Liberty's Blessings & the Curse of Self-Government

By Joel Miller

As we celebrate our nation's Independence, some then-and-now is in order.

On July 4, 1793, Rev. Enos Hitchcock offered an oration at the Baptist Meeting House in Providence, Rhode Island. The speech was colored by personal experience. Hitchcock served as chaplain during the war, first at Crown Point and Ticonderoga and then later at Valley Forge and West Point, seeing the high cost of liberty and ministering to countless men who paid it in full.

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As townsfolk gathered to celebrate that dear prize, Hitchcock directed their contemplations toward their immense blessings. With its fertile soil, various climates, broad rivers, and vast coastline, the new-won land promised every kind of produce and extensive commerce.

Hitchcock's "sentimental effusions" -- his phrase -- included statements about the ongoing betterment of the people in which "[v]irtue and industry, talents and knowledge" would increase, while "opportunities for vice are rendered fewer."

The mood was no less effusive when it came to politics. In America, he said, "the hereditary demagogue, and the cringing sycophant, are alike unknown. Protected by laws of their own framing, the people cannot be oppressed. Enjoying an equal government, which has no lucrative sinecures to bestow, there will be no great scope for ambitious intrigue."

That was then. Now the demagogues and sycophants are back. The laws are, more often than not, of nobody's framing except that of unconstitutional bureaucracies, and the people are greatly put upon if not actually oppressed. There is no equal government, as special interests and their legions of lobbyists secure the bestowal of power, perks, and privileges one campaign donation at a time. And no great scope! For all appearances, ambitious intrigue is fundamental to American politics.

Hitchcock's was a hopeful and certain vision, but one that went radically south. And quickly. There were concerns early on. A few years later, in 1802, Noah Webster offered a July 4 oration considerably more somber, one focused on the perils facing the young republic.

"Nations, like individuals, may be misled by an ardent enthusiasm, which allures them from the standard of practical wisdom, and commits them to the guidance of visionary projectors," he said. These schemers, however well-intentioned, "delude themselves with the belief, that they have wisdom to elude or power to surmount the obstacles which have baffled the exertions of their predecessors." But they don't, as history ruefully instructs.

The Constitution supposedly hems the schemers in, but "[w]hen a magistrate becomes more popular than the constitution, he may 'draw sin as it were with a cart-rope,'" said Webster, adding that "against men who command the current of popular confidence, the best constitution has not the strength of a cobweb."

And so here we are these many years later, much the worse for wear. Unalloyed celebration is proper on the Fourth, but self-critical reflection is due before and after. How, after all, did we get here?

Human nature is the unimpressive answer, but it's a fault line the founders identified at the beginning. They put great stock in religion to curb excesses and declinations of human nature both in politics and out. "The importance of religion to the peace and order of society, is unspeakably great," said Hitchcock, for one ready example. Faith, as they saw it, would drive the impulse toward self-governance.

But don't get your hopes up. Webster, for his part, showed a reasonable skepticism:

If there is a possibility of founding a perfectly free government, and giving it permanent duration, it must be raised upon the pure maxims, and supported by the undecaying practice, of that religion, which breathes 'peace on earth, and good will to men.' That religion is perfectly republican . . . it is calculated to humble the pride and allay the discontents of men . . . it restrains the magistrate from oppression, and the subject from revolt . . . it secures a perfect equality of rights, by enjoining a discharge of all social duties, and a strict subordination to law. The universal prevalence of that religion, in its true spirit, would banish tyranny from the earth. Yet this religion has been perverted. . . .

Webster was primarily attacking the papacy and various European state churches, but there are other perversions that decay the practice of fruitful Christian faith and render self-governance more curse than blessing.

Now, as then, Americans are remarkably religious. But we are remarkably religious about things that don't much matter. What about fasting, humility, and charity? What about asceticism? Virtues and practices that could curb our baser impulses are part of the Christian tradition but rarely cultivated or employed.

Uninterested in fasting, we are unable to check our material appetites and seek to accumulate possessions and power. Unimpressed with humility, we pursue individual interests with selfish vigor and curry favor and applause for all our self-aggrandizing efforts. Dismissive of charity, we put ourselves before our neighbors, and sometimes even our spouses and children. Are we surprised that politicians act the same? In a democracy, they are the same.

We've lost our national government because we've abandoned virtuous self-government. The very thought of ascetic restraint is baneful to the self-vaunting, proud American spirit. And yet it's the one thing that might keep that spirit alive and honor the sacrifices made by those who freed it in the first place.

Joel J. Miller is the author of Lifted By Angels and blogs frequently on faith and culture.

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