Thursday, May 11, 2006

Public Virtue

After the Revolution, Americans were republicans but they did not agree on what a republic looked like. The political philosophies came in a thousand exceptions, shades, and hybrids, but away from the center stood two powerful poles, which have been described as the "classical/puritan" model of republicanism and the "modern/agrarian" model.

That they tended to have their bases in different ends of the new nation, the first in New England and the second in the South, is no accident. This touches on the image of Roundhead New England vs. Celtic South. It's an overworked cliche, but there's an element of truth in any idea around long enough to be a cliche.

Different strains of republicanism flourished in between -- in Dutch New York and Quaker Jersey and Pennsylvania. And they played important roles in the young nation. But the two poles of republicanism remain solid anchors in our national life, and it is impossible to understand America's maddening contradictions without reference to them.

As Americans set up their infant republic, one of the images foremost in their minds was how republics die. All the classical republics, then knew, had come to an end in anarchy and then tyranny. Classical and modern writers had taken up the theme of the death of a republic so often and so minutely that by the 18th century the process could be described in almost clinical medical terms. The learned men knew it from their classical educations, and the common people knew it from the popular plays of the day, such as "Julius Caesar" and Addison's "Cato" (which Washington had performed for the troops at Valley Forge, notwithstanding a Congressional ban on theaters).

[The influence of theater on Revolutionary-era politics probably was enormous, and I don't know if anyone has studied it properly. Otway's "Venice Preserved," for example, was one reason Venice was not brought up among the model republics when America's Founders were doing their work. How different the country might have been without that now-forgotten play.]

The vital principle in keeping a republic alive was public virtue. This was virtue in the classical, not the Christian, definition. The Christian, seeking to be not of this world in Roman times, turned pagan virtue on its head.

Classical virtue was not in the least bit meek, but it strove to be first in doing good for one's country and coveted the glory that comes with unrelenting devotion to the good of the people. It expressed itself in endurance, industry, frugality, and probity -- many of which were consistent with Christianity. Gertrude Himmelfarb has ably condensed the classical idea of virtue as "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private."

This was the pulse and ichor of a republic. Washington said it plainly in his Farewell Address, "It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." His successor, John Adams, wrote, "There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty."

It was perfectly obvious to the Founders that public virtue could be the province of free men only. One who was bound by debt or loyalty to other men was not free to give himself totally to the good of the public. That accounts for the Founders' general horror of debts, banks, lenders, and mortgages. It accounts for why many states required voters or office-holders to be men of a certain income or property. This was at heart a republican, not an aristocratic, principle.

But North and South diverged on how best to keep the tree of public virtue well-watered and flowering. The puritan republicans upheld personal morality as the solution: A virtuous people could not help but be a virtuous republic. Agrarians looked to the structure of a limited government and to an ordered, hierarchic society to keep the republic healthy.

The puritan approach led to the dense volumes of blue laws in the New England states. Literally everything under the sun was considered in light of whether it might weaken the republic, and thus everything was properly subject to regulation or proscription. The result, in the extreme, was a totalitarian liberty: One was free to do anything, so long as it was not against the best interest of all.

John Adams was the perfect embodiment of this republican philosophy. Moral to the point of austerity, he railed against "vanities, levities, and fopperies." Of his children, he wrote with pride, "They shall live upon thin Diet, wear mean Cloaths, and work hard, with Chearfull Hearts and free Spirits." At least one Pennsylvanian, surveying the New England society, was reminded of the Spartans, who, the Athenian Alcibiades remarked, were so fearless in battle because death "is a welcome relief to them from such a life as they are obliged to lead."

All of which makes a stark contrast to the indolence, passion, and leisure ethic of the Southerners. Historians' views of the political philosophy of the South during the Revolution tend to miss the mark because the writers are dazzled by the twin stars of Jefferson and Madison. The two friends had a potent impact on America, but, as Southern men, they were exotics.

A more typically Southern view of the republican problem is represented by John Taylor of Caroline, who wrote, "The more a nation depends for its liberty on the qualities of individuals, the less likely it is to retain it. By expecting publick good from private virtue, we expose ourselves to publick evils from private vices."

It was a frank repudiation of the puritan model. But it was not original to him. Like the puritans, the agrarians had a battery of writers at their fingertips, such as Bolingbroke and the authors who published under the title "Cato's Letters."

To them, the ownership of property, unencumbered by debt, was the rock foundation of republican independence, virtue, and liberty. New Englanders believed in this, too, but the Southerners made it a dogma.

This led them to see the hierarchy which already existed among them as a bulwark of the republic: In their vision, the masses of slaves did the labor, and the citizens -- by definition free white males -- thus stood on a republican equality. As DeBow wrote, "No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. ... He is a companion and an equal."

At least ideally, and socially. But there was a class of men at the top of the social order whose plantations gave them such independence and leisure that they could devote themselves wholly to public virtue, without regard for keeping food on the table. John C. Calhoun was the epitome of such a man. One reason Southerners so dominated the republic in its early generations was that the leading Northern men in Congress frequently had to drop government business or retire from office for a time and go home to make money or plow their fields. The Southern senators did not.

As odious as much of the old South is to modern attitudes, it had the approval of history. The Spartan, Athenian, and Roman republics -- the principal examples available to the Founders -- all were built on essentially the same social and economic model, with a mass of slaves at the bottom.

Indeed, the very fact of slavery among them made the Southern men more zealous about protecting liberty. Edmund Burke, looking to the Southern colonies, guessed it right in 1775, answering the question that puzzled so many Englishmen: Why the love of liberty was so strong among those who held slaves.

Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude; liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal.

If the paradox of the North was totalitarian liberty, the paradox of the South was aristocratic liberty.

As in the Athenian democracy, the people were to be consulted directly only upon the most dangerous and important questions -- such as secession. South Carolina still chose its presidential electors in the state government in 1860.

Rigorous private moral virtue was not necessary in the agrarian republican model -- and was little esteemed among men in the South. Instead, jealousy of power and careful attention to governance would keep the flame of public virtue alive. Govern well, put men of pure virtues and total leisure in power, guard against demagogues and tyrants, and live as well as you please.

Instead of the New England ideal of a government that put its thumb down on every amusement and vice, the Southerners favored a minimal government on every level, with few restrictions and coercions.

Now, think of America today, and do you not sense both those forms of republicanism -- Adams and Taylor -- twisted into our national sinews? They come up convoluted sometimes -- how is it that the very liberal modern idea of a right to privacy would be more appealing to a Southern slaveholder of 1776 than to a free farmer of Massachusetts? Which one would find it more essential to national survival to constitutionally ban gay marriage?

The Civil War upended and destroyed the South's social order, which was the basis of its political order. The Southern culture was subsumed into a Yankee-built national political regime to which it was temperamentally ill-suited. Might this not explain some of the role of the South in modern American politics?

Or this: Parisians used to say that Paris was the France of France. Texas, settled out of the hill country of Georgia and Alabama, by the most distilled and purified of the Southern whites, was the South of the South.

But what's missing, what I always miss when I lay the present atop the past and look at my country, is public virtue. I think the Founders, if they could urge on us one book every American should read in his education, would choose Plutarch's "Lives." I once wanted to do a version of it that could be easily read on a 6th grade level.

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