Virtus from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern, Part III

George Seaver

  • Article
  • March 16, 2010

 Editor’s note: The following article is a research essay by one of our members, George Seaver, a former Teaching Fellow and postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Seaver demonstrates here that public virtue has been essential to all republican governments since the time of Athens. Courage, integrity, wisdom, self-control, and justice have been the foundation for the stability of free nations. When governments esteem virtue, the nation flourishes. When they disdain virtue, the nation crumbles. The United States has seen the decline of morality and the rise of relativism; does this mean our nation is doomed? Dr. Seaver investigates.   

NAS is publishing this essay in four daily installments: 

Part I: Public Virtue and Stability in the Ancient Republics
Part II: Public Virtue as Seen from the Enlightenment

Part III: Public Virtue in the U.S. Constitution and the First 200 Years of the Republic
Part IV: The Conflict and Subsequent Impairment of Public Virtue under Postmodernism  

Virtus: from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern
Public Virtue: Cincinnatus to Foucault 

III. Public Virtue in the U.S. Constitution and the First 200 Years of the Republic

Virtus in the U.S. Constitution

As described in Section I, George Washington's career, as both a general and as president, paralleled that of Cincinnatus during the Roman republic. In his fidelity to public virtue and his rejection of political ambition he was justly the first president of the Society of Cincinnatus, from 1783 to the year of his death. 

Prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 the generally accepted belief was that republics with elected representatives were the only states that could provide liberty, and "that the animating principle of republics was virtue."22 The virtue part was far from a unanimous sentiment, however, particularly among the ant-federalists. Patrick Henry at the Virginia convention described it this way: "I dread the depravity of human nature….I will never depend on so slender a protection as the possibility of being represented by virtuous men."23 George Mason, another anti-federalist in the Virginia convention, feared that, "considering the natural lust for power so inherent in man, the thirst of power will prevail to oppress people."24 John Adams believed that intrigues and self-interest were ever-present, and emphasized the need for separation of powers, for their balance and for each power to have a negative, a veto, over the other, although he knew that virtue was necessary as well. James Madison also believed this and recited in Federalist LV: 

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...[otherwise] the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government: and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.25 

Bernard Bailyn in his 1992 book, "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" summarized: 

Yes, people were innately evil and self-seeking, and yes, no one could be trusted with unconfined power. That was true in America as anywhere else. But under the Constitution's checks and balances power would be far from unconfined, and for such a self-limiting system there would be virtue enough for success.26

Virtus in the First 200 Years of the Republic

Public virtue had an advantage in the early U.S. republic that it did not have in the ancient republics. Religion, and anglo-protestantism in particular (of concept not people), focused on doctrine and the individual over collective ritual which reinforced public virtue.27a,b,c, d This was made more effective with the disestablishment of religious denominations by the Constitutional Convention of 178728. How has public virtue fared during the first 200 years of the U.S. republic? We will consider the writings of historians, political leaders, foreign commentators, social scientists and racial advocates over the period 1788 to 1944 to answer that question.   

In 1755 Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur immigrated to New France (now Canada) and served in the French and Indian War as a surveyor in the French Colonial Militia. Following the French defeat in 1759 he moved to the Province of New York, took out citizenship and the American name of John St. John and in 1770 married an American woman. He traveled widely in the early United States, much like Tocqueville did 40 years later, and in 1782 published a series of narrative essays entitled Letters from an American Farmer which became a literary success both in America and in Europe. Subsequently, at the suggestion of Ethan Allen, St. Johnsbury, Vermont was named after him. In the Letters he talked about an English grandfather whose wife was Dutch, whose son was married to a Frenchwoman, and whose four sons had married women of different nationalities: 

From this promiscuous breed that race now called Americans have risen...What then is the American, this new man?...He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds... The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles…Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.29 

This is Virtus at the popular level for an extended republic. 

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a 26-year-old French aristocrat, spent nine months during 1831 and 1832 traversing America. In 1835 he published his careful observations in his book Democracy in America; it was so perceptive that it has become a classic in describing the essence of the American republic. In a letter to a friend in France on June 9, 1831, he revealed his amazement at the miracle that was America: 

Imagine, my dear friend if you can, a society formed of all the nations of the world…people having different languages, beliefs, opinions: in a word, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without a national character, yet a hundred times happier than our own.30 

When prejudices are left behind, public virtue thrives. 

After the Civil War, still close to slavery, Americans originally from Africa might be expected to be cynical about their American identity; such was not the case. Frederick Douglass escaped from his slave master in 1838, bought his freedom in 1846, but continued to be confronted by aggressive racial insults and discrimination. Nevertheless, he believed strongly in the U.S. Constitution, which led to his falling out with William Lloyd Garrison, and in the improvement of the Negro American condition through constitutional means. The concept of "African American" was repugnant to him, as it was to W.E.B. DuBois30, Booker T. Washington and, later, Ralph Bunche31. Frederick Douglass in an article in his February 1859 monthly magazine stated, " No one idea has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward the colored people of this country than that which makes Africa, not America, their home." The historian Arthur Schlesinger in his book The Disuniting of America notes that "when the freedmen after emancipation chose last names, they took not African names but the names of American heroes - Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Clay, Lincoln."31 Despite their personal ordeal, they knew that there existed an inherent virtue they could rely upon that did not exist elsewhere. 

In 1888 an observer from quite a different direction came to similar conclusions to that of the previous observers. James Bryce, a Scotsman and a historian, was a member of the U.K. Parliament from 1880 to 1907 and its Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He was the British ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913. In 1888 he wrote The American Commonwealth in which he, much like Tocqueville had 50 years before, marveled at how the "heterogeneous elements" in America were absorbed: "...the amazing solvent power which American institutions, habits, and ideas exercise upon newcomers of all races…quickly dissolving and assimilating the foreign bodies that are poured into her mass."31 

In 1942 Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish social scientist and Professor of International Economics at the University of Stockholm, supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, published his voluminous work, An American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Professor Myrdal began with a paradox that America confronted him with: "dis-similarity throughout and chaotic unrest" on the one hand, yet "Americans of all national origins, classes, regions, creeds, and colors have...a social ethos, a political creed." When the reason for this is understood, he found, "the cacophony becomes a melody."32 Professor Myrdal spends the great part of his 1500-page work on what he sees as the gross violations the Constitution, particularly in regard to Negroes, women and ethnic newcomers. However, his research also reveals, through polling and interviews, the remarkable coherence of the population: 

The unanimity around, and the explicitness of, this Creed is the great wonder of America. The "Old Americans," all those who have thoroughly come to identify themselves with the nation - which are many more than the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution - adhere to the Creed as the faith of their ancestors. The others - the Negroes, the new immigrants, the Jews, and other disadvantaged and unpopular groups - could not possibly have invented a system of political ideals which better corresponds to their interests. So, by the logic of the unique American history, it has developed that the rich and secure, out of pride and conservatism, and the poor and insecure, out of dire need, have come to feel that this spiritual convergence, more than America's strategic position behind the oceans and its immense material resources, is what makes the nation great and what promises it a still greater future33. 

A previous section of this essay quoted Plato describing his ideal republic, particularly in regard to education and manners. Myrdal discovered this in fact in his grassroots research. He found, regarding the "principles of social ethics": 

The schools teach them, the churches preach them. The courts pronounce their judicial decisions in their terms. They permeate editorials with a pattern of idealism so ingrained that the writers could scarcely free themselves from it even if they tried...The Negro people in America are no exception to the national pattern...They, like the whites, are under the spell of the great national suggestion."34 

Myrdal's paradox is resolved by recognizing America's public virtue, America's Virtus. 

Also in 1944 Ralph Bunche, a collaborator of Gunnar Myrdal, a political scientist, diplomat, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a leader in the 1960's civil rights movement, spoke on American public virtue: 

Every man in the street, white, black, red or yellow, knows that this is "the land of the free," the "land of opportunity," the "cradle of liberty," the "home of democracy," that the American flag symbolizes the "equality of all men" and guarantees to us all "the protection of life, liberty and property," freedom of speech, freedom of religion and racial tolerance34. 

In 1992 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., concerned about the deterioration of the "American Creed," the codification of American public virtue, published his book, The Disuniting of America. Although much of his book, like Myrdal's before him, is about the oppression of minorities, his ambivalence reveals: 

The ethnic upsurge began as a gesture of protest against the Anglocentric culture. It became a cult, and today it threatens to become a counter-revolution against the original theory of America as "one people," a common culture, a single nation."35    

Which brings us to the post-1960's period, the postmodern era, where the inheritors of Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault found that Virtus imposed unacceptable hierarchies, privilege and oppression in society, and they acted accordingly. 

To be continued...


22.      Bailyn, Bernard, 1992: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolutions. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1992. Pg. 344.

23.      Ibid., Pg. 346.

24.      Ibid., Pg. 346.

25.      The Federalist Papers, 1888. The Total Number of the Body (House), Number 55. Issac Kramnick, Ed. Penguin Books. Pg.339.

26.      Bailyn, B. Ibid., Pg. 369.

27.      a. Gellner, Ernst, 1992: Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. Routledge, NY. Pgs.     

          92, (on Hume) 93.

       b.  Montesquieu, ibid., Bk. XXIV, ch. V.

c.       Myrdal, Gunnar, 1944: An American Dilemma. Random House, NY. Pg. 9-11.

d.      Huntington, Samuel, 2004: Who We Are. Simon&Schuster, NY. Pgs. 75, 69-71.

28.      Bailyn, B., Ibid., Pgs. 261-272.

29.      Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr., 1992: The Dis-uniting of America. W.W. Norton, NY.       Pgs. 12-14.

30.      De Tocqueville, Alexis, 1831: Letter to Earnest D. Chabral. June 9, 1831. Included in Schlesinger, Ibid., Pg. 25.

31.  Schlesinger, Ibid, Pgs. 82, 26.

32.  Myrdal, Gunnar, 1944: An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Random House, NY. Pg. 3.

33.  Ibid., Pg. 13.

34.  Ibid., Pg. 4.

35.  Schlesinger, Ibid., Pg. 43.

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