In his breathtaking new book, A History of the American People, English historian Paul Johnson writes, “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind.… The great American republican experiment … is still the first, best hope for the human race” and “will not disappoint an expectant humanity.”
It is often noted that outside observers of the American experiment tend to express a more profound appreciation for the remarkable achievements of our nation’s Founders than we do ourselves. Burke and Talleyrand, Gladstone and Tocqueville, Thatcher and Maritain have all marveled at the truth of a proposition that, before the exceptional birth of freedom here, had been considered at best, problematic: that the people have the capacity to govern themselves.
Following this well-trodden path but with a somber note of caution, is Pope John Paul II. When Lindy Boggs, the newly designated United States ambassador to the Vatican, recently came to present her credentials, John Paul took the occasion to remind her that our great experiment in self-government left America with a “far-reaching responsibility, not only for the well-being of its own people, but for the development and destiny of peoples throughout the world.”
John Paul then embarked upon an eloquent review of the fundamental principles upon which American self-government is based. The Founding Fathers, he noted, “asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain ‘self-evident’ truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by ‘nature’s God.’ Thus, they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory but a great experiment in what George Washington called ‘ordered liberty’: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good.”
The Capacity to Fulfill Our Duties and Responsibilities
It was outrageous enough, to contemporary sensibilities, for John Paul to connect self-government to the notion of eternal human attributes implanted by God. But he then went further, suggesting that self-government did not imply simply freedom to live as one wishes but, rather, the capacity to fulfill one’s duties and responsibilities toward family and toward the common good of the community. The Founding Fathers, he noted, “clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.”
In this remarkable discourse, John Paul identified several critical features of American self-government: that it is rooted in a view of human nature governed by self-evident truths that are fixed forever in the human person by “nature’s God”; that the political consequence of human truth is an irrefutable case for self-government, so long as our freedom is shaped and ordered by moral and civic virtue; and that we come to be fully human, fully moral, and fully free only within “natural units or groupings”–family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association–which we form to pursue the higher purposes of life.
How does this sophisticated understanding of self-government compare with our own understanding at home? Ours, I regret to say, tends to be a rather superficial, political view. To us, self-government means simply doing whatever we, collectively as citizens, choose to do. We see in John Paul’s message, however, second and more substantial understanding of self-government–that it must mean, as well, our capacities as individuals for personal self-mastery, for reflection, restraint, and moral action. And here is the critical, uncomfortable fact: In a well-ordered republic, government of the self is necessary for government of society to work.
I was reminded recently just how far we have drifted from this second and vital understanding of self-government as personal moral mastery. Several years ago, I was visiting a very good, very famous liberal arts college and was invited to sit in on an upper division honors seminar on the Federalist Papers and the American Founding. Sitting around the table were some of the nation’s brightest young people. The professor guided them in their consideration of the principle of republican self-government. Reading to them Publius’s warning that a major danger to democratic self-rule is the human inclination to “irregular passions” and “temporary delusions,” the professor warned the students to beware especially of anyone with an ardor for or attachment to the truth.
The students took particular pleasure in the ensuing discussion of the concept of self-government, for–with but a little prodding from their professor–they quickly focused on the “self” part of self-government and enthusiastically came to the view that self-government means nothing more than license–a sanction for the utmost latitude in their personal behavior. These students were delighted to discover the Founders as allies in their understanding of self-government as radical moral relativism.
Self-Government Presupposes Moral Self-Mastery
Yet, as the Holy Father reminded Ambassador Boggs, self-government as understood by the Founders meant anything but unlimited personal license based on an unlimited moral horizon. The authors of the Federalist Papers are justly famed for their clear-eyed assessment of the weaknesses of human nature and their careful arrangement of governing institutions to minimize those flaws. James Madison nevertheless wrote in Federalist No. 55 that “as there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form [emphasis added].“ If people were as bad as some opponents of the Constitution said, he wrote, ”the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government.“
A people deficient in moral restraint or civic virtue, Madison understood, could not long govern itself; unbounded human passions would finally tear the republic to pieces. Utterly undisciplined peoples are not fit for self-government, he insisted, but require “nothing less than the chains of despotism [to] restrain them from destroying or devouring one another.”
But how are American citizens to acquire the moral self-mastery required for self-government? To be sure, the Founders did not suppose that their new government would seek directly to inculcate those virtues in its citizens. Rather, as Federalist No. 55 suggests, American self-government “presupposes” moral self-mastery. Here again, John Paul’s remarks help us understand what this means.
Not only does freedom mean moral responsibility, he insisted, but there can be “no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.” Alongside the formal and artificial constructs of American government, in other words, there stand certain “natural units or groupings,” such as family, church, neighborhood, and voluntary association, that are responsible for the full development of human character through rigorous and sustained moral and civic education.
It was precisely the great efflorescence of these natural groupings in America that Alexis de Tocqueville understood to be the key to the perpetuity of our free and democratic political and social institutions. They take into their bosom the unformed child and, through tireless repetition and reinforcement of the same moral lessons over a lifetime, slowly forge a morally responsible human being. They serve as the first and most important “schools of liberty,” introducing the morally self-governed individual to the broader public rights and responsibilities of the self-governing republican citizen.
It probably never occurred to the Founders that the centrality of such presupposed, bedrock civil institutions could be forgotten or neglected. But we are now nearing the end of a century that has shown anything but “respect and support” for the institutions of civil society that undergird our noble experiment in self-government.
The Enduring Struggle for Self-Government
It is, perhaps, the defining American experience periodically to revisit the struggle between self-government and civic virtue, on the one hand, and comfortable materialism and moral cynicism, on the other. Engaging in that struggle, in moments of crisis, may well be the way we come to rededicate ourselves to certain enduring propositions at the heart of our great nation. That was certainly the consequence of the greatest struggle over our national soul, a chapter of which unfolded in that famous political contest between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
Drawing on historian Harry Jaffa’s brilliant recreation of the arguments in that 1858 Senate campaign, we recall that Senator Douglas faced the great moral question of his time, the issue of chattel slavery, and famously pronounced that he “[does not] care whether it is voted up or down.” Douglas was a proponent of today’s hollow, contemporary view of self-government, defined simply as the morally indifferent “competence of the people to decide all questions, including those of right and wrong,” as Jaffa notes. In fact, any discussion about absolute right and wrong, any appeal to trans-majoritarian moral values, actually endangered democratic government, in his view, only fueling the fury of moral extremists.
Happily, Lincoln understood the long-term moral effect of slavery on American self-government and denounced Douglas’s views as contrary to the principled understanding bequeathed us by the Founders. There are certain divinely inspired “self-evident truths” embedded in the Declaration of Independence, he insisted, according to which, slavery was unequivocally “a moral, social, and political wrong.” If we are to remain free, we must firmly guide our conduct by that fixed moral standard.
To do otherwise–to act as if the Declaration’s truth did not exist–was not only to leave slaves to their bondage. It was also to deny the possibility of self-government for anyone anywhere, Lincoln understood. If there are no rights of liberty and equality accruing to man as a matter of irreducible moral principle, then any one of us is subject to being enslaved to the man whose self-interest or passion may so incline him and whose force of self-expression is greater than ours.
Thus, Jaffa writes, Lincoln professed that he “hated” Douglas’s position because “it forces so many really good men … into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty–criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”
Do we not find in Abraham Lincoln’s views the definitive response to those who argue that self-government means simply majority will and who would deny the idea of self-government’s moral foundation in self-evident truths and would drive moral discourse from our politics?
A New Birth of Freedom Grounded in Truth and Ordered to Goodness
As we face today’s confusions and misconstructions about the American principle of self-government, it may be comforting for us to look back at the great contest between Lincoln and Douglas, finding there the assurance that this is by no means the first generation of Americans–nor will it be the last–to be tempted by wrong-headed and relativistic understandings of what self-
government means. Even more should we be comforted by the realization that in that great moment of testing nearly a century and a half ago, we Americans had the wisdom and the courage to decide the issue of self-government aright.
So, when we are told that there is no nature’s God–and so, no divinely inscribed “self-evident truths” in the human soul–let us reply that without such truths, there is no sure foundation for human freedom and self-government. When we are told that the human being is utterly free to create or express himself without limits, let us reply that “there can be no moral freedom without moral responsibility and accountability,” and no political freedom without civic virtue. And when we are told that family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association are parochial and repressive constraints on our self-expression, let us reply that only through such institutions can we as free people “exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others,” and come to a proper understanding and practice of self-government.
With our past as the foundation of our hope, let us embrace this new struggle over the meaning of self-government as the means by which we may once again refresh our flagging spirits at the wellsprings of our national character. Not daring, at such a critical moment, to rely solely upon our own arguments and devices, let us join Pope John Paul II in his prayer that “our country will experience a new birth of freedom, freedom grounded in truth and ordered to goodness.”
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