At the time of the Revolution, republicanism was permeating political discourse and political theory. John Adams asked in 1776 that “[i]f there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?” He continued by explaining that a republican constitution “introduces knowledge among the people, and inspires them with a conscious dignity becoming freemen; a general emulation takes place, which causes good humor, sociability, good manners, and good morals to be general. That elevation of sentiment inspired by such a government, makes the common people brave and enterprising. That ambition which is inspired by it makes them sober, industrious, and frugal.” John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Adams, ed., Works of John Adams, IV, 194, 199.
John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail Adams, in July 1776: “The new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings.” Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776, Butterfield, ed., Family Correspondence, II, 28.
The preservation of virtue was fundamental, and the prevention of vice crucial, for the early Americans. Samuel Adams stated “[w]e shall succeed if we are virtuous. I am infinitely more apprehensive of the Contagion of Vice than the Power of all other Enemies.” Samuel Adams to John Langdon, Aug. 7, 1777, Cushing, ed., Writings of Samuel Adams, III, 402-03.
Benjamin Rush, perhaps surprisingly, said: “A peace at this time would be the greatest curse that could befall us. . . . Liberty without virtue would be no blessing to us.” Rush to Adams, Aug. 8, 1777, Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, 1951), I, 152. Rush continued, stating that “more military campaigns were needed,” so as “to purge away the monarchical impurity we contracted by laying so long upon the lap of Great Britain.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 124 quoting Rush to Adams, Aug. 8, 1777, Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, 1951), I, 152. Rush finished by stating the Revolution “would cleanse the American soul of its impurities and introduce ‘among us the same temperance in pleasure, the same modesty in dress, the same justice in business, and the same veneration for the name of the Deity which distinguished our ancestors.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 124 quoting Rush to Adams, Aug. 8, 1777, Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, 1951), I, 152.
As explained further in The Greatest Republic, virtue and the preservation of virtue were at the center of early American life. It helped to frame the government, as it was believed to best preserve the republican aspects of government. The Founding Fathers were principally concerned with ensuring that future generations of Americans would be protected against themselves and each other. By creating a republican system of government that valued virtue and making a clean break from Britain, the Founding Fathers hoped they were taking sufficient action to accomplish their goal.
This is a contentious topic, particularly in light of the fact that the definition of virtue is subjective. American values have certainly changed in the ensuing two centuries, just as Western Civilization’s and the world’s values have changed during that time. That much is understandable. However, the question is whether virtue has become less valued and less prominent in American society, and without empirical data, this is a difficult question to answer.
Rather, it is a point for reflection. Setting values aside, are Americans living up to the high ideals of the Founding Fathers? Are Americans the virtuous individuals that the Founding Fathers had hoped during the Revolutionary years? If Americans are not living up to the high ideals of the Founding Fathers and are not as virtuous as they should be, deep introspection is needed.