (and often abusing) its constitutional power to carry on overt military adventures and clandestine foreign involvements in the service of corporate hegemony. The Congress and the federal courts have done little besides facilitating the pattern and giving an obligatory slap on the wrist to the most clumsy and egregious offenders.
The bright side of this situation remains at the core of the republic’s founding ideals. Though they failed spectacularly on the issue of slavery, it is significant to remember that the founders may have made the best of the situation as was possible at the time. The constitution that Madison and others constructed remained resilient enough to weather the maelstrom of an issue that could have irreparably torn the republic asunder. Furthermore, it is crucial that the savior of the Union was a Chief Executive who understood the meaning and importance of the founding principles.
The contemporary U.S. electorate is beset by those who use brilliantly orchestrated appeals to fear and avarice to entice us into joining them in crossing our own Rubicon. For the republic to remain viable as a democratic structure, the electorate must first reject the influence of corporate-sponsored dime-store Nietschzes and faux Machiavellis. We must gain an appreciation for the intertwined natures of humanity, society, and government as described by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; we must embrace the virtue that Montesquieu defined. We then have to teach ourselves and our children to understand our republic the way the founders understood it. As Montesquieu said,
Everything therefore depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education…