Civic Virtue and Western Civilization

William H. Young

In Part I of his essay Domestic Faction in a Republic, George Seaver argues that “public or civic virtue has been essential to all republican governments since the time of Athens. …When governments esteem virtue, the nation flourishes. When they disdain virtue, the nation crumbles.” This article addresses the civic virtue on which America was founded and its condition today.

The Romans “termed this concept Virtus encompassing the moral excellence necessary for political stability and achievement in a republic,” adds Dr. Seaver. The civic virtue of republican Rome—with its devotion to the law, dedication to public service, and sense of obligation and duty—appealed to our founding generation.

The Founders sought to establish republican governance. The Federalist, Number 39, by James Madison, reflects this: “It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with the honourable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” In The Federalist, Number 55, Madison describes the traits of human nature required for republican governance:

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.

But, ironically, the entire colonial experience with classical republican governance was instructive and sobering, as explained by Gordon S. Wood, emeritus professor of history at Brown University, in The Creation of the American Republic (1969).

Republicanism imagined a selfless, united people; colonial politics was racked by a ‘bitter and kaleidoscopic factionalism.’ Republicanism posited an underlying, organic public interest as the object of politics; colonial politics was marked by the narrow pursuit of petty interests. Republicanism imagined homogeneous rural communities; the New World was...rapidly developing social classes and commercial centers….The Revolutionary ideals seemed to be breeding the sources of their own miscarriage. A lament of the times was that the people themselves were the ready instruments of their own ruin. It had become all too evident that blustering, haughty, licentious, self-seeking men were gaining the ear of the people, courting the suffrages of the people by tantalizing them with improper indulgences, exploiting republican ideology and disrupting the social fabric.

The failure of classical republics due to internal dissent and factions coupled with this recent colonial experience led the Founders, notably Madison, to create a republican Constitution based primarily on the principles of Lockean liberalism. In that view, man is essentially a materialist who has natural rights, but unites with others in a community in order to preserve individual liberty, private property, and pursuit of self-interest through a strictly limited representative government of delegated authority. Each individual consents to be governed by a popular majority and to abide by its determinations.

The Founders learned from Scottish philosophers such as Hume, Hutcheson, and Smith that man’s common human nature has an innate moral sense, by which he distinguishes between right and wrong, and that the deliverances of this faculty are feelings or sentiments that can lead to virtue—and the capacity for self-governance. From the Scots, the Founders conceived of civic virtue as the restraint of selfish dispositions, requiring the exercise of the first among virtues—prudence.

Scottish moral philosophy provided a political language for translating the classical republican concept of civic virtue into modern political theory, where it could serve as a foundation for liberal conceptions of citizenship and liberal theories of political obligation, as Alan R. Gibson, a political scientist at Chico State University, argues in Interpreting the Founding (2006). Reflecting Scottish ideas, the Founders conceived of civic virtue as a “sentiment of allegiance from which a disposition to undertake civic duties would emerge.” Dr. Seaver notes in Part II of his essay that Montesquieu, similarly, saw civic virtue as “love of the republic” or “a sensation.”

In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville noted the foresight of the Founders in understanding that self-governance worked best in local, decentralized settings. He observed that Americans had learned civic virtue in their churches, neighborhoods, and voluntary associations (or mediating structures) as the Founders expected. He highlighted how well such Americans practiced what he called “self-interest well understood”— the common good. “The doctrine of self-interest well understood does not produce great devotion; but it suggests little sacrifices each day;…it forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, far sighted, masters of themselves…insensibly through habits.” It was these habits that fostered civility, respect for authority, and a mix of independence and solidarity that made well-ordered liberty and cooperation possible.

We live in a far different postmodern world, with a large central government creating and accommodating expectations of entitlement, a diminished civil society, ever more material pleasures, and, from academia, narcissistic individualism and relativism, focused on the self. Tocqueville anticipated our times as well:

But sometimes a moment arrives in the lives of peoples when old customs are changed, mores destroyed, beliefs shaken, the prestige of memories faded away, and when, however, enlightenment remains incomplete and political rights are badly secured or restricted. Then men no longer perceive the native country except in a weak and doubtful light; they no longer place it in…the usages of their ancestors, which they have been taught to regard as a yoke; nor in the religion which they doubt; nor in the laws they do not make; nor in the legislator whom they fear and scorn. They therefore see it nowhere, not more with its own features than with any other, and they withdraw into a narrow and unenlightened selfishness.

Our national conversation is driven by a ubiquitous media, often reflecting the New Anger described by Peter Wood in A Bee in the Mouth (2007) rather than civility, and carrying messages from powerful factions that now dominate governance, seeking only self-interest. In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Mancur Olson warned that factions drive political life away from considerations of “widespread common interests” and spur “divisiveness” that “can even make societies ungovernable.” Most recently, the Congressional “super committee” could not reach an outcome for the common good. With a faction-riven and immobilized Congress at 9 percent public approval, down from 65 percent ten years ago, it is difficult to inspire a “sentiment of allegiance” to our republic.

Dr. Seaver points out in Part II of his essay that “the conclusion by Montesquieu, Adams and Rousseau and from the ancient republics,” is that the balance of power experiences periodic shifts, but stability can be recovered; the loss of public virtue occurs slowly and is not recoverable.” Our republic today resembles the unsettled aftermath of the American Revolution prior to the Constitution. Our divided people must recover a lost civic virtue, what Montesquieu also called “motivated by a desire to achieve the public good,” if we are to preserve our future as a republic. The fundamental question for future elections is: can our people perceive, and will they choose to return to, our founding civic virtue—prudence and the common good of a moderate central majority—as the basis for governance?  Or will we go the way of other failed republics?  

Unfortunately, civic education in secondary and post-secondary schooling is not teaching a civic virtue that reflects the wisdom of Western civilization and American history, as NAS has recommended. Instead, higher education is pursuing a path even more inimical to our future, which next week’s article will address.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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