The Republic We Betrayed

A republican government is an exercise in human optimism, and patriotic republicans must engage in an unremitting struggle against that human entropy we used to know as Original Sin.  Any American citizen today can quote, or at least dimly recall, Washington’s declarative challenge in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.

This rule applies not only to republics, added the retiring president, but “extends with more or less force to every species of free Government.”

For Washington, then, a republican government does not reside in constitutional form alone but rests on the virtue of its citizens.  Patriotic rhetoric aside, we Americans have never been a particularly virtuous people.  Like most peoples, we have got drunk and blasphemed, fornicated and philandered, lied, cheated, and stolen.  Puritan New England was notorious for premature births.  If, however, we were hardly better than the French, we were no worse, and if we were not distinguished for virtue in the Christian sense, we had more than enough virtù in Machiavelli’s sense—the...

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