Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Virtue and Limited Government

by Glenn Moots

James McHenry of Maryland, one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, recorded in his diary a now-famous story about Benjamin Franklin. After the convention, Franklin purportedly crossed paths with Elizabeth Powel. Mrs. Powel and her husband were well-connected Philadelphians. McHenry writes that Mrs. Powel, curious about the outcome of the convention, asked Franklin, “Well, Doctor what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replies, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The precise details of the story are disputed, but such stories about the Founding, whether apocryphal or not, resemble worthwhile parables or fables. They transmit essential wisdom from generation to generation. 

The Wisdom of Founding a Republic

In McHenry’s story, Mrs. Powel and Franklin contrast a republic with a monarchy. The Founders disagreed about the merits of monarchy, with some critics of the Constitution charging that monarch-like power was inappropriately given to the executive branch. But we should not presume that monarchy, as such, precludes accountability or constitutional limits. America’s own constitutional tradition, whether federal or state, was owed to a long political tradition of limited government extending back to Magna Carta and to the political ideas of the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews before that. Regimes of any type were held accountable under a plethora of constitutional prescriptions and proscriptions. Unaccountable monarchs are rare in the Western tradition.

The alternative that Mrs. Powel offers Franklin, and he agrees to — a republic—  is typically thought of as a form of government with much more accountability. After all, the “people”, and not just one person, rule. Right? The Latin roots of the word would seem to reinforce this: res publica is sometimes translated as “the concern of the people.” However, the many uses of this phrase among ancient Roman and Medieval writers don’t give much credence to that translation.

What’s more, there are definite pitfalls in any reference to “the people.” In modern times, totalitarian dictatorships claim to be for “the people,” but neither “The People’s Republic of China” or the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” really care about the interests of their people. The same problem exists with any reference to “democracy,” another moniker also used by totalitarian countries who are anything but democratic. East Germany was the “German Democratic Republic.”

Notice, however, that totalitarian polities also try to leverage the term “republic.” Are they republics? After all, a republic is not the same as a democracy: a republic may be more or less democratic depending on the circumstances. A republic may include elements of monarchy (the rule of one) or aristocracy (the rule of a few, ideally exceptional, individuals), or it may integrate more popular elements.

To return to its Latin roots, it would be better to think of a republic or res publica not as that which is “of the people,” but that which is common (“in common”) or public. A popular translation of res publica over the centuries has therefore been “commonwealth.” Some of our American states, Virginia for example, are commonwealths. The common “wealth” is not confined to money, but refers to what makes human life good more generally. [Editor’s note: the archaic root is Commonweal where “weal” means “well-being” or “health”.]  As “common” goods, they are available to all. A republic, then, cannot simply be a country that reflects the desires or will of “the people,” but actually enables their good through good governance. What’s more, the good must be public or common, which means it should not be confined to one or another group at the exclusion of others. This is what is meant in the US Constitution’s Preamble as the “general welfare” and “common defense.”

Republicanism and Virtue

A government dedicated to enabling the common good can be contrasted with liberalism, the idea of government focused almost entirely on liberty or freedom with less regard to the results of that focus. American government has been called “liberal” in the classical sense, as a government dedicated to preserving the freedom of its citizens. That is arguably anachronistic. Freedom, as a definite good, is a goal implicit in America being a “republic,” but any republic enables goods in addition to freedom. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, we can consider some philosophers and statesmen (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) as “proto-liberal,” but liberalism was still being formulated.

Every educated person in 1787 knew what a republic was, however. Being a republic doesn’t refer to the Republican party or GOP, which didn’t even exist until 1854. A republic is understood from one’s education in the Greek and Roman classics (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Plutarch, Polybius, Cicero) and early modern political philosophers (e.g., Algernon Sydney, Montesquieu). Republicanism, if one can call it an “ism,” not only predates liberalism by over a millennium, it emphasizes virtue over freedom.

Virtue has been understood for centuries to mean excellence. Something is virtuous if it reaches its full potential. A good dog exhibits unfailing loyalty to its owner and is an excellent hunter and protector. Loyalty, hunting, and protection are, after all, definitional characteristics of dogs. A dog who does those things well is an excellent (or virtuous) dog. Of course, because a republic isn’t about dogs but about people, we need to ask what characterizes an excellent person or a person who meets the potential of human beings generally. Part of that definition of human excellence includes good character traits. For centuries, philosophers and theologians talked about the Cardinal Virtues: justice, prudence/wisdom, fortitude/courage, and temperance/self-control. Christians adopted these longstanding virtues in the Western tradition and added faith, hope, and love.

Republics enable conditions for virtue insofar as they are supposed to enable all essential human goods, but the success of any republic relies heavily on their citizens maintaining their virtues.

Virtue and Limited Government

Virtue preserves the aforementioned constitutional limits and the rule of law not only because virtuous people appreciate the importance of rules and the need to follow them; they also realize that a better life comes from taking responsibility for yourself and your neighbor. In our constitution there is a very short list of prescriptions for what Congress may do (Article 1, Section 8). For example, Congress can raise an army or coin money. But delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not agree that Congress should build roads or canals or a national university. Also, taxation was supposed to be both limited and equal, apportioned based on population or levied on all incoming goods. In addition to these prescriptions, there are proscriptions or prohibitions on Congressional power (Article 1, Section 9 and the Bill of Rights) and a few on state power (Article 1, Section 10) — but only those necessary to have a federal union of states.

Sadly, most of these prescriptions and proscriptions are now ignored; the reasons can be traced to a lack of virtue. If federal power was limited, and political power generally decentralized, people would do more for themselves and their neighbors. Also, if we restrain ourselves, we have little need of government. GK Chesterton wisely said, “If men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they shall be governed by the ten thousand commandments” — implying that those laws would be imposed on us by our government. Along these lines, Founder James Madison said of the government he helped to create, “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

Thankfully, our constitutional republic does not rely entirely on virtue. Our Founders planned on people being given to ambition, competition, and faction and the vices that came along with that. Their brilliance in making provision for less-than-virtuous leaders and citizens has kept us from tyranny or anarchy. But we ignore Franklin’s warning to Mrs. Powel only at our own peril. If we would preserve America as a republic, we must preserve our virtues as well.

Discussion questions:

  1. The author draws attention to a relationship between virtue and religion. In his “Farewell Address” George Washington wrote “And let us with caution indulge the sup- position that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Does the decline in religious observance in America make our republic more tenuous, or were many of the framers wrong in their assertions about the relationship between virtue and religion?
  2. How do we “preserve” virtue, and which virtues in particular need to be preserved?
  3. What is the connection between self-governance understood as a person governing himself and self-governance understood as a public governing itself?

Dr. Moots is author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenantal Theology. He is Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at Northwood University and currently serving as a McNair Center Fellow and Bretzlaff Scholar there.


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