Saturday, February 23, 2013

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics & American Republican Government

After George Washington was sworn-in as the first president of the new American republic on April 30, 1789, he delivered his First Inaugural Address to the people’s representatives in Congress.  He started the speech with his characteristic humility, stating that although he wished to retire to Mount Vernon and did not have the requisite skill to govern a country, he was nevertheless answering the call of his country.  The address struck a distinctly Aristotelian chord in Washington’s wishes for his country.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, describes his understanding of the basic nature of man.  Humans are rational creatures, he maintains, and must use that reason to exercise self-restraint over their passions.  That same rationality allows humans to be ethical, choosing between good and evil, right and wrong. Over time, these decisions become habits of vice or virtue that shape character.

Since the end of human life is happiness, Aristotle holds that true happiness is rooted in the well-ordered, good, and virtuous life. Self-government becomes possible when each individual literally governs himself and controls his passions.  It is a liberty governed by natural law.

Aristotle’s ethics laid the foundation of his political views.  He held that man is a political animal who finds his highest end in civil society.  The goal of the art of politics is to promote human happiness through just governance.  Because of the fact that politics deals with truths that are not always absolute or clearly discoverable by reason, the rightly-ordered state allows rational citizens to deliberate and attempt to persuade each other through rhetoric based upon right principles.

When attempting to measure the relative influence of any particular philosopher on the American founders, it is sometimes more subtle than adding up references in an index or looking at the personal libraries of the founders.  It is clear that Aristotle’s ethical and political views profoundly shaped the founders’ understanding of the nature of man and government.

Aristotle’s political philosophy was plainly evident in the new republican state constitutions.  The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights stated in Article XV that, “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”  The 1780 Massachusetts Constitution argued in Aristotelian terms that, “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people.”  The Northwest Ordinance later established schools because, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”  Republican self-government was founded upon a virtuous citizenry.

Coming back to President Washington’s First Inaugural, we see that he was expressing several Aristotelian sentiments.  Washington stated that, “There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”  Besides this essential ethical chord, he also struck another about the purposes of government made up of virtuous citizens.  He asked that God, the providential author of their rights, might “consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes.”  Washington closely tied the virtue of American citizens to the success of the new republic, alluding to American exceptionalism and the idea of a “city upon a hill.”  If the Americans were virtuous, their republic would succeed; if they practiced fall, it would crumble.  He averred that,

The foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality . . . . we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained: and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

Washington finished the speech by neatly summarizing Aristotelian purposes of government.  Reason and deliberation would furnish the Americans with tranquility and happiness in just and wise government.  God had blessed the American People with “opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union, and the advancement of their happiness, so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.”

In his Farewell Address, Washington gave his advice to his country for their future success with their republican experiment in liberty.  He told them in Aristotelian terms that religion and morality were indispensable supports for “the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.”  The great duties of man were the “great pillars of human happiness.”  He clearly and strongly believed in Aristotle’s idea that virtue was necessary for self-government.  “Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”  Aristotle’s vision of a well-ordered republic of free, virtuous individuals shaped the founding and should inform our discussion of the duties of citizens today.  

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia.  He has written four books and teaches history in Williamsburg, VA. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lincoln & Jefferson


On February 12th we celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. He once said: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”(1)  Lincoln admired, for a lifetime, Thomas Jefferson -- the man who had "the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times...."(2) A brief look at the early roots of those sentiments…

“'He read diligently,' Sarah Lincoln said. Young Lincoln studied in the daytime, but did not study much at night. He went to bed early, got up early, and then read. She recalled that "Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on; and, when he came across a passage that struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper and keep it there till he did get paper." Then he would re-write it, looked at it, and repeat it. Like Thomas Jefferson, he kept a notebook of his early readings, but it has not survived. Lincoln read histories, papers, and other books...

[I]n the pristine woods of Indiana Lincoln began to idolize Washington and Jefferson. The founding fathers, and the documents of American liberty became an integral part of Lincoln's entire life, political career, and even his own death and funeral at the end of the "final sentence" which Thomas Jefferson had feared during the Missouri crisis back in 1819.(3)

It may have been while young Lincoln was in Troy, near the Anderson River where Lincoln helped operate a ferry, and not far from where the Lafayette party had suffered the great Ohio River disaster in 1825, that Lincoln was introduced to a new field of reading; newspapers. The town was an official post office, and newspapers were delivered there by the post rider and were certainly available to anyone who might be interested to read them. Located only a mile and a half from the Lincoln family cabin; Gentry's Store became a post office on June 15, 1825. There were sixteen papers published in Indiana in the mid 1820s. Certainly occasional copies of Indiana papers would reach Gentry's Store, but also papers from Louisville, Cincinnati, Lexington, and other eastern cities. It could be days, weeks, or even months before they might arrive, but news was still news to the people of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana.

A friend of the Lincolns, John Romine, later related that he had loaned young Lincoln a paper which contained an editorial on Thomas Jefferson. When the boy returned it, Romine declared, "it seemed he could repeat every word in that editorial and not only that but could recount all the news items as well as all about the advertisements." This particular issue may have been published in July, 1826, when newspapers were filled with editorials and articles commemorating the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the sudden deaths, a double apotheosis, of the penman and the congressional advocate, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, on the very day July 4, 1826.

This unusual occasion of both men dying on the fiftieth anniversary of American's Charter of Liberty made a lasting impression on Abraham Lincoln. He recalled that event thirty-seven years later after a July 4 celebration in the middle of civil war, and a significant northern military victory at a place called Vicksburg, Mississippi.(4)

While in Indiana "a playmate, schoolfellow, associate and firm friend," David Turnham of Gentryville, loaned Lincoln The Revised Laws of Indiana [1824] ... to which Are Prefixed the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the U. S., the Constitution of the State of Indiana and Sundry other Documents, connected with the Political History of the Territory and State of Indiana. It was through this volume, the first law book he ever read, that Lincoln became acquainted with the Declaration of Independence which became "his political chart and inspiration," according to John Nicolay, his White House secretary. Such reading led Lincoln to try his own hand at such writing. William Wood, a Lincoln neighbor, remembered that "A. Wrote a piece on national politics, saying that the American government was the best form of government in the world for an intelligent people; that it ought to be kept sacred and preserved forever.... that the Constitution should be sacred, the Union perpetuated, and the laws revered, and enforced.... This was in 1827 or '28."

Neighbor Wood showed Lincoln's article to a lawyer, John Pitcher, practicing in Posey County at that time. "I told him one of my neighbors' boy wrote it," said Wood. "He couldn't believe it till I told him Abe did write it ... said to me this: 'The world can't beat it.' He begged for it. I gave it to him and it was published, can't say what paper it got into." The seeds of Lincoln's future reverence for the Union and the determination to keep it sacred and to preserve it forever" may be found in this writing of a young Hoosier boy. This was probably Abraham Lincoln's first published piece.”(5)

From: Rietveld, Ronald D., “Abraham Lincoln's Thomas Jefferson” (White House Studies, NOVA Science Publishers, Inc., 2005).
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(1) Speech at Independence Hall, February 21, 1860, American Patriotism, S. Hobart Peabody, ed. (American Book Exchange, New York, 1880), p. 507.
(2) "To Henry L. Pierce and Others," April 6, 1859," in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 9 vols (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press in association with the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1953-1955), 3:375-376, hereafter cited as CWAL. 
(3) Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 107; Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln and the Downfall of American Slavery (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1894), pp. 23-24; "Address to the New Jersey Senate at Trenton, New Jersey, February 21, 1861," in CWAL, 4:236.
(4) John Romine to William H. Herndon, September 14, 1865, in Herndon-Weik MSS, Library of Congress; Louis A. Warren, Lincoln's Youth: Indiana Years, Seven to Twenty-One, 1816-1830 (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959), pp. 168-169; CWAL, 6:319-20
(5) Warren, Lincoln's Youth: Indiana Years, pp. 201-202; 169; 265; Wilson and Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants, pp. 120-123.