The Declaration of Independence, the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, and the men (alas, they were all men) who framed these documents are our intellectual forbearers. We – at least those of us who are on the Left – tend not to think about them that much. Heck, I have an oil painting of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin hashing out the Declaration and I rarely think about the principles of the founders. However, I bought a 12-part lecture on these men, their ideas, and their ingenious works: American Ideals: Founding a Republic of Virtue. In this blog, I will share some wonderful quotations on virtue, liberty, character, duty, democracy, and republic – 18th-century wisdom that can help us in our struggles and challenges today.
“In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson avowed that his own energies had been directed towards creating ‘an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent’ to replace the old culture of privilege and, in many cases, brute stupidity,” wrote philosopher
Thomas Jefferson knew that it would be necessary for each generation not only to cherish and preserve the Declaration of Independence’s heritage of freedom, but to enlarge and extend its reach until the children of slaves – his own children – became the sons and daughters of Liberty. The work goes on. Now it’s our turn.” Indeed, those who led us
Indeed, those who led us to independence and framed the Constitution were aware of slavery, but union demanded to table that issue – noxious though it was.
George Washington, 43-years old when he took over the rag-tag group of militia-men known as the Continental Army, did it the old-fashioned way: with self-confidence, ingenuity, bravery, and gravitas. He was a man of great character, as evidenced by his victory against the most intimidating army/navy in the world, as well as the fact that he refused to be appointed king once he prevailed. He famously replied, when asked: “I didn’t fight a war against George III to become George I.” He also voluntarily stepped down after two challenging terms as the first President of the United States. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. His very presence at the drawn-out, tumultuous, and at times,
He also voluntarily stepped down after two challenging terms as the first President of the United States. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. His very presence at the drawn-out, tumultuous, and at times, dispiriting constitutional convention had a guiding, calming, and centering effect. We were very lucky the day he was appointed to fight for our independence.
“Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson shared the view that education was a way to ensure that the new Republic would be a place of merit, where birth, the bloodlines, and hereditary privilege would not count for much. Franklin was a self-made man, and throughout his life, he extolled the virtues of those who had risen through hard work, talent, and skill,” wrote
It is enlightening and instructive to see the founders’ debt to prior thinkers. It places these men in a long line of progressive thinking rather than as miracles placed upon the Earth by an activist god to birth America and introduce us benighted folks to new ideas such as liberty, justice, and self-government.
“Epictetus’s work concentrated almost exclusively on how to live: the Stoic teacher was to encourage his students to live the philosophic life according to virtue, reason, and nature. The point of it all was to be happy, to flourish. …Far in the future, Thomas Jefferson would admire Epictetus as creating an exemplary ethos for the secular citizen. Stoicism was also outstanding in its insistence on the doctrine of the brotherhood of man, and it was this aspect of it that was incorporated into Christianity” tells author
Let us always remember as we read high-minded quotations on virtue by such noble souls as these that they were also just that: men. Human beings. As E. O. Wilson noted, “We have created a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions.” These guys wore wigs, cursed, smoked, used the outhouse, and held slaves (some). Consider this apt warning by the late luminary of the Left, Howard Zinn, who, though he shares ideals with the founders, is purer because of his relative lack of power and the 175 years of societal progress before him:
“Early in the rule of the new government of the United States, Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to say anything, “false, scandalous, or malicious” against the government, Congress, or the president, with intent to “bring them into disrepute.” Ironically, it came seven years after the First Amendment was added to the Constitution, as if to state the lesson early on: In the real world, constitutional promises are one thing and political realities are another.”
The founders might have stood on the shoulders of giants, as Newton might have said, but I sometimes get the feeling we are indeed just slightly better than chimpanzees.
Indeed, there was no Bill of Rights in the original draft, and enlightened individuals such as George Mason wouldn’t sign because of it. As well, African Americans and women were specifically granted no rights. This was not lost on some of the delegates and framers, but they had to remember that “the perfect was the enemy of the good.” The money was just too strong an influence for men such as John Rutledge and John Pinckney of South Carolina to resist. The love of money.
It was the people who agitated for improvements to safeguard liberty. Though there was some worry about explicating a specific, small number of rights, those in favor of spelling out the peoples’ rights prevailed. “Responding to widespread objections that the Constitution did not guarantee liberties and rights, James Madison proposed several amendments to the First Congress in 1789. Within two years, ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights were approved,” wrote
But let us take solace in the fact that there is a difference between aspirations, ideals, and virtues and the people who work with and expound them. It’s the same when one compares the quotations on virtue by Jesus of Nazareth and his followers 2,000 years later. In fact, many in the “moral majority” nowadays wear a cloak of invulnerability that resembles the Shroud of Turin as they go about their dubious deeds. The ideals of their founder have been transmuted into a money-drenched interpretation of thoroughly modern goals. Sound familiar?
I wish I had the chance to know Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Paine. Such learned and self-responsible men. Abigail Adams was quite a thinker, too, and represents the innumerable women who played a significant role in the colonies and early America and have gotten short shrift and remain anonymous today.
Consider the following, one of the finest examples of quotations on virtue ever created – and by our own John Adams! “Human nature with all its infirmities and depravation is still capable of great things. It is capable of attaining to degrees of wisdom and goodness, which we have reason to believe, appear as respectable in the estimation of superior intelligences. Education makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute. The virtues and powers to which men may be trained, by early education and constant discipline, are truly sublime and astonishing. Newton and Locke are examples of the deep sagacity which may be acquired by long habits of thinking and study.”
Daniel N. Robinson was the lecturer on American Ideals: Founding a Republic of Virtue. If you buy it, and I recommend you do, look for it to be about $30, because they often have massive sales. Below are some of the quotations on virtue from Robinson himself, setting the stage for some other thoughts about democracy, intellectual history, the nature of a republic, representation, liberty, duty, character – quotations on virtue from the founders themselves.
What a debt we have to these men who labored so hard to reach back to ancient Greece, poured over the writings of the French philosophes, paid heed to the Scottish Enlightenment, honored the intellectual history of thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Cicero, and spent years of their lives working toward a republic that would be better and freer than the empire of Britain.
Now, the quotations on virtue from Daniel N. Robinson:
“This document [The Declaration of Independence], which has conferred immortality on its author, is the first of its kind…. As a document, it is a veritable text on the manner in which political issues are to be understood and addressed. …It was not a mere rehearsal of John Locke’s political philosophy. Indeed, at the level of philosophy, such principles had been in place since the time of the Athenian democracy. Jefferson, in a letter to Henry Lee, would note that the core principles could be traced to Aristotle and Cicero, long before Locke.”
“The ‘miracle’ in Philadelphia was a great achievement of mind and will, accomplished through debate, through the counsel of the wise, and the discipline of enlightened self-interest. The defects were recorded at the time, but those who put their names to the draft Constitution knew that what they had produced was the most that could have realistically been achieved.”
“The founders [of the United States] owed a debt to the Scottish Enlightenment; they often referred to their Scottish teachers and sent their children to Edinburgh for their education. Scottish thinkers had a developed idea of liberty and wrote prolifically on the human sentiments and the relationship between moral freedom and a life of virtue.”
“The period of 1700-1776 was graced by probably the most philosophically inclined generation in U.S. history. The period was marked by little formal schooling and a highly educated population. As Edmund Burke noted, the colonists were avid readers, particularly on the subject of law.”
“Montesquieu, on the reading list of most of the founders, had argued that different forms of government call for different dispositions and perspectives on the part of those governed. Those living under tyranny must develop the character of fearlessness; those living under monarchs, the character of honor; but those living within a republic, the character of virtue itself.”
“In the years before the Revolution, even amidst strenuous protests and boycotts aroused by the tax policies of [England], the dominant character of American resistance is one of restraint and a deep sense of duty. Duty to what? Duty to the principles established by the Magna Carta, by that ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England in 1688, by the works of Milton and Locke and other defenders of individual rights, and the rule of law. Arthur Lee (1740-1792) declared in one of his passionate publications, ‘Liberty is the very idol of my soul, the parent of my virtue.'”
“Frequent reference to the United States as a young nation tends to obscure the fact that it is also the oldest continuing democracy in the world. More than that, it also tends to obscure what the founders themselves understood to be the ancient principles on which they defended the Revolution.”
Now, some quotations on virtue by the founders themselves:
Quotes by Thomas Jefferson:
“…nobody will care for him who cares for nobody.”
“It is the manners and spirit of the people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”
“I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependents for continued freedom.”
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling in religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.”
“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasion of it in the case of others.”
“I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”
Quotations on virtue by James Madison:
“Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
“Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued until it be obtained – or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
“Crisis is the rallying cry of the tyrant.”
“No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.”
“All men having power ought to be mistrusted.”
“The purpose of the Constitution is to restrict the majority’s ability to harm a minority.”
“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
Those by Alexander Hamilton:
“In framing a government which is to be administered by people over other people, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
“The people commonly and usually intend the public good. They sometimes do make errors, but the wonder is that they so seldom do.”
“The people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government and to reform, alter, or totally change the same when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.”
“Men give me credit for genius; but all the genius I have lies in this: When I have a subject on hand I study it profoundly.”
“When a government betrays the people by amassing too much power and becoming tyrannical, the people have no choice but to exercise their original right of self-defense — to fight the government.”
“Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all the power to the few, they will oppress the many.”
And quotations on virtue by John Adams:
“There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.”
“There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with the power to endanger the public liberty.”
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
“Government has no right to hurt a hair on the head of an atheist for his opinions.”
“The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.”
“But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”
“Statesmen may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.”
I welcome you to look up quotations on virtue, liberty, democracy, republicanism, character, and wisdom here in the esteemed Wisdom Archive, a collection of 26,000 quotes. Always, free. Type in a name, keyword, or value and see what pops up.