A Moral Reformation

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Patrick Henry. By: George Bagby Matthews.

As eluded to in Virtue as a Principle and Foundation, vices had come to plague American society shortly after the American Revolution. Patrick Henry said, in 1780, that he “feared that our Body politic was dangerously sick,” as from top to bottom, society appeared to be embracing vice. Patrick Henry to Jefferson, Feb. 15, 1780, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, III, 293.

A theme of Americans doing “what was right in his own eyes” emerged, with “the whole of that care and attention which was given to the public weal is turned to private gain or self-preservation.” Trenton N.J. Gazette, Apr. 7, 1779, in Nelson et al., eds., New Jersey Archives, 2d Ser., III, 208-12. In fact, “[v]ices now seemed more prevalent than before the war. Virtue was being debased by ‘the visible declension of religion, . . . the rapid progress of licentious manners, and open profanity.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 417 quoting Charleston S.C. and American Gazette, Jan. 21, 1779.

While the clergy had hoped that the Revolution would bring about a “moral reformation” of sorts, it appeared that the Revolution had in fact “only aggravated America’s corruption and sin.” See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 417. Joel Barlow warned that “we may justly conclude that ruin is near at hand,” as there was “[n]o virtue, no Commonwealth.” Id. at 418 quoting Joel Barlow, “An Oration, Delivered . . . in Hartford . . . July the Fourth, 1787 . . . ,” “Oration Delivered at Petersburgh,” American Museum, 2 (1787), 138, 420.

These developments led some to conclude that the American experiment of republicanism was beginning to fail. Thomas Jefferson, looking at these developments, did not share that sentiment. Looking to Europe, and especially France, he stated, “With all the defects of our constitutions, whether general or particular, the comparison of our governments with those of Europe are like a comparison of heaven and hell.” Jefferson to Joseph Jones, Aug. 14, 1787, to George Washington, Aug. 14, 1787, to John Rutledge, Aug. 6, 1787, all in Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, XI, 34, 38, 701.

Others concluded that these developments had one clear solution: the widespread adoption of religion. Many in the 1780s began to believe that “since ‘religion hath the most powerful influence upon manners, and . . . has such an intimate connection with government,’ it was the duty of the legislature to make ‘permanent provision’ for its ‘administration and support.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 428 quoting Newton B. Jones, ed., “Writings of the Reverend William Tennent, 1740, 1777,” S.C. Hist. Mag., 61 (1960), 194-209; S.C. Constitution (1778), XXXVIII; Baltimore Md. Journal, Jan. 18, Feb. 8, May 20, 1785.

Thus, Americans had a new task it seemed: “make ‘such an arrangement of political power as ensures the existence and security of the government, even in the absence of political virtue,’ without, however, at the same time destroying republicanism.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 429 quoting The Federalist, No. 39; Boston Independent Chronicle, Nov. 2, 1786; The Federalist, No. 10. James Madison stated that Americans had to find “a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.” Id.

These developments in the earliest years of the Republic illustrate the dilemma of forming the American government: How does one construct a government that permits freedom but also protects the virtue of society? The answer seemed obvious to some: protect religion and encourage religious practice, as it fostered virtue. Regardless of whether that conclusion is faulty or not, this helps to explain the fundamentals underlying the Constitution. At least some segment of American society began to believe that the best way to cure the ills of Americans was to encourage religious belief. Meanwhile, the government must have been framed in a way that preserved the ideals of republicanism.

In this way, the licentiousness and vices of the early Americans tested the bounds of republicanism. Also, it may have initiated the spread of religion in American society, which has only been eroded in the past several decades.

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