Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Blog: Republican Liberty Perishes with a Whimper,” By Nathan Coleman

A recent Rassmussen poll stated that only 11% of the American population believed President Obama’s recent promise to bring more transparency to the National Security.  Although this poll, and many more like it, acknowledges an American populace that is angry over the recent revelations of domestic spying and data collection at the NSA, surprisingly this displeasure has not translated itself into a large scale political reaction.  The American people, while outraged, seem nonplussed about demanding respect for their liberties.  For a people whose traditions are rooted in robust defenses of their liberty, this silence is troubling.   It suggests an American people who have lost their traditional—one could say, republican—definitions of liberty.  Animating the American Revolution, the resistance to Federalist and Whig centralizing tendencies of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the republican understanding of liberty held as axiomatic that power was self-aggrandizing; as governmental power expanded, liberty contracted.  The preservation of liberty, moreover, demanded a populace not only jealous of their rights but also virtuous enough to care about defending those liberties.

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century Americans were especially concerned with virtue; it permeated their public and private writings.  Taking their cue from the Roman republic, these Americans believed that for a republic to survive, the citizenry must possess virtue. This virtue entailed a variety of things, including moderation, simplicity, frugality, and, perhaps most important of all, the sacrifice of individual private interest for the public. Should the citizenry forsake any one of these, however, the republic and liberty were in immediate danger.   Therefore, the longer the people maintained their virtue, the more secure liberty would be.

Ironically, despite all the emphasis that these Americans bestowed upon the necessity of virtue for the continuance of liberty, history taught them that liberty based upon the virtue of the people was perhaps the hardest method of government possible.  This difficulty stemmed from their belief that virtue and liberty were under perpetual attack from forces of corruption, often defined as extreme luxury and power.  Once again borrowing from the ancients, the Revolutionary generation believed that excessive luxuries corroded the body politic.  Since liberty could thrive only when the people placed the common good above their own self-interest, while also jealously guarding their rights, luxuries made this problematic.  People awash in excessive luxuries were understood to be licentious, flaccid, weak, and less willing to place the public good above their own selfish-pursuits in order to defend their liberty.  The result of this corruption would be the end of liberty and the enslavement of the people under a terrible tyranny.

A quick, but critical, look at contemporary America seems to bear witness to what eighteenth-century Americans took as political truth.  While most Americans are angry at the transgressions of an ever-more centralizing federal government and a presidential administration unconcerned with the rule of law, a crucial explanation as to why Americans seemed vexed about how to stop this encroachment is that we have lost our virtue.   We are much more concerned about the latest technological gadgets, television programs, celebrity gossip, sport scores, sales pages, and entertainment.  In short, Americans have succumbed to the temptation of excessive luxuries.  We are a distracted people who have lost sight of what it takes for a self-governing people to maintain liberty.  The real challenge ahead is how to recover what we have lost.

5 Responses to ““Blog: Republican Liberty Perishes with a Whimper,” By Nathan Coleman”

  1. bobcheeks

    This is an excellent essay that identifies the nation’s most serious problem: the loss of virtue.
    However, every nation/civilization has experienced the loss/gain of virtue. Voegelin often remarked that political existence was in large measure the efforts of good men to recapture/restore those principles grounded on the divine and enumerated in founding documents while restraining the corrupt in their efforts to gain power.
    It remains to be seen if America has a sufficient number of these ‘good’ men, however, we can say, no good ever came of any civilization that systematically slaughtered its young.

  2. ncoleman01

    Thanks, bobcheeks. The founders had that same notion, which they called, “returning to first principles.” The idea first appeared in Cicero’s “On the Commonwealth” (Book 5) and was elaborated upon by Machiavelli in his “Discourses on Livy.” Throught the 1790s, the Jeffersonians called for it repeatedly against the Federalists.

  3. gabe

    Great post and comments.
    And yet, I think there is something more to this. Beyond a loss of virtue, there is a growing (and frightening) disposition to remain silent. Partly out of fear and partly due to the almost century long inculcation of wrong values by both our educational establishment and political elites. We are constantly informed about how wrong our nation is, was, and continues to be. This can not but have a serious and detrimental effect upon our understanding of ourselves as a people and perhaps as individuals.
    A great example of this was a recent promulgation by the DOD Training Agency which labels the American Founders as extremists. At long last, they have succeeded in corrupting our military.


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