Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance:
Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world, — as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.
What are Virtues?
Self-reliance, being who you truly are, and holding to the fundamental principles of liberty, for all, is more than mere idealism — it is an act of virtue with a particular perspective.
Like Emerson points out, virtues today are like penances, forced upon the masses by society and by secondary legislation. Secondary legislation consists of statutes that are enacted by a legislative body for a regulation purpose. They are secondary in the sense that statutes must be subservient to actual law, which is grounded in the Constitution. Penances are not real virtues, however.
Samuel Adams said that once real virtue is lost, Americans will easily surrender their liberty.
A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.
What does it mean for Americans to be virtuous, specifically? Is it virtuous, or moral to fit in with everyone else? Is it virtuous to blindly obey government officials? Is it virtuous to always pay your taxes? Fitting in, blindly obeying, and not questioning your governmental tax obligations are not virtues, but penances, that the status quo government socially forces on the masses as virtues. A virtue is simply a quality or trait that reflects a sound, moral compass. Blindly obeying governmental edicts is not related to morality, but instead reflects self-preservation, because of the government’s exploitation of its citizens.
What is this virtue that the founders established, that Samuel Adams is referring to? This virtue is Republicanism, founded upon the moral and political theory/philosophy of Montesquieu, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, and other great political and moral philosophers. Republicanism refers to the philosophy of the form of government in action. American Republicanism is the total rejection of aristocracy and centralized power. This virtue, this collective moral compass, stresses unalienable rights, individual liberty, self-reliance, and property ownership as the central and fundamental values of American Republicanism.
Foundation Values and Penances
Coerced Commerce, forced fairness, and forced economic activity, are not foundation values, but instead are penances, or illusory constructs, which are not related to actual morality. Moreover, this virtue of the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence holds to the natural right of the people to overthrow their leaders. The American Republicanism virtue vilifies political and commercial corruption and also rejects the tyranny of the majority, that was so prominent in the history of democracies.
Thomas Jefferson said that the first principle of American virtue is the rights of the people — “The first principle of republicanism is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights…This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism.”
In other words, a police state comes about when securing individual, fundamental rights; educating the people on the responsibility attached to those rights are no longer the primary principles and modus operandi of government action.
In contemporary society, government action is primarily inspired to secure an individual’s exercise of penances, or what the government today defines as a “good citizen,” or “virtuous behavior.” Today, government action is motivated to rid itself of perceived inconveniences rooted in the Constitution, which is done primarily through secondary legislation, namely the legal system.
This position is opposite of Jefferson’s statements, such as, “It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all.” This virtue, founded upon the political and moral theory of republicanism, was expressed by John Adams: “Others, again, more rationally, define a republic to signify only a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws. This, indeed, appears to be the true and only true definition of a republic.”
Therefore, based upon republicanism as a moral theory, theft is theft, assault is assault, robbery is robbery, greed is greed, and corruption is corruption. If the government acts in this way, it is as guilty as if individuals act in this way. So why does a legislature make secondary laws to exempt its members from various laws? How is this checked? Thomas Jefferson defined republicanism (i.e. the original form of American government) in a letter to John Taylor as the following:
It must be acknowledged that the term “republic” is of very vague application in every language…Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens.
How can we know and verify that this virtue, this morality, founded on republicanism, is no longer the foundation of law and order in America today? We know this and can verify this because arbitrary force, the monopoly of violence, is predicated upon the protection and security of commerce policy, above and beyond the security of unalienable rights and property ownership. Commerce itself is predicated upon the enforcement of individual, economic activity. “Where the law of the majority ceases to be acknowledged, there government ends; the law of the strongest takes its place, and life and property are his who can take them.” Therefore, America can only operate today by arbitrary force, or by the threat of force. Once America became a business or corporation model, the virtues of republicanism converted into the “virtues” of commerce.
As John Adams warned in a letter to Mercy Warren, “virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honor, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty…I have seen all along my Life Such Selfishness and Littleness…that I sometimes tremble to think that, altho. We are engaged in the best Cause that ever employed the Human Heart yet the Prospect of success is doubtful not for Want of Power or of Wisdom but of Virtue.
“The Spirit of Commerce, Madam, which even insinuates itself into Families, and influences holy Matrimony, and thereby corrupts the morals of families as well as destroys their Happiness, it is much to be feared is incompatible with that purity of Heart and Greatness of soul which is necessary for an happy Republic…Even the Farmers and Tradesmen are addicted to Commerce; and it is too true that Property is generally the standard of Respect there as much as anywhere. While this is the Case there is great Danger that a Republican Government would be very factious and turbulent there. Divisions in Elections are much to be dreaded. Every man must seriously set himself to root out his Passions, Prejudices and Attachments, and to get the better of his private Interest” (bold added).
The virtue spoken of by Samuel Adams has been lost in contemporary society to commerce and special interests, which are now secured by secondary laws (statutes) written by politicians and corporate lobbyists. Then, these secondary laws are blindly enforced by cops at all levels, without any adherence to their oath to check such statutes. Moreover, the opposite of genuine virtue is the execution of arbitrary violence. Examples of arbitrary violence can be seen in everyday events, such as, choking a guy to death for selling single cigarettes on the street in NYC, because he “resisted.” Or, by punching a woman in the face repeatedly on the side of the road, “for her own safety,” according to the officer. The woman sued for violation of her rights and was awarded millions by the court.
Such arbitrary violence easily attaches itself to a non-virtuous person who believes that the perpetrator of such violence is justified because of legislative authority. Violence is never a necessary option except within the context of absolute self-defense of one’s own person, of another person or of society in general. The initiation of arbitrary violence or force is the antithesis of liberty and morality, or virtue. For example, selling single cigarettes without collecting tax should not be a threat to society, but to violate it can result in “necessary” violence by authorities. This deviation from the founders on republicanism virtues into commerce practices today, secured by the legal system as it morphs into crony-capitalism, was even feared by President Lincoln. In a letter written to Col. William F. Elkins during the Civil War, Lincoln wrote,
“We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood…It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless” (bold added).
America today is more an oligarchy, and less a republic or a democracy, as envisioned by the founders. Democracies have always and only been a temporary transition from one form of government into another. Oligarchic principles characterize the law of the land, whereby elites determine by force the medium of exchange. Virtues as determined within classical liberalism are no longer the foundation of principles of liberty because liberty must be free from any compulsory connections to currency, bureaucracy, and the enforcement of economic activity.
Modern government remains the largest example of the use of arbitrary violence for personal gain, overshadowing smaller cases like thieves, rapists, and gangs. Liberty is no longer the goal of a free society or of the government.
In nearly six thousand years of human history and evolution, humans are now capable of surfing the Internet, going into space, developing invisibility through mere fabric, and other mind-boggling achievements. A child today has fingertip access to virtually all of human history and information related to same. Yet, humans have not evolved enough to curb violent and oppressive behavior. The irony is that the government as an entity justifies the use of violence by the mere title of “government,” and is just as guilty of using violence for personal gain as the mugger on the street, using a “moral” argument to justify such violence.
To illustrate arbitrary violence specifically, Huffington Post quoted a veteran police officer as saying in response to a person protesting an arrest, “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me…if you don’t want to get shot, tasered, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you…even if we are violating your rights.”
This, of course, does not encompass all officers’ attitudes, but illustrates a kind of superiority complex that authorizes the use of violence to rationalize their actions as “public safety,” which feeds into and reinforces the inequality between law enforcement and the people. In addition, it depicts an attitude whereby the understanding of morality comes by way of training how to control people rather than by way of a genuine education in ethics. More people have died by democide, death by government, in the 20th century than all other sources of death.
Authoritarians in government, and authoritarian governments in general, create the illusion of being a moral force founded upon acts of virtue, while still using violence to control the people. For example, many of the political genocides in the past were framed as being done “for the people.” This exclusionary construct of laws is easier for governments to manage than the political truths secured in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Violence reflects negative human nature and is why the Constitution is a moral force designed to limit the power of those in government, who tend to create policies to rule arbitrarily. Thus Jefferson, in response to the Alien and Sedition Act, confirms that the Constitution is a moral force to restrain or chain down such efforts.
Resolved…That these and successive acts of the same character, unless arrested on the threshold, may tend to drive these states into revolution and blood, and will furnish new calumnies against republican governments, and new pretexts for those who wish it to be believed that man cannot be governed but by a rod of iron; that it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights; that confidence is every where the parent of despotism; free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power; that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no farther, our confidence may go…In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.(bold added)
Apparently, Jefferson’s resolution against arbitrary power is counter to contemporary American government and continues to rid itself of the inconveniences through the legal system. The use of arbitrary power by the government relies on undereducated, young officer and soldier, who are easily trainable. This manner of controlling is a problem in modern society.
How Can We Restore Virtue?
So, how do we change this?
How do we find smarter, competent people who reflect the founders’ views of republicanism to run the government? Recent elections reveal that many candidates are wealthy, and persons of less means lack the financial support to pursue running for office. The question can be asked: Does being wealthy reflect better leadership skills? Does running a business reflect a better chance at running a government office? The answer to that question is: Not necessarily and only if that public office is business-oriented rather than liberty-oriented and secured by virtue. Therein lies the rub.
To return to the founders’ views of republicanism, we surely should not resort to violence like past cultures have, because then nothing changes. Violence usually ends in destruction, death and pain, and generally any positive outcome is only temporary, as with the American Revolution against a Monarch. America, under the founding Constitution, only lasted about a hundred years or so. America has now become more authoritarian than the system of government it fought to be liberated from. This repetition of history is the result of arbitrary violence as a means to curtail or end the situation and results in a vicious circle.
Some forms of violence, however, such as genuine self-defense, can be justifiable and moral. For example, had the Jews during the Holocaust remained armed and able to defend themselves, their actions would have been justifiable and moral.
When Americans do not exercise virtue, the Constitutional fails to work. This is because the Constitution is a codified attempt to restrain negative aspects of human nature, especially within government itself. Morality, as it relates to republicanism, must be the goal of government and of a free society.
Liberty comes from virtue, from morality. We can free ourselves from gravity by flying in a plane, but flying does not make us moral. Thus, advancing society technologically does not make people moral. Freedom is risk coupled with responsibility. Being virtuous is not how the American government operates presently; however, it “should” be based on the founding fathers. The problem is getting from “should” to “is.”
Tim L. Smith holds a Masters degree in Philosophy, specializing in Political Theory and Ethics. Tim is also a former law enforcement officer and the author of COPS vs. The Constitution.