Thursday, May 21, 2009

Noah Webster on Maintaining a Free Republic


The very nature and construct of a republican form of government has been a subject of debate for centuries. What can sustain a republic and why has it not been a standard or common form of government since the Greek era? Republics throughout the ages have risen and fallen usually to the despotism of a few or single individual. On July 4, 1802, the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Noah Webster addressed the concerns he saw of a changing government. One that was losing focus on the foundational principles that made it great. Webster gave this speech at a time when "most of the civil and military characters, conspicuous in the revolution, are now in their graves." Now the newest generation of leaders were replacing the revolutionary leaders and advancing the country to a new era. One that was very unknown to everyone. Webster believed it was vital for this newest generation of Americans to not forget the purpose and sacrifice of that previous generation which fought gallantly in the American Revolution. He also believed it was important to serve a warning to the people of possible calamities in the future that might befall the United States.

It was an important period in American History as the beginning characters and principles of our country were in the rear view mirror and the hopes and dreams of the future were directly ahead. Webster believed that "young men begin the world (or in this case, the United States), with more courage than foresight, and more enthusiasm than correct judgment." Webster wanted to make sure that America kept their feet on the ground and never forgot what made this country great from the beginning and what will sustain it in the future. He was speaking to the people of 1802 not of the people in 1776. It was not that Webster believed the people should not be idealistic and dream for the future. He just wanted to make sure that the people were on a firm foundation. As the 19th century dawned many new challenges were arising amongst a very young country with leadership that had no precedent for dealing with them. Webster was trying to address the past in order to be prepared for the future.

It is, as Webster believed, arrogant for Americans to believe that a unique republican form of government that was created. It is true that the elements of the branches of government may be unique, coupled with a constitution that protects the rights of man and citizen. However the basic elements and ideas of a republic have been around for centuries. The Greeks, Romans, and many European countries and all flirted with various notions of a republican form of government. Webster stated:

"After the experience of four or five thousand years, and numberless forms of government, how should it happen to be reserved for the Americans to discover the great secret, which has eluded all former inquiry, of infusing into a political constitution, the quality of imperishable durability? Is not the pretension to such superior light and wisdom in our citizens, rather an evidence of pride, self-sufficiency, and want of wisdom?"

Our basic design and concept of a republic is not unique to the world. We can not, as Webster points out, believe our system of government will last no matter what happens simply because we are a republic. Representative government with free elections is not a perfect fail safe for corruption nor a blue print for a system of government that will last forever. Republics have existed and republics have fallen, for Webster is was about maintaining something else something much more important, its virtue.

"Virtue is the foundation of a republic. . . Virtue will maintain a free government." These are the words of Montesquieu echoed by Webster in his speech on July 4, 1802. One would ask the question both of Montesquieu and of Webster what is virtue in the light of a republic? Among the original formers of republican government, the Greeks and Romans viewed virtue as "personal bravery, and enthusiastic love of military glory, and a heroic contempt of death, in the service of their country." As Webster wrote, one's virtue is attached closely to the place of their birth, their heritage, and their culture. One could make an argue that these traits or virtues were on display by our revolutionary heroes such as: Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Ethan Allen, Molly Pitcher, John Paul Jones, and the great George Washington. However that sense of "enthusiastic love for military glory" died out with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The people of America sought peace. Webster pointed to another form of virtue, "self-denial." This form was evident within the Spartan culture. Citizenship for the Spartan incorporated "their frugal meals, their rigid discipline, and contempt of riches." A virtue that is difficult for an American citizen to embrace as their own. The other problem with these virtues is that they are fleeting. It is passed down among children and Grandchild however as time progresses the virtues degenerate, the standards for them lax, and eventually die out and get replaced with ambition, jealously, greed, and other sins which reek havoc on a country and eventually lead to decay.

Webster believed there was only one way in which a republic could stand the test of time. If we were to create and maintain this perfectly formed republican form of government that would maintain, "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.'" Webster advocated that the basic principles and morals of Christianity were by nature an essential catalyst to maintaining virtue and thereby preserve a free republican form of government.
"That religion (Christianity) 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."
Webster was not suggesting that Christianity be the religion of the state for that would go against the basic nature and idea of the Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence. Instead, Webster is challenging that the basic principles and morals of Christianity be used as a compass for our country. He also recognized that certain governments have perverted and twisted Christianity and its basic teachings in order to enslave "the minds of men." Webster argued that the very people that founded this country are the very ones that fought against the religious institutions and government that claimed to be a republic. Because of this our founders set the stage for us not to pervert Christianity for the purpose of political gain but rather utilize as it as a guide for directing our path. Freedom, Independence, and Equality are the basic ideas which hold together the foundation of our constitution. All of which can be found and maintained through intrinsic Christian morals and principles. By Webster's definition, a republic must be founded upon a virtue that endures from generation to generation so it will not decay. Through Christianity our country can maintain its virtue and moral compass. It has unchanging principles which have preserved for nearly 2000 years. 
Not only was an essential understanding of virtue a vital element of a surviving republic, Webster also addressed a concern of something that has occurred among former republics that eventually leads to its demise, a popular sovereign leader. "There is something extremely contemptible in the factitious character of a popularity-seeker, or mere man of the people." One of the most observable destroyers of a republican form of government would be Julius Caesar of Rome. Originally one of three members of the Triumvirate who ruled Rome along with the Senate. Caesar eventually gained great popularity through his victories in Gaul and created an empire placing himself as supreme and solo head of the government. All former laws and rights of the people were suspended to make way for the supreme rule and sovereign leadership of a single man, Caesar. Just after the American Revolution ended, George Washington was given the opportunity, from the urging of a small faction within his army, to march on Philadelphia, disband the Congress and name himself King. Instead Washington recognized the dangers of too much power and popularity. He knew that this country was founded upon laws and rights of each individual man and woman. Rather than taking power he released it back to the people with the laws and representative that govern them. This act made Washington an icon of liberty and freedom, and a model for what republican leadership should look like. He became known as Cincinnatus, who was a Roman farmer given supreme power but later released it back to the people. Webster, just like Washington, feared a popular leader who would "violate the laws and constitution of his country, and sacrifice its interests with impunity."

Webster did not want to see our republic end in the same way past republics had ended. One that has laws and a constitution considered to be flexible and changeable based upon the passions of the populace will ultimately fail. Webster solidified this point by stating that the "natural consequence of too much popularity is, that it enables the possessor to violate the laws and constitution of his country, and sacrifice its interests with impunity." Past experience has shown that despite the foundations of the constitution being protected the passion of the people overwhelm those elements and when a leader steps in. With that wave of popularity at their back the sovereign leadership is able to create negative change upon the very republic and constitution that they claim to defend.
"The open advocate of a strong government is subject to popular podium, his encroachments are eyed with jealousy, or resisted by force. But the hypocritical pretender to patriotism acquires, in the confidence of the people, a giant's force, and he may use it like a giant. The people, like artless females, are liable to be seduced, not by the men they hate or suspect, but by those they love."
Webster recognized that the people can easily be seduced by a passionate and popular individual who will eventually take away their basic rights and liberties while the populace cheer him/her on without realizing the reality of the situation. As a new century began and the American republic was learning to walk on its own two feet, Noah Webster was heeding a warning about losing the great republic to the passion of the populace before it became too late.

Noah Webster's speech on July 4, 1802 was received well among a people that needed reminding of the original principles and sacrifice that founded our constitution, our society, and our way of life. Webster truly believed that the United States was "unquestionably the most excellent form of government in theory; and with all its imperfections, is, in fact, the most eligible form, for nations in the early stages of society." In 1802, the people of the United States were searching for a new identity. Their great leader and compass for the country, George Washington, was dead. Partisan politics and the two party system were beginning to rear their ugly head. Webster at this moment recognized a need for the populace to be reminded of where we came from and where we need to be for this great republic to stand the test of time.

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