Political Column — The Bedrock of Good Government
It has been a long and tumultuous history to discover what is necessary for the structure of good governance: separation of powers, federalism, checks and balances, due process, elections, enumerated rights, trial by jury, etc. These are immensely important principles that civilization is built upon. But all of the best principles in known existence will not work without something more foundational, and that is the moral bedrock that emerges through individual human interactions over time. Society is built from the bottom up.
In his ‘Thoughts on Government’ John Adams says, “Fear is the foundation of most governments; but is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men, in whose breasts it predominates, so stupid, and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.”
This brings up a great question; if not fear, what should government be founded upon? Adams says, “All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue.”
There is good and bad within everyone. The matter is one of degree. James Madison talks about this in Federalist 55, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
When virtue is lost, then the structure of good government begins to crumble. John Adams pointed this out to Benjamin Rush in a letter in 1808. “When public Virtue is gone, when the national Spirit is fled, when a Party is Substituted for the Nation, and Faction for a Party, when Venality lurks and Skulks in Secret, and much more when it impudently braves the public Censure, whether it be Sent in the form of Emissaries from foreign Powers, or is employed by ambitious and Intriguing domestic Citizens, the Republic is lost in Essence, though it may still exist in form.”
Every single thing that Adams warns against has come to pass. Our institutions are now built on fear. The essence of the republic has been lost. The form has been warped and twisted. And popular movements are now seeking a savior to deliver them from this evil. But I say to you there is no savior. There is only the work of salvation. What is needed to restore the republic is twofold.
One, we must rebuild the institutions and policies that a free and just society consists of. At the township level we cannot restore the structure of federalism. We cannot make the legislatures take back their legislative powers. But there are things we can do, and in Dalton Township, we are doing them: implementing due process, debating enumerated rights, reducing barriers to business, etc. This builds a better society, from the bottom up.
The second thing that is needed is more elusive to grasp. It is the essence. It is virtue. It cannot be given by a leader, or by a group. Prudence, and justice, and fortitude, and temperance must be grown within the individual. The salvation of society is found within each person, and it can be reclaimed. St. Augustine talks about how the essence of society emerges from the people over 1,600 years ago in his ‘Sermons on the New Testament’. “Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.”
These two things must come together, they must be built together. A structure of virtue must be grown within the person, while a structure of principled government is erected in the world. This is a great work that can be done, a great work that is being done, a work which will continue, and a work that each person carries on within themselves and with the world.