What the Founders meant by ‘virtue,’ and how it could save our politics now
Writing in his diary in the spring of 1759, John Adams mused aloud on the images that were likely to run through his head as he found himself lapsing into a thoughtful mood.
“In such silent scenes, as riding or walking thro the Woods or sitting alone in my Chamber, or lying awake in my Bed, my Thoughts commonly run upon Knowledge, Virtue, Books, &c. tho I am apt to forget these, in the distracting Bustle of the Town, and ceremonious Converse with Mankind,” he wrote.
I want to pause for a moment there on Adams’ catalogue of thoughts, especially his reflections on “virtue.” Because it meant something very different to Adams, then in the undistinguished first year of his legal practice, than it does to our 21st century minds.
As journalist and historian Thomas E. Ricks notes, while virtue has become synonymous in modern America with morality, for the Revolutionary Generation, it had a far more totemic meaning. It was nothing less than “an essential part of public life.”
For the Founders, virtue “meant putting the common good before one’s own interests,” Ricks wrote in his 2021 book “First Principles: What America’s Founders learned from the Greeks and Romans, and how that shaped our country.”
Virtue was, Ricks writes, borrowing from the historian Joyce Appleby, the “‘lynchpin’ of public life — that is, the fastener that held together the structure.” And it ran “like a bright thread through the entire period of the Revolution, and the first decades of the new nation.”
From fights over pandemic-imposed mask mandates and the ongoing and potentially cataclysmic argument over the legitimacy of the last presidential election to the continuing struggle over voting rights and the endless culture war, virtue, as envisioned by the Founders, is a word worth revisiting. And its definition is deserving of some careful contemplation.
Imagine, for a moment, if virtue had been the guiding principle in 2016 when former President Barack Obama tapped Judge Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And imagine also that, instead of blowing up Garland’s nomination, then- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had put the common good ahead of personal advantage, and allowed the confirmation process to unfurl as it should.
Would that have spared us the toxicity of the ensuing confirmation battles over current Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, and the subsequent erosion of the high court’s prestige?