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On Washington’s Republicanism

From the Library of Law, W.B. Allen writing, well worth reading in full:

To try to create within oneself that same resonance, one might recall that self government does not mean majority rule – for any of the American Founders. While it certainly does include the processes of majority rule ultimately, that is only a mechanism, a means – not what was being aimed at. What he meant by self government was rather more a moral conception, such as he expressed in his Farewell, when he eulogized the people as “now” loving to be “one people,” and now governing themselves. At that moment, at least, they became in Washington’s eyes a republic, and had also to accept the responsibility for its perpetuation. Washington’s Farewell is truly a masterpiece in literary craftsmanship.

In modern times we have nearly completely lost the idea of republican virtue. It’s not something even really thought about anymore, but the Founders thought it was essential if the United States was going to succeed. You will hardly ever hear politicians use the term “private morality.” Both the left and right believe in public morality, but merely differ in what they believe public morality is. But before libertarians get too pleased, I believe there are many things about libertarian philosophy that the Founders would likewise find to be unvirtuous. Like I said, republican virtue seems to be a bit of a lost concept.

4 Responses to “On Washington’s Republicanism”

  1. Alpheus says:

    When making the transition to being an anarcho-capitalist, I concluded that I could be best described as a conservative libertarian: without basic morality– without basic values like honesty, a respect for life, liberty and property, a good work ethic, and so forth–a basically lawless society cannot survive.

    But then, the reality is that NO government system, or no society for that matter, can survive without these values. It just so happens that species with less government are less susceptible to destruction, when people with no values (or the wrong ones) come to power, than in ones with lots of government. An evil dictator can do more damage than an evil president in a republic with a good system of checks and balances.

    Of course, even the most virtuous dictator cannot force a society of evil people to be good! If we chose evil as a society, we only from ourselves. (And we deserve what’s coming, too.)

    • Yup. And Washington’s Farewell Address is very clear on this same point:

      Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition 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.

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