Constitutional Morality

While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.

– John Adams

The following piece on the need for virtue and some sort of “constitutional morality” is taken from George W. Carey: Republicanism, Limited Government, and the Problem of Virtue

In theory, at least, Republics would seem to depend much more than monarchies or aristocracies on the virtue of the citizenry. Madison put this proposition and a slightly different fashion when he wrote that “republican government presupposes…… a higher degree” of those “qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” This understanding was widely shared at the time of the Founding. Indeed, in the sermons and essays before, during, and after the Founding period, recurring questions centered around how a people could retain the virtue necessary for self-government– what practices and beliefs might undermine their virtue, by what means might their baser instincts and appetites be restrained– and how civility, a sense of individual responsibility, respect for other individuals, and concern for the permanent interests of the community might be cultivated. Yet, if we look to the deliberations at Philadelphia, the Constitution itself, or even The Federalist, we find no acknowledgment or treatment of these and like questions, much less answers as to how to cultivate the virtues necessary for a Republic. Nor do we find in The Federalist much attention devoted to the matter of how to perpetuate a “constitutional morality” necessary for the effective operation of a constitutional system into the indefinite future. It is as if the Framers believed the system would run itself once set in motion, without the need of any underlying morality.

What accounts for this seeming lack of concern? Two answers are commonly advanced. First, there are those who, following a more liberal paradigm, see the system as anchored in interest, not virtue. If we look, for instance, to the solutions that Madison offered for controlling the effects of majority factions and maintaining the constitutional separation of powers, we can readily perceive his reliance on the competition and the “channeling” of interest. The Framers, as some would have it, believed that out of competition between multiple and diverse interests the common good will emerge as a matter of course, just as competition in the economic realm eventually produces better products at a lower cost for consumers. Some modern “pluralists” (i.e., those who view interest group conflict as the key to understanding the essential nature of American politics), seem to hold to this position by virtue of their rejection of the notion that there is an objective common good above or part from the competitive struggle between interests.

But other scholars, while not denying the role of interest-competition, still regard virtue as the bedrock of the constitutional order. They contend that interest must be bound by “rules of the game”; that all societies must provide moral and ethical limits to interest-group activities, limits that transcend and thus are not part of the competitive process. Accordingly, society sets bounds on the methods that interest groups may use to advance their ends, as well as on those ends which citizens, individually or collectively, may legitimately pursue. Moreover, the resolution of conflict between interests is often determined by a sense of equity, proportionality, or fairness derived from and supported by the prevailing social morality. From this perspective, then, virtue is essential for establishing and maintaining the moral parameters of interest-group activity, if only to avoid the fractious notice and instability.

Thus, a second answer to why the Framers were largely silent on the issue of virtue acknowledges that fact while also arguing that the Framers believed that the states, churches, local associations, and other groups would serve to nourish the virtue necessary for an orderly and decent Republican regime. This answer seems reasonable in light of the fact that the new national government was a limited one, confined to the exercise of delegated powers, largely those related to functions that the states could not execute individually or effectively.

But the maintenance and cultivation of virtue, however that is achieved, remains and especially significant concern for the constitutional order and its operations. While there are admittedly many dimensions to this concern, a crucial one — all the more so in light of the political centralization that has taken place in America over the last 75 years — relates to the capacity of virtue to operate as a barrier to oppression, either by popular majorities or by government. The Framers were well aware of the dimensions of this problem. As Hamilton took pains to point out in The Federalist, for instance, if the national government is entrusted with the task of defending the country against foreign enemies, it must possess virtually unlimited authority. Even Calhoun, who is anxious to restrain government, adamantly maintained that the defense of the nation requires “the full command of the power and resources of the community.” Indeed, it was this realization prompted Calhoun to devise his concurrent veto system. Ultimately, of course, even his system relied on cultivating an appropriate constitutional morality so that disappointed majorities would abide by the rules. More generally, the problem comes down to whether sufficient virtue, through one means or another, can be brought to bear to prevent the abuse of these vast powers, either by majorities or by the elected rulers.

At the time of the Founding, many shared Washington’s view that religion and education could serve to prevent tyranny and oppression. Others, including Madison, maintained the religious teachings, as well as the “republican” civic virtues, would not be sufficient to curb factious majorities bent on abrogating the rights of others; he believed that the “pull” of immediate self-interest was too strong to be overcome by “moral or religious motives.” Still, Madison did think that virtue would infuse the constitutional system “through the election of” fit characters,” a position that he stressed in his debate with Patrick Henry in the Virginia ratification convention and outlined in Federalist 10. For Henry, however, dependence on virtuous representatives was a “slender” protection; he wished to guard against the “depravity of human nature” with “proper checks,” leaving nothing to chance. Clearly, both positions ultimately depend upon some degree of virtue residing in the people. In Madison’s case, for instance, the people must be able to identify “fit characters — that is, they must know what constitutes “fitness” — and they must be prepared to vote for them. This need for virtue among the people was a point also driven home by Hamilton when he wrote in Federalist 84 that the security for “liberty of the press,” and presumably other liberties, “must all together depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people of the government.”

The Madison-Henry debate reveals a difference in emphasis on how best to prevent the abuse of power. Henry’s position — in contrast to that of Hamilton or Washington — places an emphasis on institutions, on checks and balances within the government to stay the hand of rulers or factious majorities. And his position seems to have permeated our collective conscience; in public discussion about how to protect individuals and minorities for majority oppression or the abuses of government, emphasis is usually placed on institutions. For example, the Supreme Court has come to be viewed as the chief guardian of the Bill of Rights, since that institution, above all others, is charged with protecting minorities from majority oppression. Indeed, as we have seen, the modern court is heralded by many for advancing individual and group “rights” well beyond those envisioned by the Framers.

There remains the crucial question, however, of how we can be sure that the institution entrusted with preventing oppression will not itself abuse the powers of government. As both Madison and Calhoun make clear, the institution empowered to limit majorities or prevent the abuses of government might itself act in an oppressive manner. Short of this, the limiting institution might act in a counterproductive way or in a manner that does not serve the end entrusted to it.

That said, the major concern, which is whether the modern reliance on courts and rights — either the Bill of Rights or rights derived from the Declaration of Independence — to prevent the abuse of power by government and majorities is misplaced. As noted, the more traditional understanding says that it is misplaced, that to effectively secure limited government, one must ultimately depend on the attitudes and morality of the people, that without a virtuous people, constitutional provisions or structures aimed at preventing oppression will not suffice, at least not in the long run. Yet there remain questions concerning the traditional understanding. Many individuals, while deeply concerned about cultivating and sustaining virtue, share a libertarian belief that government is hardly the institution best suited to the task of elevating the moral character of its citizenry — that, in fact, to entrust the government with this function is potentially dangerous. Thus, a matter that will be debated for decades to come is to what degree government ought to aid private-sector institutions and associations – like the Leadership Foundation for American Values —  in this endeavor.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution may be the cornerstones of our form of government, but they, in turn, owe a great deal to the principles expressed in some of our earliest political writings.


The best of our traditions provide the additional knowledge that things which have had a good reputation over the course of time are more trustworthy than untried and untested theories.

Larry P Arnn

“Put another way, most of the documents at the center of American political theory – and the values, concerns, and preferences they embody – emerge out of the experiences and circumstances of the American people at different times and places. As such, these documents are integral to coherently explicating the American political tradition; indeed,  they constitute its essence.”

George W Carey

“America is great because she is good, and if America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

Alexis de Tocqueville

“I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

Ronald Reagan, Epitaph