Can freedom survive without morals and virtue?

Published 1:35 am Sunday, October 31, 2010

The next few Sunday’s columns will identify the 28 fundamental beliefs by which the Founding Fathers set about to build a society based on morality, faith and ethics. Dr. Cleon Skousen focuses on the 28 principles in his book, The Five Thousand Year Leap. A chapter is devoted to each of these 28 principles:

“A free people cannot survive under a Republican Constitution unless they remain virtuous and morally strong” — Belief # 2

What would be the greatest obstacle the colonies faced in deciding to declare independence from England? The fact that they would be confronted by the world’s greatest military force? The likelihood of losing property and lives? Personal ties to the motherland? Actually, the greatest obstacle wasbecause they were entering unknown waters and were not sure they were virtuous enough for the undertaking.

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The colonists hesitated, even after years of being exploited and disrespected by the mother country, to declare independence because they doubted that they would be able to govern themselves.

There was no doubt in their minds that the character of the citizens of a self-governing people would be the critical issue. There were heated debates on whether of not they had character enough to create a new kind of government.

It was universally acknowledged that a corrupt and selfish people could never make the principles of “republicanism” operate successfully. As Franklin wrote: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

The colonial citizens understood the Ten Commandments to be the gold standard for morality but identified “public virtue” as a very special quality of human maturity above and beyond obedience to moral law. They thought of it as placing the public good above one’s own well-being.

As one modern historian described it:

“In a Republic … each             man must somehow be persuaded to submerge his personal wants into the greater good of the whole. This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interest for the good of the community — such patriotism or love of country–the eighteenth century termed public virtue. The eighteenth century mind was thoroughly convinced that a popularly based government cannot be supported without virtue.

(Gordon S. Wood, the Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, The     University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1969, p.6

Self-doubts could have delayed or canceled the rebellion during those final pre-Revolutionary years when Americans were trying to decide whether or not they would attempt to govern themselves.

Thomas Pain’s pamphlet, Common Sense, widely distributed and often read in taverns, was a powerful influence for separating from Britain and as a means of recruitment for the Continental Army. He pointed out that the Americans were land-holders, “industrious, frugal, and honest,” fully capable of self government.

Society in England was based on class distinctions with royalty at the top, then aristocracy with commoners at the bottom. The theory was that British liberties rested on a balance of power between these three classes with deference given to the aristocracy. The evangelists in America challenged the idea of social classes by preaching that all men are created equal and the worth of a person lies in his or her moral behavior alone. All stand equal before God and salvation is available to each and every one.

The Protestant churches happily served as “schools of democracy”. President John Witherspoon, the great Scotch theologian who came to America to serve as President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) wrote weekly sermons in which he opined that the revolution was justified by the Bible.

Throughout the colonies the Protestant congregations heard revolutionary sermons while the Church of England ministers preached loyalty to the king. As a result the colonies became saturated with a revival of Christian faith which encompassed every level of society, from the rich to the poor, from

the town folks to the frontier families.

Amazingly, two or three years before the Declaration of Independence men ceased to extort and abuse one another, families and communities seemed peculiarly united, and the courts were wonderfully free of the constant bickering over land and credit that had dominated colonial life.

Americans became so impressed with the improvement in the quality of life as a result of the reform movement that they were afraid they might lose it if they did not separate from the corrupting influence of the British class system.

Since the character of nation is the secret to its survival, one cannot help but wonder if there is some special ingredient which secures the nations quality of life to preserve it. The Founders had an answer to this question, which brings us to the next of the 28 ideas that changed the world in next week’s column.