The Moral Basis of Government

This is an unedited reprint of chapter 13 of Clinton Rossiter's The Political Thought of the American Revolution, a revised version of Part III of Seedtime of the Republic, now out of print. All hyperlinks and sidebars have been added. Rossiter undoubtedly would not agree with all our conclusions.

Nor would Russell Kirk, who summed up this web page:

Clinton Rossiter expresses succinctly the cardinal point that American democratic society rests upon Puritan and other Calvinistic beliefs—and through those, in no small part upon the experience of Israel under God. "For all its faults and falterings, for all the distance it has yet to travel," Rossiter states, "American democracy has been and remains a highly moral adventure. Whatever doubts may exist about the sources of this democracy, there can be none about the chief source of the morality that gives it life and substance..." From this Puritan inheritance, this transplanted Hebrew tradition, there come "the contract and all its corollaries; the higher law as something more than a 'brooding omnipresence in the sky'; the concept of the competent and responsible individual; certain key ingredients of economic individualism; the insistence on a citizenry educated to understand its rights and duties; and the middle-class virtues, that high plateau of moral stability on which, so Americans believe, successful democracy must always build.''[15]

That said, nevertheless American political theory and institutions, and the American moral order, cannot be well understood, or maintained, or renewed, without repairing to the Law and the Prophets. "In God we trust," the motto of the United States, is a reaffirmation of the Covenants made with Noah and Abraham and Moses and the Children of Israel, down to the last days of prophecy. The earthly Jerusalem never was an immense city: far more Jews live in New York City today than there were inhabitants of all Palestine at the height of Solomon's glory. But the eternal Jerusalem, the city of spirit, still has more to do with American order than has even Boston which the Puritans founded, or New York which the Dutch founded, or Washington which arose out of a political compromise between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Faith and hope may endure when earthly cities are reduced to rubble: that, indeed, is a principal lesson from the experience of Israel under God.

15. Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: the Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), p. 55.

Kirk, The Roots of American Order, p.47-51

Most of the debates in the Constitutional Convention centered around the structural allocation and balancing of political powers in the new government. There was no debate over the importance of religion and morality to the new government; never a thought that the new Constitution mandated the secularization of the nation.

HOWEVER ANGRILY they might argue over points of constitutional structure, the American spokesmen agreed unanimously that it would take more than a perfect plan of government to preserve ordered liberty. Something else was needed, some moral principle diffused among the people to strengthen the urge to peaceful obedience and hold the community on an even keel. The wisest of political philosophers had spoken of three possibilities: fear, honor, virtue. Which were Americans to choose?

Virtue defined in the writings of the Founders.

The answer, of course, was virtue, for as the author of The People the Best Governors observed (in a direct steal from Montesquieu), "Fear is the principle of a despotic, honour of a kingly, and virtue is the principle of a republican government." "The spirit of a free republican constitution, or the moving power which should give it action," Theophilus Parsons wrote at the end of his great Essex Result, "ought to be political virtue, patriotism, and a just regard to the natural rights of mankind." And Samuel Adams spoke for all American thinkers when he reminded James Warren:

We may look up to Armies for our Defence, but Virtue is our best Security. It is not possible that any State shd long remain free, where Virtue is not supremely honord.

"Liberty cannot be preserved," another Bostonian added, "if the manners of the people are corrupted, nor absolute monarchy introduced, where they are sincere.' Free government rested on a definite moral basis: a virtuous people. Conversely, the decay of a people's morals signaled the end of liberty and happiness. On no point in the whole range of political theory were Americans more thoroughly in accord. Free government was in large part a problem in practical ethics.

Revolutionary thinkers drew heavily on their colonial [Puritan] heritage in proclaiming virtue the essence of freedom. The decade of crisis brought new popularity to the cult of virtue that had long held sway in the colonies. All the familiar techniques that earlier colonists had borrowed from England and converted to their purposes were revived for the emergency. The appeal to ancient Rome for republican inspiration was especially favored. The nicest compliment Samuel Adams could pay Joseph Hawley was to say that he had "as much of the stern Virtue and Spirit of a Roman Censor as any Gentleman I ever conversed with." John Dickinson had spoken "with Attick Eloquence and Roman Spirit"; the dead of Concord were "like the Romans of old"; the way to exhort the Americans was to ''stir up all that's Roman in them.'' The Roman example worked both ways: From the decline of the republic Americans could learn the fate of free states that succumb to luxury. The colonists' own ancestors proved equally useful. Thousands of farmers read in Nathaniel Ames's almanac for 1769:

When our Forefathers firm maintain'd the cause
Of true Religion, Liberty and Laws,
Disdaining down the golden Stream to glide,
But bravely stem'd Corruptions rapid Tide,
Shall we, by Indolence, supinely doom
To Sweat and Toil the Nations yet to come?

The praise of virtue and condemnation of corruption served two very practical purposes in the decade that led to 1776: to mobilize public opinion as sanction for various extra-legal associations and governments, and to tear men loose from their traditional deference to all things British. Most of the ceaseless preaching about "the fatal effects of luxury to a free state" was directed at the mother country. This was especially true in the last months before independence, when men like Edward Bancroft began to argue that the "Effeminacy, Luxury, and Corruption, which extend to all Orders of Men" in England would poison the youthful body of America unless it were to cut short its dependence. "Americans!" exclaimed one writer in March, 1776,

Remember the long, habitual, base venality of British Parliaments.
Remember the corrupt, putrefied state of that nation, and the virtuous, sound, healthy, state of your own young constitution.
Remember the tyranny of Mezentius, who bound living men face to face with dead ones, and the effect of it.

And Caractacus wrote to the Pennsylvania Packet:

We thrived upon her wholesome milk during our infancy. She then enjoyed a sound constitution. I will not say that it is high time we should be taken from her breasts, but I will say, that she has played the harlot in her old age, and that if we continue to press them too closely we shall extract nothing from them but disease and death.

[I]t 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.
John Adams[1]

[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
John Adams[2]

To a British officer's sneer that "the People of America are at least an hundred Years behind the old Countries in Refinement," An American replied in the New London Connecticut Gazette:

As to Humanity, Temperance, Chastity, Justice, a Veneration for the Rights of Mankind, and every Moral Virtue, they are an hundred years behind us.

This, of course, was why Americans could launch a republic with some hope of success, for it was the one form of government, John Adams pointed out, "whose principle and foundation is virtue."

In the process of exhorting one another to be brave, frugal, and honest, and of damning England as "that degen'rate land," American writers worked out a well-rounded theory of the ethical basis of free government. In particular, they identified the essential public virtues, described the contrasting political fates of good men and bad, and recommended techniques for promoting virtue and discouraging vice.

In addition to approving all recognized Christian, Roman, and English virtues, Americans singled out several attitudes or traits of special consequence for a free republic:

Special attention was devoted to the fifth of these qualities, for industry and frugality were essential to the success of America's program of economic resistance. The uproar over industry and frugality, private no less than public virtues, reached such a pitch in New England as to call forth this reminder from A Freeholder in the New-Hampshire Gazette:

Whilst Frugality and Industry are strongly recommended at this Juncture of Time, I think Cleanliness in our public Ways and Streets may not be an Object unworthy of our particular Attention.

Whether cleanliness, too, was essential to liberty was never made clear in Revolutionary literature, but the cultivation of these great public virtues -- moral action without compulsion, love of liberty, public spirit, incorruptibility, and industry and frugality-was considered the first duty of a free people. Men who displayed these qualities were the raw materials of liberty. Without such men, in low places as well as high, free government could not possibly exist.

The fruits of virtue, for nations as well as men, were liberty, prosperity, and happiness; the fruits of corruption and luxury were tyranny, poverty, and misery. "The peculiar blessings of heaven," Rev. Thomas Coombe wrote in 1775, "do indeed seem generally to be the reward of DETERMINED VIRTUE in a people." "And as too great authority intoxicates and poisons Kings," Nathaniel Ames warned, "so luxury poisons a whole nation." True, echoed Rev. Phillips Payson, and the upshot is this:

The baneful effects of exorbitant wealth, the lust of power, and other evil passions, are so inimical to a free, righteous government, and find such an easy access to the human mind, that it is difficult, if possible, to keep up the spirit of good government.

How to encourage virtue and thus "keep up the spirit of good government"? To this key question of political liberty Americans replied: hortatory religion, sound education, honest government, and a simple economy.

Hortatory Religion

The strain of piety in the philosophy of American liberty is evident in the appeal of the Declaration of Independence to "Nature's God," the "Creator," and "the Supreme Judge of the World." Few thinking laymen, whether believers like Samuel Adams or skeptics like Franklin, ever doubted the indispensability of organized religion in the preservation of public and private morality. The former wrote to his friend John Scollay:

I fully agree in Opinion with a very celebrated Author, that "Freedom or Slavery will prevail in a (City or) Country according as the Disposition & Manners of the People render them fit for the one or the other"; and I have long been convinced that our Enemies have made it an Object, to eradicate from the Minds of the People in general a Sense of true Religion & Virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their Point of enslaving them. Indeed my Friend, this is a Subject so important in my Mind, that I know not how to leave it. Revelation assures us that "Righteousness exalteth a Nation" --Communities are dealt with in this World by the wise and just Ruler of the Universe. He rewards or punishes them according to their general Character. The diminution of publick Virtue is usually attended with that of publick Happiness, and the publick Liberty will not long survive the total Extinction of Morals.

Patriot preachers, of course, found this a favorite theme. The practice of the Christian religion was as essential to virtue as was the practice of virtue to freedom. "Survey the globe," Rev. John Joachim Zubly urged, "and you will find that liberty has taken its seat only in Christendom, and that the highest degree of freedom is pleaded for and enjoyed by such as make profession of the gospel." Rev. Phillips Payson put the case for religion to the Massachusetts legislature in these blunt words:

The importance of religion to civil society and government is great indeed, as it keeps alive the best sense of moral obligation, a matter of such extensive utility, especially in respect to an oath, which is one of the principal instruments of government. The fear and reverence of God, and the terrors of eternity, are the most powerful restraints upon the minds of men; and hence it is of special importance in a free government, the spirit of which being always friendly to the sacred rights of conscience, it will hold up the gospel as the great rule of faith and practice. . . .  The thoughtful and wise among us trust that our civil fathers, from a regard to gospel worship and the constitution of these churches, will carefully preserve them, and at all times guard against every innovation that might tend to overset the public worship of God, though such innovations may be urged from the most foaming zeal. . . . Let the restraints of religion once be broken down . . . and we might well defy all human wisdom and power to support and preserve order and government in the state. Human conduct and character can never be better formed than upon the principles of our holy religion; they give the justest sense, the most adequate views, of the duties between rulers and people.

In short, religion helped put the order in ordered liberty, especially by emphasizing the dependence of public morality on private virtue. The Massachusetts Convention of 1779 responded to this sort of exhortation by inserting these words in the Declaration of Rights:

As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of a civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of GOD, and of public instruction in piety, religion, and morality -- therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.

The doctrine of religious necessity had not yet given way to the doctrine of full religious liberty.

Sound Education

The second means of promoting virtue was public and private education. Like their colonial forebears, the men of the Revolution considered the inculcation of morality one of the three or  four basic purposes of all instruments of education. Said Rev. Simeon Howard:

Liberty and learning are so friendly to each other, and so naturally thrive and flourish together, that we may justly expect that the guardians of the former will not neglect the latter. The good education of children is a matter of great importance to the commonwealth. Youth is the time to plant the mind with the principles of virtue, truth and honour, the love of liberty and of their country, and to furnish it with all useful knowledge; and though in this business much depends upon parents, guardians, and masters, yet it is incumbent upon the government to make provision for schools and all suitable means of instruction.

Natural law and virtue were closely identified in the Revolutionary mind. Since God and nature told men not only what they had a right to do, but what was right for them to do, the practice of virtue was simply obedience to natural law. It was the business of educators and ministers to instruct their charges that the fairest right of all was to 'do what was right, that true liberty was the liberty to follow God's plan for human happiness. John Winthrop had expressed exactly the same idea in defense of theocratic oligarchy, but John Winthrop's God had long since mellowed.

I have already quoted John Adams's hope that colleges would be "instruments of impressing on the tender mind, and of spreading and distributing far and wide, the ideas of right and the sensations of freedom." Fourteen years later he drafted this clause of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties, and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments among the people.

Honest Government

The two passages just quoted from the Massachusetts Constitution indicate something of the importance of government as a promoter of virtue. Not only did it nourish morality indirectly by encouraging and protecting, and perhaps supporting, the instruments of religion and education; it was expected to make a number of direct contributions: by passing sumptuary laws "to discourage prodigality and extravagance, vain and expensive amusements and fantastic foppery, and to encourage the opposite virtues"; by making proclamations from time to time of days "of public humiliation, fasting and prayer"; and by itself operating at the highest level of justice, virtue, and incorruptibility. Preachers never tired of exhorting legislators and judges to be men of spotless integrity in both public and private dealings. Orators never tired of reminding the public that it should look for virtue before all other qualities in selecting candidates for public office.

A Simple Economy

Finally, one influential group of Revolutionary thinkers asserted that the virtues necessary to maintain free government were more likely to flourish in an agrarian than in a manufacturing or commercial economy. "Would you extinguish luxury?" asked a South Carolinian in 1773. "Give a singular protection to agriculture, which engages men to live in temperance and frugality." A Connecticut gentleman quoted Pitt in 1775 on the importance to freedom of "the proprietors, and tillers of the ground -- men who have a permanent, natural right in the place -- and who from being nursed in the bosom of cultivation, form strong and honorable attachments to their country." And Josiah Quincy, Jr., saluted "the FREEHOLDERS and YEOMANRY of my country . - . the LANDED INTEREST" as "the virtue, strength, and fortitude" of the state. The strong agrarian bias of Jeffersonian democracy had roots in the colonial and Revolutionary past.

American writers stressed the interdependence of virtue and each of these forces. Just as religion, education, government, and agriculture could raise the level of public and private morality, so morality could strengthen each of these great human undertakings. This was especially true of morality and government. Virtue fed liberty, liberty fed virtue. More to the point, John Adams wrote, vice brought tyranny, which in turn brought more vice:

Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness and downright venality swallow up the whole society.

The business of political philosophers was to discover the virtues that lead to free government and the form of government that leads men to virtue. In fact, said Americans like Nathaniel Ames, expressing an opinion more than two thousand years old, that form of government is best which produces the greatest number of good, free, happy men. The colonies had enough virtue to be republics, and as republics they could look forward to an increase in virtue. David Ramsay explained it all on the second anniversary of independence:

Our present form of government is every way preferable to the royal one we have lately renounced. It is much more favorable to purity of morals, and better calculated to promote all our important interests. Honesty, plain-dealing, and simple manners, were never made the patterns of courtly behavior. Artificial manners always prevail in kingly government; and royal courts are reservoirs, from whence insincerity, hypocrisy, dissimulation, pride, luxury, and extravagance, deluge and overwhelm the body of the people. On the other hand, republics are favorable to truth, sincerity, frugality, industry, and simplicity of manners. Equality, the life and soul of commonwealth, cuts off all pretensions to preferment, but those which arise from extraordinary merit.

Whether this youthful, virtuous people would lose its virtue with its youth and its freedom with its virtue was a question much debated by thoughtful Americans. Young John Adams could write:

If ever an infant country deserved to be cherished it is America. If ever any people merited honor and happiness they are her inhabitants. They are a people whom no character can flatter or transmit in any expressions equal to their merit and virtue; with the high sentiments of Romans, in the most prosperous and virtuous times of that commonwealth, they have the tender feelings of humanity and the noble benevolence of Christians; they have the most habitual, radical sense of liberty, and the highest reverence for virtue, they are descended from a race of heroes, who, placing their confidence in Providence alone, set the seas and skies, monsters and savages, tyrants and devils, at defiance for the sake of religion and liberty.

But young Theophilus Parsons could ask:

The most virtuous states have become vicious. The morals of all people, in all ages, have been shockingly corrupted.. . . Shall we alone boast an exemption from the general fate of mankind? Are our private and political virtues to be transmitted untainted from generation to generation, through a course of ages?

Two things were certain: First, the end of virtue and liberty would come by easy stages rather than in one grand cataclysm. "History does not more clearly point out any fact than this," warned Richard Henry Lee, "that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces." Eternal vigilance was the price of virtue as well as liberty. Second, should Americans sink from virtue and liberty to vice and slavery, they would have only themselves to blame. It was clearly in their power to build and preserve a free republic. Rev. Samuel Webster of Salisbury, delivering the Massachusetts election sermon for 1777, laid down eleven commandments for a people determined to be free:

1. Let the people by all means encourage schools and colleges, and all the means of learning and knowledge, if they would guard against slavery. For a wise, a knowing and a learned people, are the least likely of any in the world to be enslaved.

2. Let them do all in their power to suppress vice and promote religion and virtue. For, besides their natural efficacy, I am persuaded no people were ever yet given up by God to slavery, till they had first given themselves up to wickedness.

3. Let only men of integrity be entrusted by you with any power. I think power is much safer in their hands than in men of greater abilities, but who are wanting in this essential point.

4. Let not too much power be trusted in the hands of any. It may hurt them, and then they may hurt the public. Or if it seem necessary in some critical time (like the present) to lodge great power in some hand or hands, let it be for a limited time, and the power renewed annually, if there is occasion.

5. Let elections of the Legislators be frequent; and let bribery and corruption be guarded against to the utmost. Methinks, those who are guilty of these should be forever rendered incapable of any place of power or trust; and this by a fundamental law of the constitution.

6. Let the militia be kept under the best regulation, and be made respectable. This will be a great security a great many ways.

7. Let standing armies be only for necessity and for a limited time. For, when corrupted, they have been the ruin of many a country's liberty.

8. Let these armies never be put under the absolute power of any magistrate in time of peace, so as to act in any cause, till that cause is approved by the Senate and people.

9. Let monopolies and all kinds and degrees of oppression be carefully guarded against. They are dangerous to the peace of a people, and they are dangerous to their liberties! I am mistaken if the present time does not prove it.

10. Let a careful watch be kept, and if any is found grossly and notoriously exceeding the limits of his power, methinks, it should be a standing invariable rule never to trust him with any power more.

Finally, let the powers and prerogatives of the rulers and the rights and priviledges of the people, be determined with as much precision as possible, that all may know their limits. And where there is any dispute, let nothing be done, till it is settled by the people, who are the fountain of power.

This was an almost perfect statement of the American consensus on the moral basis of government and how to stiffen it.

1. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 401, to Zabdiel Adams on June 21, 1776.

2.  Adams, op. cit., Vol. IX, p. 229, October 11, 1798.

More views of the Founding Fathers on religion, morality and government.

Christmas Conspiracy


Vine & Fig Tree

Paradigm Shift


End The Wall of Separation
Mailing List

Enter your e-mail address:
Browse the Theocracy Archive
An e-group hosted by

Vine & Fig Tree
12314 Palm Dr. #107
Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240
[e-mail to V&FT]
[V&FT Home Page]