At the close of the Constitutional Convention, I picture Benjamin Franklin stepping out of Independence Hall rather hesitantly. Perhaps he knew what was coming, for upon seeing America’s eldest statesman emerge from the Hall, a Philadelphia resident named Elizabeth Powell asked the good doctor, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin replied, “A republic–if you can keep it (emphasis added).”
Recorded by Maryland delegate James McHenry, the story may be apocryphal but is nonetheless illustrative. The framers of the Constitution created a system of government where the people, and not their elected officials or bureaucrats, are responsible for the upbuilding and maintenance of the Commonwealth. A monarchy with a king places the responsibility for the day-to-day affairs of the country on the king. The people need not actively contribute but merely follow his dictates and the directions of his ministers, then all will be well–but not so with a republic. And that’s what we’ve got.
The people’s responsibility to maintain such a government is embedded in the very word, republic. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica — the “people’s thing” — a term that denotes how the people must live in such a way they do not have to be governed. In Rome, that ancient civilization mined by the Founding Fathers for its lessons on republican virtue, every citizen, no matter how poor or how seemingly insignificant, had some part to play in the affairs of the republic. It was the SPQR–senatus populusque Romae–together, not the rex.
A republic may be a nation of laws, but the people need no laws telling them how to serve the common good.
That’s because a republic is what’s called a mixed constitution. A republican government — note the small r here — is a nation of laws and, if properly constituted, mixes elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. That way, the relative strengths of one system compensate for the weaknesses of another. A republic has one person in charge of an institution like the army (the consul for the Romans, the president for the United States), but also democratic assemblies debating various policy initiatives, both foreign and domestic (the Senate for the Romans and, well, for us, too). A republic may have the order and efficiency of a king but still maintains the respect for individual rights and freedoms arising from a democracy. A republic may be a nation of laws, but the people need no laws telling them how to serve the common good.
Instead, the common good was an ideal they wanted to pursue on their own. Stories of ancient heroes from the Roman Republic encourage this kind of naturally-arising self-sacrifice on behalf of Roman liberty, a word Livy uses repeatedly throughout his “History of Rome” to highlight the point of this whole “people’s thing”: whatever liberty was, it meant no less than that each citizen could order their lives as they see fit without fear some king could come and violate their person or steal their property.
Consider the example of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus retired to his farm when hostile Italic tribes threatened the city. Knowing Cincinnatus was the best man to handle the threat, the Senate and the plebs offered Cincinnatus, whom they found plowing his fields, the position of dictator. Such an office was reserved for times of emergency when one cannot debate military strategy with barbarians at the gates. Amazingly, Cincinnatus held the position for approximately two weeks until the threat was neutralized, and then Cincinnatus returned to his farm, refraining from using his power in any way that would benefit only himself and not the city he loved.
If the story sounds familiar, it is because George Washington imbibed the lesson common Romans were meant to take from Cincinnatus’ example: power and responsibility are to be exercised for the common good, and if that power ever is absolute, as with of a dictator, it should be temporary, well-defined, and in response to a real, existential threat. If all Romans could possess that kind of resolve to do good for their country, who could possibly stop them? And what laws would you need to govern such a people, who freely took such obligations upon themselves?
Indeed, no law could ever produce such a citizenry. One cannot legislate people to act according to the common good; instead, laws are prescribed to promulgate the consequences should someone break the law. One cannot legislate citizens that sacrifice themselves for their country, but one can prescribe the punishment should a citizen sacrifice their country for themselves (in Rome, traitors were thrown off the Tarpeian Rock outside the city). But a law demanding the people sacrifice their own property and well-being for the common good, on par with a figure like Cincinnatus? Impossible. Laws reflect the morality of the people — they do not create a people with good morals. Yet, if the people cannot govern themselves, they will need laws for practically everything.
If we know what virtue is, perhaps we could find and pursue it once again. As a shorthand, virtue refers to habits of moral excellence. The most influential and helpful articulation of virtue came not from any Roman but instead from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, although he would have used the Greek word arete (pronounced “ah – re – TAY”) which means “excellence.” For Aristotle, arete is rooted in a series of excellent activities that exist as a kind of golden mean between two extremes. A virtue like courage, the bravery one demonstrates despite the fear one feels, lies at the midpoint between cowardice and foolhardiness. One may feel fear in moments of danger, but one does not give into the fear (that’s cowardice) or dismiss it (that’s foolhardiness); instead, we try and do what good we can despite the dangers. Virtue, then, is something we do, actions that derive from choices that become the habits we ought to pursue each day.
Today, we may not speak so often of virtue in general or of particular virtues like hard work and thrift, but the Founding Fathers certainly did. Quotes abound that virtue is the requisite needed to keep the republic Benjamin Franklin quipped about. In his farewell address, George Washington identified “virtue or morality” as a “necessary spring of popular government.” James Madison argued that “to suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” With a chimera composed of monstrous parts from lions, goats, and snakes, needless to say, the United States would not long survive once the people scorned the paths of wisdom and virtue. Indeed, as Franklin observed, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” In other words, the loss of virtue either precedes or precipitates the onset of tyranny. But, if we figure out how we lost our individual and national virtue, those habits of moral excellence, maybe we could pursue those habits once again.
So how do we get back on the path of virtue? The answer is simple but unpopular: we ought to aspire to live quietly, as the apostle Paul urged the church in Thessaloniki. Paul’s advice of “aspiring to live quietly” comes amidst a flurry of exhortations to work hard, take care of your neighbor, and keep oneself free from destructive habits the Founders would have called vice. In contrast, far too many Americans want vice, not virtue; fame, not families; wealth, not wisdom. The idea of living quietly entails that each of us stops looking outward across social media, Reddit forums, Hollywood, and the like for acceptance and start looking inward again to those local institutions, filled with people we know, to help us shape our identities and in that way, serve and be served by its members. A nation conceived in liberty but composed of citizens consumed with themselves cannot long endure; in contrast, a nation composed of citizens animated by the common good but practicing the simple things we avoid doing will cultivate the character needed to do those noble deeds we now only read about.
Indeed, one can only imagine how proud the Founding Fathers would be if they knew what American self-government had produced. One hundred and fifty years of a free people living in a free country produced a generation of farm boys and city folk who dared scale the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, knives in their teeth and gunfire raining down on them, their mind set on liberating Europe from Nazi rule. We may attempt such feats one day but for now, we ought to work in unglamorous jobs that contribute to the common good, look to the good of our neighbors, and raise families. If we willingly serve the common good in such ways, this nation may endure for many more generations.
Winston Brady is the director of curriculum & Thales Press and hosts the Thales Academy “Developing Classical Thinkers” podcast. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Inferno,” a modern retelling of Dante’s classic poem.