Founding Fathers’ Quote Friday: Virtue

Favorite Founding Father's Quote Day

From this summary of what has taken place in other countries, whose situations have borne the nearest resemblance to our own, what reason can we have to confide in those reveries, which would seduce us into the expectation of peace and cordiality between the members of the present confederacy, in a state of separation? Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct, that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?

–Alexander Hamilton (as Publius), “Concerning dangers from war between the states” (no. 6), in The Federalist (Hallowell, 1826), p. 32.  [my boldfacing]

Here, Hamilton is making an argument for federalism due to the likelihood of the states fighting among themselves. As history has shown, it is extremely likely for the states to fight among themselves. Although this is not necessarily cause to advocate for stronger federal government in general, it is cause to advocate for stronger federal government on issues of priority.

It all depends on what you consider to be the highest priorities of national government: Force everyone to adhere to centrally defined policies, or expect them to disagree and provide mechanisms for resolution? Allow everyone to follow their personal moral light wherever it leads, without legal consequences; or expect some to violate common standards, and provide for just punishment? Ensure that everyone has perfect equality of financial assets, income, intellect, health, social acceptability, etc.; or ensure that you have fair and just systems that allow equality of opportunity?

Regardless, the more general framework for Hamilton’s comment is that it is foolish to idealize human nature.  In The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton (Douglas Ambrose, Robert William, and Thomas Martin, NYU Press: 2006), Hamilton (as Publius) is said to promote “a system that channels men’s selfish natures rather than encouraging self-limiting virtue” (p. 136):

For Publius, human nature is consistently “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious . . . [man is a lover] of power . . . preeminence and dominion,” and this is know empirically from the “accumulated experience of ages.” Has it not “been found that momentary passions, and immediate interests, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice.” “How often,” he continues, is it that “the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals.” Those qualities of men that are not self-directed are most rare and cannot be relied upon to solve the problems of government that most concerned Publius.

Thus we can distinguish between two theories of how virtue relates to liberty:  There is a form of libertarianism that recognizes the sinful nature of mankind and allows for it to be redirected or, if necessary, disciplined for purely behavioral reasons; in which the sovereignty of government is relevant only on the fringes, where one’s behavior encroaches on another’s liberty. Then there is a Jacobin licentiousness that assumes the essential goodness of mankind, and consequently expects that everyone’s virtue will consist in courageously expressing their own depravity.

The latter belief goes along with a notion that “things have changed” and now people will be free to play in the sunshine of liberated peace and happiness, as was evidenced in Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue (AKA the Reign of Terror), Hitler’s Thousand-Year Empire (AKA the Nazi Third Reich), and Stalin’s Worker’s Paradise (AKA the gulag archipelago). More recently, Americans have eagerly anticipated the Age of Aquarius, the post-communist End of History, the New Economy, the Project for the New American Century, the Permanent Majority of the Republican Party, and of course the global dominance of the New Atheism.


3 thoughts on “Founding Fathers’ Quote Friday: Virtue

  1. Great quote from Hamilton, Dave! Neat that you and I picked the same Founder! In fact, Hamilton is one of my favorites, and the philosophy behind the quote, which you delineated very well, IMHO, is one of the reasons why I think he was one of the most brilliant and perceptive writers of the Founding Era.

    I think that his position on the proper domain of government have been quite misunderstood in our politically correct age. It wasn’t that Hamilton had too much faith in government. He didn’t trust the inherent goodness of any man. He had little faith in the goodness of the common man and of the mob, and was concerned that America’s greatest danger was to fall into the same democratic excesses that all societies tend to degenerate into after a revolution. This was the case in France, as you pointed out.

    The first theory of virtue which you named, is unquestionably preferable. However it will not work unless there is a considerable degree of personal virtue instilled in the great body of the people of our country. But virtue, as we know, cannot be coerced on a nation. Virtue is only virtue if it is a consistent habit — a lifestyle.

    Happy FFQF!

    P.S. Tomorrow’s FFQF theme is the importance of motherhood. Hopefully that’s not a toughy. 😉

  2. Oh, and I forgot to mention one interesting little fact. I happen to know Professor Douglas Ambrose! I met him and the two other founders of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Their headquarters is in Clinton, NY. It’s a terrific organization. And they have a terrific website:

    Just a neat little fact I thought I’d share with you. I was pleasantly surprised to read a quote from his book.

  3. Thanks! I just stumbled on it while researching Hamilton, on a tip that he was considered to be one of the smartest Founding Fathers. The only ones I know well from past reading are Jefferson, Washington, and John Adams.

    Google Books is a great resource for the Founding Fathers, since it now has thousands of older texts available in full as PDFs.

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