A Dearth of Virtue

Allegorical engraving showing the arts memorializing George Washington

One of the slipperiest aspects of republican government is the requirement that the citizens of a republic be virtuous.  Their moral discernment and scruples come into play, whether in evaluating the claims of their leaders or when called to exercise political leadership themselves.  Without virtue, the Founders thought, the entire republican project is doomed, because the power vested in the government is there to be used for the common good.

Where virtue was to come from was a little fuzzy.  Some equated virtue with economic self-sufficiency; others thought it followed from a good education—from a familiarity with the past, particularly.  For a time early in our history, Americans counted on “republican mothers” to inculcate the necessary virtues in their young.  And, throughout the ages, many believed that the right religious spirit could give republican virtue a powerful assist.

Regardless of the specifics, the success of our form of government ultimately depends on something beyond politics.  It depends on a culture that encourages prudence and goodness.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, wholesomeness and moral restraint have become unfashionable.  Society has thrown off a centuries-old association between virtue and the principle of respectability.  Virtue, once the cornerstone of reputation, has become an attribute too embarrassingly square to endorse or require.

As a culture, we have no shame.  As consumers of news and culture, Americans must tolerate acquaintance with people who behave despicably.  We are forced to take an interest in criminals and lowlifes, their heinousness smothered in a blanket of journalistic “objectivity.”  To be informed, we explore what journalists and artists have to offer, though these offerings imbue evildoers with celebrity and prestige.  In a more intimate society, miscreants would be marginalized, their importance diminished to neutralize their potentially toxic influence on a healthy culture.

Under the circumstances, virtue in America has become a private and personal matter, where once our collective need for it was publicly avowed.

Image: “American Literature & Fine Arts, Rewarding Patriotism & Virtue,”
from this source.
The print, created between 1800 and 1815,
shows the arts working to immortalize George Washington (d. 1799).

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The Trump Years: Day 63

Politicians without honor: Americans are discovering that the moral underpinnings of republicanism really matter, that our nation’s fate really does depend on the virtue of its leaders.  Given that Donald Trump is neither virtuous nor honorable, our entire system of government is in jeopardy.  The president can’t be counted on for honesty.  Twin editorials in Tuesday’s Washington Post and Wall Street Journal labored to sketch the dangers, the latter bluntly asserting that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

The social controls that formerly curbed and punished such behavior have fallen out of fashion in permissive times.  A person like President Trump, who makes reckless accusations, would have been instinctively shunned and ostracized in a more wholesome era.  Consigned to a region beyond the pale of respectability, his influence would have withered due to want of attention.  Instead, thanks to a salacious media, his bad character wins ever-greater publicity, and the power that he enjoys has only increased.  A society can’t demand honor if it never inflicts shame.

Early Americans recognized the grave threat that slanderous speech posed; reputable men treasured their “good names,” understanding that character was the currency of social trust.  Conversely, only the threat of death could induce liars and slanderers to govern their tongues.  So honorable men sometimes resorted to duels, challenging speakers who had wronged them to face off in a life-or-death confrontation on “the field of honor.”

Andrew Jackson, the president on whom some say Donald Trump is modeling his presidency, fought several duels, killing at least one man and living with a bullet from the encounter buried deep in his chest.  The object of unrelenting public criticism and scrutiny, Jackson stood up for his own character, calling out anyone who demeaned his virtue or uttered lies.  The man of honor could have ended up dead; without honor, though, what was the point of being alive?

Duelling was a frowned-upon and eventually outlawed practice whose utility has no equal today.  Creeping off to settle scores with dueling pistols was plain old murder and immoral.  The threat of mortal retribution promoted “civilization,” however, making scoundrels think twice before uttering the kinds of injurious lies we’re blinking at today.

Image: “At the dawn,” by Katharine Sheward Stanbery
from this source.

Day 53: ‘Economic Patriotism’

Day 53 (aerial of riverside town), © 2016 Susan Barsy
I’m interested in the phrase ‘economic patriotism,’ which Zephyr Teachout of New York has made central to her congressional campaign.  Ideologically, its appearance is significant as a harbinger of the ‘thought revolution‘ destined to shake up both political parties.  As a phrase linking domestic and green production with political empowerment and civic responsibility, ‘economic patriotism’ is smart and historically resonant.  Without pointing fingers, it suggests that economic actors could be encouraged to behave in ways that will promote the good of the country, thus harkening back to a traditional concept of ‘political economy.’

Anti-globalism and a demand for policies that protect citizens’ prosperity have defined the 2016 election cycle.  The popularity of these ideas, which both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have variously articulated, signals Americans’ weariness with the pro-corporate globalism central to the political establishment (and much of the intellectual establishment, too).  Popular anxieties about immigration, out-sourcing, and unfair trade deals all spring from uncertainty as to what will prevent many forms of work from disappearing.  Experts tell Americans that globalism is good, but it’s hard to deny that it undermines national and personal autonomy.  Which lessens American power and independence, right?

Despite eliciting the scorn of experts who point to statistics suggesting otherwise, such ideas, mocked as parochial or alarmingly nationalistic, formerly propelled the US economy to might.  The ideal economy is one that promotes an egalitarian prosperity: this notion has been central to American political development, accounting for such diverse initiatives as protectionism, abolitionism, and the massive sale of public land into private hands, which gave millions of Americans a foothold in the nineteenth century.  A desire to ensure that Americans have the autonomy and cultivation needed to be active and informed citizens of the republic has accounted for many features of the US economy.  It bears considering what ‘economic patriotism’ should look like now.

Political Affections

Robert Cruikshank watercolor of crowds attending Andrew Jackson's inaugural reception in 1829 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Amid the strife wracking US politics, a soul can grow weary.  Why do we care?  Why do we bother—why not lay down the burden of republican citizenship and turn away?

In our hearts, most of us have a vision of a more just, peaceful, and prosperous nation.  With concerted effort and good will, we can attain a condition better than what we’ve experienced lately.  I suppose I became a historian and took the unlikely step of writing about politics because I want to make citizenship a large, evident part of my identity.  Whatever else I do, being a citizen is something that I want to achieve.

Patriotism is out of fashion with the sophisticated.  We think about “going into politics” as a sort of careerism; and, if we don’t do that, it’s pretty much understood that we are on the sidelines.  It would be difficult for us to make sense of the 19th-century statesman who, on his death, was eulogized as a “pure patriot. . . whose brain and heart and means and energies were all at the service of his country.” We can understand the part about the brain and the heart—but to commit all one’s means and energies to the country?  That’s alien.

Yet the many-sided commitment of self to public life was once a commonly held American ideal, which individuals pursued in the hope of gaining a special kind of honor and esteem.  Conversely, the wholehearted identification of one’s personal destiny with that of the nation was a crucial element on which the future of the republic was thought to depend.

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee last week stirred up many warm feelings, underscoring the important role of human affection in maintaining a government and a country.  Having a queen may seem useless from a functional standpoint, but symbolically Elizabeth represents the nation in her person.  To love Elizabeth is to love Britain, which isn’t too hard, especially when she is looking so darned benign and motherly.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a hat adorned with flowers

Yet the sentiment the Queen evokes isn’t particularly cozy.  Often she evokes awe, especially when projecting loftiness, magnificence, or a tireless duty.  All the qualities associated with the Queen serve to bridge a gulf that might otherwise exist between her subjects and that abstraction that is their nation.  It’s precisely because Elizabeth is a person—rather than a building, say, or a flag—that she can embody so many varying qualities that, taken all together, help maintain something distinctive in Brits’ feeling for their country.

In the words of the 19th-century Englishman Walter Bagehot, the queen “excites and preserves the reverence of the population,” thereby helping to bind their sentiments to the state.

Besides her gobs of jewels, her surreally one-of-a-kind existence, and her heavily photographed family, what I like most about the queen is the way she styled herself as a sort of sacrificial über-citizen, beginning on the very first day of her reign.  On the evening of her Coronation in 1952, the young queen made this declaration to the people of her country.

I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.

Thus began sixty fairly unsensational years of color-coordinated dressing and the performance of millions upon millions of prescribed and customary royal duties.  At the end of the day, it’s hard not to admire Elizabeth’s dogged commitment to all the formalities and tedious conventionalities that are part and parcel of her country’s monarchical tradition.

When it came time to draw up our own Constitution in the 1780s, the Revolutionary generation was conscious that, in rejecting monarchical government, they had given up something that, in good times, helped secure citizens’ attachment and loyalty.  What, in a republic, could substitute for monarchy’s appealing glitter, pomp, and ceremony?  What could the framers devise to cultivate the people’s respect and embody the fledgling nation’s character and authority?

Ironically, the answer they came up with is the presidency.  The framers hoped that the occupant of this new-fangled office would function as “the people’s sovereign.”  Federalists like John Adams hoped that the style presidents adopted would be sufficiently “splendid and majestic” to instill a sense of the dignity and authority of the nation in the public mind.  In addition, members of the federal government took care to develop a set of forms and customs for capital life that might earn the republic respect, both at home and abroad.

Still, it would be hard to claim that the Founders solved the problem satisfactorily.  In the years before the Civil War, observers recognized that the federal government exercised only a weak, secondary claim on many Americans’ loyalties—secondary to their homes and to the states where they were raised.

As we contemplate the narcissism and partisanship permeating the competition for the presidency, we may be justified in doubting whether the work of securing the affection and loyalty of the people remains a priority today.

Image: Robert Cruikshank’s watercolor,
“President’s Levee, or all Creation going to the White House”
(published 1841), from this source.