Sacrificing private interest for the public good is a noble virtue. It was an idea widely revered in the years surrounding the American Revolution. But despite the pervasiveness of that idea, some believed it was leading America down a path toward destruction.
It was widely believed that throughout history “free republican governments have been objected to, as if exposed to factions from an excess of liberty.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 60. Further, in republics, “each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body.” Id. at 60-61 quoting Payson, Sermon Preached May 27, 1778, Thornton, ed., Pulpit, 332.
Acting in the public’s interest was key, some believed. Benjamin Rush said that “[e]very man in a republic is public property. His time and talents—his youth—his manhood—his old age—nay more, life, all belong to his country.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 61 quoting Benjamin Rush, “On the Defects of the Confederation” (1787), Dagobert D. Runes, ed., The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (N.Y., 1947), 31.
These principles, when implemented in republics, seemed to create prosperity and stability in society, but William Moore Smith believed otherwise. He believed that “there can be no true liberty without security of property; and where property is secure, industry begets wealth; and wealth is often productive of a train of evils naturally destructive to virtue and freedom!” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 65. He said this is the “sad dilemma in politics, that if people “exclude wealth, it must be by regulations intrenching too far upon civil liberty,” however, if wealth flourishes, “the syren [sic] luxury” ruins all of society. Id.
Smith, a Whig, looked to religion as the solution to his perceived dilemma, believing that religion brought the stability and organization that was necessary to prevent the ruin of society. See id. Perhaps Smith’s ideals won out, as religion became more pervasive as America progressed from the 18th Century into the 19th Century.
Valuing public interest and expecting individuals to give up their private interests for the greater good is unlikely to feed into the dilemma that Smith identified. For much of American history, there has been relatively widespread prosperity, and as the country’s life has gone on, there has not been an erosion of freedom nearly as much as there has been an expansion.
The distribution of wealth, on the other hand, may be a different story. An inequitable distribution of wealth in society is much more likely, in a representative democracy, to deprive Americans of civil liberties and create a system “destructive to virtue and freedom.”
If that is the case, Benjamin Rush’s idea that individuals should sacrifice everything for their country would only exacerbate that destructive system.