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It is sometimes said that the Founding Fathers created a “procedural republic” that was indifferent to what Americans did with their freedom. But this is to confuse a forthright defense of liberty with moral relativism that cannot distinguish right from wrong, virtue from vice. In a thoughtful and penetrating essay, Will Morrisey demonstrates that “the American way” was intended from the beginning to link rights and responsibilities, political freedom with civic virtue. The old “cardinal virtues” lauded by Aristotle and Cicero—prudence, courage, justice, and moderation—still spoke to the American people in a way that respected human freedom and individual conscience. Americans were both “humble” before God, and proud or “magnanimous” in asserting their independence and freedoms. As Morrisey shows, Americans aim to be neither haughty nor servile but rather participants in “a great and good shared action, the establishment of just self-government in their country.” As demonstrated by George Washington and other illustrious founders, Americans never severed liberty from their “sacred honor” or their allegiance to “Nature and Nature’s God.”

This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs's 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.


In declaring their independence from Great Britain, Americans famously asserted their unalienable rights. Much less conspicuously, but no less tellingly, they listed ten moral responsibilities consonant with those rights.

In announcing their political separation, they begin by acknowledging a duty to observe “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” by stating the causes for their decision. 1). “Decent” means fitting, appropriate; the opinions of mankind are fittingly respected because human beings possess the capacity for sociality, for understanding one another, for giving reasons for their conduct. Any important public action entails the responsibility to explain oneself, to justify that action before the bar of reasoning men and women.

To justify oneself, in turn, requires Americans to state their standard of justice. That standard is unalienable natural rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

To justify oneself, in turn, requires Americans to state their standard of justice. That standard is unalienable natural rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 2). Justice numbers among the four cardinal classical virtues, defined and elaborated by Plato, Cicero, and other philosophers well known to the Declaration’s signers. Just conduct consists of actions defending natural rights in a civil society; to assert those rights, to separate oneself from those who would violate them, logically entails respecting those rights in all other persons, inasmuch as “all men are created equal,” all equally entitled to enjoy their natural rights undisturbed by tyrants.

Governments that secure such rights are established by the consent of the governed. This means that consent cannot mean mere assent or willingness. It can only mean reasoned assent. 3). Reasoned assent to natural right implies a modest degree of another classical virtue, wisdom. In this case, it is what Aristotle calls “theoretical” wisdom, understanding general or abstract principles. Americans recognize their duty to understand what human nature is—not only the nature of Americans, or the English, or the French, but of human beings as such.

4). Aristotle identifies a second kind of wisdom: practical or prudential wisdom, the ability to figure out commonsense ways to secure the rights of human nature established in theory. “Prudence,” the Declaration states, “will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” Long-established governments have lasted a long time for some good reasons; they have stood the test of experience, of practice. Much of the Declaration of Independence is given over to showing why the causes for which the signers owe mankind an enumeration are not light and transient. They are profound and long-lasting, and to fail to foresee their likely results would be to fail to exercise the virtue of prudence.  

5). Closely related to prudence is a third classical virtue, moderation. Like all of mankind, Americans have exhibited patience in enduring “sufferable” evils as subjects of the British empire. Only “a long train of abuses” revealing an intention by the regime of that empire to “reduce them under an absolute Despotism” gives them not only the right but also the duty to “throw off” that regime and concomitantly to frame a new order that will secure their natural rights. Both prudence and moderation justify a right to revolution and, simultaneously, the duty to found a regime that will work better in practice.

6). The fourth classical virtue is courage. Without it, wisdom, justice, and moderation by themselves will leave you high and dry. As a baseball manager once said of a rival, “Nice guys finish last.” Accordingly, Americans announce their intention to defend their rights with “manly firmness.” It should be noted that manliness in their minds had no “gender.” Abigail Adams was no less “manly” in her firmness than her husband, John. He knew that and said it. Looking back on the American Revolution, he wrote that those were times that tried women’s souls as well as those of men, and that American women had exhibited no less courage than their husbands and sons. Several decades later, gallant Tocqueville went so far as to say that America owed much of its success in self-government to “the superiority of her women” to those seen in European ballrooms and salons, where the sterner virtues had gone out of fashion.

The virtue of civility treats naturally equal human beings as equal citizens in a regime designed to give every citizen representation in government—government by consent.

7). The signers also held up the virtue of civility against barbarism, by which they didn’t mean primitiveness. They meant Machiavellianism, the intention to rule by force and fraud or, in their own words, cruelty and perfidy. By this standard, the English monarch’s policies regarding the American colonists were barbaric, however “civilized” his pomp and circumstance may have made him seem. Aristotle understands human nature to be not only rational but also political or civil. By “political,” he means the capacity to rule and be ruled in turn, as good husbands and wives do in a justly ordered household, and as citizens do among themselves. Political or civil rule contrasts with parental rule—rule over children for “their own good.” The civic equivalent of this would be a kingship, one-man or one-woman rule for the good of the subjects, often described as the “children” of the monarch. Political or civil rule also contrasts with the rule of masters over slaves, which is established, Aristotle observes, for the good of the master, not the slave. The virtue of civility treats naturally equal human beings as equal citizens in a regime designed to give every citizen representation in government—government by consent. Civility animates the regime of republicanism, which will replace British tyranny.

8). Americans also esteem a virtue less classical than Biblical—namely, humility. They have petitioned the British monarch in “humble terms.” The Bible teaches that humility is a virtue because, while God created all men equal in their humanity, they are equal before God, and under God. In Hebrew, the word for humility, anav, appears frequently in association with the greatest of all Israelite founders, Moses, the great lawgiver. Moses’s humility enables him to bring forth the Ten Commandments not as his own laws, products of his own wisdom, but as God’s laws. In describing their right to independence as established by the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, the signers of the Declaration show a similar humility. They do not strut proudly before mankind as “exceptional” Americans. They announce their intention to claim their rights on the foundation of laws seen in the nature created by God. They are not divine creators but human receivers of God’s gifts.

While petitioning the monarch in humble terms, they also appeal to the “magnanimity” of their “British brethren,” the people of Great Britain. 9). Magnanimity—literally, greatness of soul—crowns and epitomizes the classical virtues. Aristotle describes the magnanimous man as one whose soul is big enough to endure the rigors of political life without resentment, without the petty retaliation exercised by men of micropsychia, smallness of soul. The Americans understand that their action will take the British people by surprise. Britain’s mighty empire, a source of understandable national pride, will be diminished. Having given up on showing humility before the king—humility isn’t groveling—Americans ask from his people nothing less than greatness of soul. They can demand no less from themselves, as well, and accordingly hold the British people “enemies in War” but “in Peace friends.” They see that a war of independence will provoke angry passions in their own hearts against that people, even as they now feel such passions against King George and the British parliament. They vow to greet former battlefield enemies with magnanimity, once peace has been restored.

. . . [Americans] understand humility as a virtue attendant to due deference—in civil society, to a monarch insofar as he adheres to the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God; in civil society and in nature, to God and His laws, to be obeyed by peoples and monarchs, commoners and aristocrats alike.

It has never been the case that Biblical humility and classical magnanimity comport easily with one another. The signers of the Declaration of Independence pair them. They can do so because they understand humility as a virtue attendant to due deference—in civil society, to a monarch insofar as he adheres to the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God; in civil society and in nature, to God and His laws, to be obeyed by peoples and monarchs, commoners and aristocrats alike.

10). Finally, to one another the Americans pledge “our sacred Honor.” If Americans owe a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, they owe honor to one another, particularly loyalty in a great and good shared action, the establishment of just self-government in their country. They will not betray one another. They will respect the opinions of others, but in this task each will deserve the good opinion of his countrymen.

First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” George Washington served as the exemplary American to Americans. First in war, he showed courage on the battlefield, and civic courage, after the war, when he faced down a nascent military coup. First in peace, he showed a decent respect for mankind in his Farewell Address, avoiding military alliances in Europe (then a cauldron of war) and leading his countrymen to a constitution designed to secure justice for all American citizens. He proved to them that he possessed the wisdom to establish government by consent. And he won first place in the hearts of his countrymen with his unflagging civility, his humility in reprehending any suggestion that he be made a monarch (King George never thought he could resist the temptation), and perhaps above all in his greatness of soul and sense of honor—“aristocratic” virtues he humbly placed in the service of the republicanism that Americans had fought for, and won.

In all this, Washington became a living embodiment of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, their foremost practitioner, and the example for Americans of the virtues Americans esteemed. Throughout the soul-trials of revolutionary regime change and peaceful regime-building, Washington and his fellow Americans never considered these virtues uniquely American, but rather as the shared patrimony of all human beings, under the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.

Will Morrisey is Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College and editor of  Will Morrisey Reviews, an online book review publication. He is author of  Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003).

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