American Framers’ Reliance on Culture

 

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution believed that a republic could be maintained only with a healthy culture as its foundation.  Although the Framers did not specifically use the word “culture,” their concern for republican virtues among the citizens is another way of saying the same thing.  John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence and professor and president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) who was dubbed the "great teacher of the American Revolution,” said:

 

Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction.  A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue.  On the other hand, when the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and eternal principles maintain their vigour, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed.[11]

 

George Washington said in his Farewell Address of 1796, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”   Likewise, Gouverneur Morris, drafter of the U.S. Constitution and the ambassador to France during the French Revolution, wrote, “They [the French] want an American Constitution with the exception of a king instead of a President, without reflecting that they have no American citizens to uphold that constitution.”[12]  It was the constitution written on the heart of the American citizenry that made the difference between France and the United States.  Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “While the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare. . . .”[13]

 

If the brilliance of the American Government lay solely in its Constitution, there would be no reason to worry about the unwritten constitution of its citizens.  However, the Framers believed that government is “the greatest [as in largest or truest] of all reflections on human nature . . .  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”[14]  Even with the careful thought behind the founding document, the brilliance lay not in the Constitution as an abstract document divorced from the spiritual and cultural state of a people, but as a document which reflected the highest, truest, and best in the American people at that point in history.  Benjamin Franklin responded to the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia who asked what the Constitutional Convention had crafted, “My dear lady, we have given to you a republic – if you can keep it.”[15]  His reply demonstrated that the Framers knew that the durability of the new nation would reside not primarily with the superior design of the government but with the enduring character of the nation’s culture.

 

 

 

 

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[11]               “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men:  A Sermon Preached at Princeton on May 17, 1776,” Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (1730-1805), ed. Ellis Sandoz  (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 553.

 

[12]               Gouverneur Morris letter of July 10, 1789 to William Carmichael in The Life and Writings of Gouverneur Morris, Vol. 2.  ed. Jared Sparks (Gray and Bowen: 1832), 75.

 

[13]               Alexis de Tocqueville,  Democracy in America in Political Thought in America, ed. Michael B. Levy (Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1988), 295.

 

[14]               James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 51.

 

[15]               Taken from “America’s Bill of Rights at 200 Years,” by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, printed in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Summer 1991), 457.

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