As the first President of the United States of America stood before an admiring public in New York City to share his thoughts on his inaugural day on April 30th, 1789, he said “There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” Retired General George Washington then went on to explain what his administration would be all about: “Our national policy will be laid in the powerful and immutable principles of the private morality of its citizens”.
One of my favorite series of lectures on our nation’s founding, given by Professor Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University is in fact titled American Ideals: Founding a “Republic of Virtue”.
The word virtue as used here, and understood by our founding fathers, referred to the individual character of people willing to set aside self-interest in favor of the daily living of Christian (Puritan) principles in the interest of “each other”. For the founders, Robinson says, “there was an inextricable connection among moral freedom, political liberty and that form of self-cultivation that results in a person of virtue.”
From the first permanent English colonies in 1620 to the first revolutionary gunfire at Lexington and Concord, 155 years of salutary neglect by Parliament had permitted American colonists time and space to grow into a very different people than those first settlers experimenting with self determination and local decision-making by common consent. Reluctant revolutionaries though most of them were, circumstances conspired to overcome a host of regional jealousies and cultural differences in bringing together thirteen often-rival colonies in a loose confederation unlikely – without a series of “miracles” – to incubate into a single nation.
That all of this happened – including the “miracles” – amazed Europeans, watching from afar. It was this curiosity which brought the young brilliant French scholar and attorney Alexis de Tocqueville to the shores of the New World. Traveling with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville spends much of 1831 and into 1832 visiting America’s cities and centers of government and culture, and its small towns, villages and frontier fringes hoping to learn something about that infant democratic experiment which might prove meaningful to the “revolution” going on in France. His astute and far-reaching observations would see light in his two-volume study, Democracy in America, published in France in 1835 and 1840. (It has been said that these works constitute “the best book ever about America”, and “the best book ever about democracy”.)
: Still intact today, an original hand-written manuscript page of Tocqueville’s notes on 19th Century America. Courtesy Yale University Rare Book Library
Among Tocqueville’s observations was that in America, democracy trickled “up” rather than “down”, beginning with the people, who were long accustomed to participating in local and regional government up close. There, he opined that the jury system likewise played an important role in familiarizing the population with the justice system in a very personal way; virtually every adult having served on a jury and being immersed in what we so oft-handedly describe as “the rule of law” at work. He was further impressed by the presence of three important and revealing objects he would find in every home he visited, whether a town house or a pioneer cabin: an axe, a bible, and a newspaper. Americans were accustomed to hard work, were invested in their religious faith and were educated and informed. (Frontier Americans as a matter of fact read more books each year than their “cultured” cousins in London by more than one account of the time.)
Tocqueville was quick to notice that unlike European church-goers, Americans – regardless of specific denomination – took their faith very personally, assuming the view that every person had the right to speak to, and seek help and inspiration directly from their God. The relatively-smaller Jewish enclave in the young Republic was no different.
In the end, the perspicacious Alexis de Tocqueville doubted that the unique form of democratic freedom which had developed in America could be easily duplicated anywhere else. And as we observe one more Independence Day, it is worth reminding ourselves that most of our founding fathers worried that with the feared growth of factionalism and a diminution of that personal and individual morality Washington so cherished, our Republic of virtue might one day itself be at risk.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AMERICA!