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AMERICA – A VIRTUOUS NATION? by Ted Stewart

United States Senior District Court Judge Ted Stewart

Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried . . ..”Without hesitation, I assert that our nation – a democratic republic – is remarkable, our system of government is the best the world has seen, and ours is a system worth defending. Yet, we live in a time when more and more Americans worry about the future of their nation. They see division, discord, and dissent unlike any period in their lifetimes.


They witness events unfolding that trouble their minds and souls. They observe concrete evidence that there is a significant decline in patriotism, belief in the family and community, and reliance on religion. Many are desperate to help – to try to alter the direction of this country that they love. How to do so? All citizens over eighteen years of age have the right and the obligation to vote – to unfailingly cast an informed ballot. Beyond that, more of us should make the effort to participate in every level of government to shape the future of our community, state, and nation. But what about the vast majority for which such direct involvement is difficult if not impossible?


What can the average American do to assure the future of their community and nation? For over 44 years, I have been involved in government at the local, state, and federal level – from councilman in a small city, to an advisor to a U.S. Senator, a U.S. Congressman, and a governor. I have had the privilege to be the Chairman or Executive Director of three departments of state government. Those duties placed me in the position of testifying before a state legislature, Congress, and in meetings with the President of the United States and his cabinet. In addition, I have served on the federal bench as a judge for over 23 years. I have had the opportunity to write four books about our country’s exceptional nature. I’ve tried to instill this love in students, teaching classes at the university level for over three decades.


The conclusion I have drawn from these experiences is that in the long history of this world, the freedoms, opportunities, and security that we enjoy as citizens of the United States are incredibly rare, very precious, and sadly, extremely fragile. Please remember those three words – rare, precious, fragile – more will be written of them. A disclaimer is necessary: our nation is far from perfect. In its 236-year history there is much that we did, and continue to do, that is wrong. We still have far to go to reach the noble objectives of equality, liberty, and rule of law that we all seek. Having been a part of government for as long as I have, I have witnessed dysfunction, ugly partisanship, and justifiable reasons to criticize those of us who are in positions of responsibility. Still, without hesitation, I again assert that our nation is remarkable, our system of government is the best the world has seen, and ours is a system worth defending. I attribute the success of this unique experiment in self-government to the Constitution of the United States. I consider those who crafted that document to have been extraordinarily wise.


I believe they possessed a unique grasp of human nature. Today, it is common to criticize the Founders of America. Judging them by today’s standards of liberty, equality, and justice they do fail. Some owned slaves. None fought to give women equal rights. Most were wealthy white men. Yes, judging the Founders by today’s standards of liberty, equality, and justice we might say they fail. But there is just one problem with judging them by today’s standards and it is this: but for those imperfect Founders and the sacrifices that they made and the instruments of government that they created, there would be no current, enlightened standards of liberty, equality, and justice by which to judge them – not here in America or anywhere else on earth! Again, the question, what can we, citizens of this nation, do to assure its future? What can we do to assure the continued pursuit of liberty, equality, and justice?


The answer can be summarized in two words: be virtuous. You see, this nation was founded on the assumption that its citizens would be virtuous – virtuous being understood much more broadly than most of us think of it today. Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defined “virtue” as strength, bravery, valor, and moral goodness and excellence. The Founders understood the link between virtue and successful self-government. It was part of the unique and precious insight possessed by those who crafted the Constitution. The evidence of this insight and understanding is more than plentiful. The oldest and most experienced of the Founders, Benjamin Franklin, summarized the understanding of his fellows when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Unquestionably, the man who had prepared himself most thoroughly to influence the gathering that became the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was James Madison. He had studied history with the sole aim of understanding what had to be found in a democratic republic in order for it to survive and to thrive. He once made the observation, “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.” Our nation’s second President, John Adams, once observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” It is easy to understand their assessment. People to whom the rule of law is precious, and who by nature are disciplined and obedient to universal principles of virtue and morality, do not need an excessive number of laws and regulations to govern them. Virtuous people will conduct themselves in such a way, even when the law does not demand it, that society does not suffer. Virtuous people will conduct themselves in such a way, even when that conduct is not discoverable, that society does not suffer. In sum, a virtuous people can live their lives free of laws, regulations, and the heavy hand of government because they truly govern themselves. The Founders understood this.


What is meant by virtue? One of the brightest and most accomplished leaders of the Twentieth Century was a woman named Clare Boothe Luce. She was an author and playwright, journalist, Member of Congress, and the first American woman to be named to a major ambassadorship. Towards the end of her life, she delivered a speech in which she identified what she characterized as universal morality. She pointed out the remarkable fact that great minds of the world – in all civilizations and throughout the ages – have agreed on the marks of a moral person.


She identified those marks as truthfulness, honesty, duty, personal responsibility, unselfishness, loyalty, honor, compassion, and courage. To me, examples of these traits might include: a person who acts in a cowardly way, even though it is not a violation of the law, has historically been deemed to be in the wrong by all societies and cultures.

Successful cultures always operate on the principle that individuals are responsible for their own decisions and actions, and those who cannot accept responsibility for their conduct are scorned. A person who lies, which is not illegal except in a handful of cases, is ostracized by society.

If one is willing to accept Ms. Luce’s list of personal characteristics that constitute virtue or morality, it dictates the type of citizens we must be if we are to survive as a free nation – if we as citizens of the United States are to flourish as a free people. Mentioned earlier was my conclusion about our system of government – after serving and studying and teaching and writing about it for over 40 years – is that our freedoms, opportunities, security, and ability to govern ourselves are rare, precious, and fragile. They are rare because in the long history of this world, what we enjoy as citizens of this nation is extraordinary. The vast majority of people that have lived, and do live on this earth today, have never tasted the liberty and opportunities and security that we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America. I hope that I do not need to persuade the reader that the blessing of self-government is precious.


However, I do feel compelled to contend that what we have is fragile. Self-government demands much of those being governed. A passive citizenry will not remain a free citizenry. A citizenry that abandons belief in, and conformity to, those universal principles of virtue and morality cannot remain free. A nation which no longer demands that its citizens and its leaders be truthful, honest, willing to perform their duty, and accept personal responsibility, will, eventually fail as a self-governing nation. A nation which no longer demands that her citizens and leaders be unselfish, loyal, honorable, compassionate, and courageous, will not survive.


A question I hope each of us will ponder is: What can I do to assure that ours is a virtuous nation? I hope that all Americans will accept the challenge of embracing virtue and requiring the same of our leaders – virtuous in the same sense that those who gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States understood that we had to be, in order that our grand and wonderful experiment in self-government might endure.

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