by Lee H. Hamilton
American representative democracy holds out a valuable promise to the world. We can sum it up in a phrase: ordered liberty. And this promise is the essential promise of America. Our system of government offers a beacon of hope to the world with its ideal of ordered liberty.
As Americans, we believe all people should be able to govern themselves, and that leaders should be accountable to those whom they would lead. As the Declaration of Independence says, governments derive their power from the consent of the governed.
Liberty is one of the rights listed in the Declaration, along with life and the pursuit of happiness. Americans treasure our liberty and our freedoms, which are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. But liberty doesn’t come without limits. A functioning society requires a balance between freedom and structure, between liberty and order.
How do we maintain this balance? America’s Founding Fathers gave this a lot of thought. I have, over the years, spent a lot of time reading the statements made by the founders; and I am impressed by how often they wrote about virtue as essential to self-government. They made clear that our leaders must be people of virtue. They also believed it took virtuous citizens to choose good leaders.
James Madison extolled the “great republican principle” that people would have the “virtue and intelligence” to select as leaders “men of virtue and wisdom.” George Washington called virtue “a necessary spring of popular government.” John Adams wrote that public virtue was “the only foundation of republics.” Benjamin Franklin said that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
Virtue, for the founders, didn’t simply mean doing good or following rules for right behavior. They were referring to what might be called civic virtue, a quality that philosophers had discussed from the time of the ancient Greeks. In this view, a virtuous person exhibited such traits as wisdom, moderation, justice and self-restraint.
The French political philosopher Montesquieu, an important influence on America’s founders, defined virtue as “a continuous preference of the public interest over one’s own.” In other words, it means putting the public good ahead of one’s own wishes.
This idea of civic virtue is essential to the American conception of ordered liberty. This isn’t American exceptionalism; it’s not that we are more virtuous than the people of other nations. The point is that civic virtue is essential to self-government in our democratic system.
Along with the liberty that our system provides, there comes a tremendous responsibility. It’s incumbent on us as Americans to understand and participate in our democracy. We need to choose our leaders wisely by making informed decisions when we vote. And it takes a lot more than voting. We need to be engaged citizens who do what we can to improve our communities and our nation.
Civic virtue requires understanding what it means to be an American, knowing how our government works and how to participate in it. This takes civic education, and it also requires civic-minded habits of thought and behavior, a willingness to promote the public good.
Madison wrote, in one of the most famous lines in the Federalist Papers, that, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The converse is also true: If people were incapable of virtue – if we couldn’t act in the public interest – no government would be sufficient to secure ordered liberty.
Our system of government requires a fine balance between liberty and order, maintained by the civic virtue of our leaders and the people. It’s America’s promise – our gift, really – to the world. But there is no guarantee it will work as intended. That’s up to us as citizens.