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Leaping Back to the Founding Part 6: What is Virtue? And How Can We Promote It?

Posted on November 8 2009 4:20 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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Editor’s Note: Click here for the previous installments in this ongoing series.

There were many experiences that transformed me from a leftist into conservative. At the forefront, though, was my year and a half working as a debt collector (and later an assistant manager of a team of collectors) for a student loan company.

Spending 40+ hours a week on the phone talking to people on the verge of defaulting I learned a key lesson in human nature: many people cannot handle their finances. The same message even repeated itself in the mini-economy of the call center as I say amongst my co-workers a wide-range of levels of achievement at the job. The observations go further, though, to arrive at an often painful conservative reality: vast numbers of people cannot handle freedom.

Given the opportunity to create their life many people are unable to rise to the occasion. It’s here where W. Cleon Skousen’s second principle of the founders offers an answer:

Second Principle: A free people cannot survive under a republican constitution unless they remain virtuous and morally strong.

In other words, people cannot handle freedom without virtue and morality.

So often these concepts — virtue and morality — are thought of in a purely sexual context. The term “moral” when used in politics conjures up images of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and a politics driven by anti-gay, anti-pornography, sexual prudishness. This casts the concept in an overly narrow fashion.

In my experience as a debt collector the ideas bring about a far different context. It’s moral to pay one’s debts and take them seriously. It’s virtuous to work hard and not waste one’s money when there are obligations that must be met first. Those who are possessed of such a mentality can handle the challenge of freedom and navigate the traps of personal finances.

The founders knew this and Skousen cites several examples.

Benjamin Franklin:

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

James Madison:

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men; so that we do not depend upon their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.”

John Adams:

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Finally Skousen summarizes:

Virtue has to be earned and it has to be learned. Neither is virtue a permanent quality in human nature. It has to be cultivated continually and exercised from hour to hour and from day to day. The Founders looked to the home, the school, and the churches to fuel the fires of virtue from generation to generation.

In the third value that we’ll discuss we’ll see the founder’s view for how virtue could be instilled in a society.

But first, would anyone else like to elaborate on this concept?

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