Stay with me here, ultimately this is about the pandemic and the folks that are yelling about government tyranny and their personal freedom to not wear a mask.
The concepts that our Founders had about liberty and government were influenced and shaped by Enlightenment writers and thinkers. Perhaps the three most important were John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Baron de Montesquieu.
Hobbes and Locke argued that mankind was not created into a world controlled by government, on the contrary, mankind created government. Prior to man’s creation of this institution, Hobbes believed life was violent, brutish and short, and thus man created government (he believed monarchy worked best) to protect life. Mankind gave up certain rights to their ruler, in order to have their lives protected. Locke disagreed about the natural state of man and monarchy, but agreed that the time came when man had to give up certain rights to create government to protect lives, but also, he added, in the interest of protecting man’s natural right to liberty and property.
Collectively, then, Locke and Hobbes instilled in the minds of 18th century Englishmen, and their colonists, that man created government, and did so for the duel purpose of protecting lives and the basic rights of liberty and property. This was a “social contract.” Important to the spread of such ideas were newspapers infused with the concept that public criticism of our rulers kept them accountable to the people they ruled.
When our Founders turned against the British monarchy, (through a bloody rebellion that started out as a violent, antigovernment protest movement, and in which they toppled statues they felt no longer memorialized things they wanted to honor) they did so because they felt it had violated these purposes of government (that’s the thesis behind the Declaration of Independence). They then created a republic; a representative democracy. In doing so, they were aware that they were betting against history, as this form of government in the ancient world had not lasted.
Learning from the failures of the Roman Republic, American thinkers concluded that the survival of such a government required what they called “republican virtue,” that is, the concept that everyone in the society would be focused on the good of the whole, rather than their own self interested, ambitious, greedy wants and desires. They believed it was the only way a government of the people, rather than a monarch, could survive. The very word “republic,” Thomas Paine argued, “means the public good of the whole.” Another American patriot elaborated, “each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good.” This ideology drove Americans into the creation of their state and national governments, broken free from the British empire.
Yet it took only a few years during and especially after the Revolution for many of our leaders to realize that “republican virtue” was a pipe-dream. Unless forced not to, people acted on their own selfish desires, especially in commerce. As Washington wrote, “Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures best calculated for their own [common] good, without the intervention of a coercive power.” It seemed that the government would have to force public virtue for the common good. But such force would be a threat to basic freedoms, and thus a violation of one of the government’s mandates.
That’s where Montesquieu seemed to offer the best solution. Steeped in enlightenment literature and thought, during our Constitutional Convention James Madison and others promoted the idea that we could protect the common good from self interest, by actually depending on man’s pursuit of their self interest! If we kept government divided, as Montesquieu promoted, competition between individuals and groups (or “factions,” as they styled it) for power and influence would result in no one person or group being able to abuse its powers to the point of infringing upon the rights of others. Our Republic, then, would require compromise between competing factions (economic, political, and personal) in order to function, and this competition and compromise between them would ensure the common good. This is most reflected in the system of checks and balances and our federalism. (Political parties, they knew, were a threat to all of this, and that’s why they hoped we’d never have them. But that’s another story).
Yet the Founders also realized that giving the national government more power could be a threat to personal liberty, thus they also put limits on those powers: elective office, impeachment, powers reserved for the states, etc. Due to those that objected to such a powerful government (the “antifederalists” who still wanted to rely on “republican virtue” to ensure the common good), the Constitution was amended with a Bill of Rights. All this so that we could create a government that would promote the common good, protect lives, and yet still protect our basic rights.
But just as the power of government had to be strong but limited, so must our individual rights, to some degree. This is required so that those rights do not threaten the lives and the rights of others (which would invalidate the purpose of government), as well as the common good. This requires a careful balance between the common good and personal liberty, but a balance that favors the common good or safety. This way, government still serves all its mandates.
For instance, we have the right of free speech, but we can’t inaccurately yell “fire” into a crowded theater, or stand on the corner at midnight shouting with a bull horn.
We have freedom of religion, but that also means we can’t use the government or government funds to support or even promote one religion over another.
We can own a gun, but we can’t stand on a corner indiscriminately shooting people.
Of course, this concept is best summed up in that old saying, “your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
So, to provide the functions for which Americans created their government, laws have to be created that restrict what we can and can’t do.
Thus, we can drive a car, but we can’t drive it without a license, 95 miles an hour, on the wrong side of the road, through a stop sign, while drinking a beer. Why? Because the protection of other people’s lives requires these restrictions on what individuals can do. This is one of the purposes, as Hobbes and Locke would agree, as well as our Founders, for which man created government in the first place.
So what am I driving at here?
Let’s PLEASE stop insisting that our government can’t limit our freedoms to protect the lives of others or for the common good. As long as its efforts are not unreasonable, and strives for a balance between personal freedoms and the common good, such efforts are not a violation of the government’s powers. It’s actually the government performing one of the mandates that man had for it when we created it in the first place.
When this pandemic began, we hoped that Americans would do what they had to do to protect us all, without government having to step in. Sadly, however, we are once again learning what our Founders learned, that we can’t count on “republican virtue” to get people to even wear mask for the good of the whole and to protect lives.
Let’s say it again for the billionth time and for the people on the back row: the wearing of masks and/or face shields is not so much about protecting yourself, it is about protecting others from YOU. Further, you can show no symptoms whatsoever, and yet still go around spreading this thing to people that it will kill. Next time you see someone wearing a mask, they are saying “I care about your life.” What are you saying to them when you don’t have one on?
You’d think Americans could do such a simple thing as wear a mask. I mean we’ve done so much more arduous things in our history:
We defeated the world’s greatest military in a revolutionary war that required 8 years of sacrifice.
African Americans endured slavery, figuring out how to survive and resist and ultimately playing a major role in the destruction of slavery by forcing it on the nation as a war aim and fighting for its destruction as US soldiers.
We endured a four year Civil War that cost some 750,000 lives.
We had men die by the thousands in a senseless war in Europe, fighting to “make the world safe for democracy” when we didn’t even really have it here at home.
Over a century of women protested, petitioned, marched, faced ridicule and scorn, and ultimately imprisonment and self-starvation to win the right to vote.
We survived the crippling economic effects of the Great Depression, learning we had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” and then came out a stronger people because of it.
We stormed Omaha beach and the heights of Iwo Jima, all while Americans at home were rationing gas and food, buying and selling war bonds, and constructing a mighty and irresistible arsenal.
We faced ravaging dogs, firehoses, police brutality, lynch mobs and murderers, all in a fight for the expansion of constitutional rights for all Americans.
We pooled the respective interests and talents of government, military, corporations, and civilians in order to put a man on the moon.
And we have repeatedly put soldiers in harm’s way across the globe theoretically to support and protect democracy, home and abroad.
In all these things and much more, we find and praise the American character. We celebrate and venerate it. We build monuments to it, call it exceptional, and salute the flag with pride for all these things that Americans have sacrificed for the common good.
And yet now, we can’t wear a mask??
Folks, we make up about 4.25 % of the world’s population, yet at the moment we are responsible for more than 25% of the world’s covid-19 deaths. (Meanwhile, our neighbor to the North, with its “socialized healthcare” accounts for less than 2%). Most countries are now starting to see this thing in the rear view mirror, including the E.U. But we are now the country that other nations are blocking travel to and from.
Yep, that’s what is making the United States exceptional these days.
I have to wonder what the women that got tubes shoved up their noses in Occoquan prison would think of us now. Or the soldiers that ran straight into the maelstrom of German fire on Omaha beach. Or Civil Rights protestors getting their heads bashed in by the forces of white supremacy on Pettus Bridge.
What happened to our greatness, our sacrifice for the common good?
So, we are likely to start seeing more mandatory face covering laws in more communities. It won’t happen in every community (which is why we need an administration willing to set nationwide policy and stop politicizing the issue, or at least put out a consistent policy and set a good example), but these ordinances are coming, and you can bet people are going to freak out, screaming about violation of their rights, just as they did when we closed down the economy. And they will be just as wrong as they were then.
Well, the economy is opening again and cases are surging. After all this time, we have more new cases per day than ever! And that’s largely because so many people can’t be bothered to wear masks, and they are not practicing social distancing. If that doesn’t change, and quick, businesses are going to be forced to shut down again. Do we want that?
It’s pretty simple: if you want businesses open, wear masks and practice social distancing. If you want the freedom to get a haircut, wear a mask!
Oh, and I’m sorry to tell you, but we’re reaching a point in which you can probably go ahead and write off the football season. UNLESS YOU WEAR A MASK!
And don’t get me started on these conspiracy theory folks who think the restrictions on our freedoms during the pandemic are the first steps in the formation of a tyrannical government bent on taking away all other rights. These are temporary measures in emergency times. You know, like the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, restrictions on certain types of speech during WWI, cities forcing mask wearing during the Spanish flu, or government mandated rationing during WWII. All those things have come, and as soon as the common good no longer required them, they went away.
But here’s the thing that breaks my heart the most. Many of our Founders believed that we would be able to sustain “republican virtue” because we were a predominately Christian nation. Many Americans still proclaim America to be a Christian nation. And yet, we can’t seem to live by the most basic of Christ’s teachings, one that is common to all the world’s biggest religions:
“Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.”
I dunno, in the end, the fact that we can’t seem to do that, just by doing such a simple thing as wearing a mask, might be the biggest disappointment of all.
3 thoughts on “On the Founders, “republican virtue,” American character, and the wearing of masks”
I am unaware that women got tubes stuck up there noses at Occoquan prison. The treatment was deplorable and ghastly! Please give me the source of that fact. Thank you! Diane Tillette
Any good history book about the suffragist movement will discuss this, especially a biography of Alice Paul. But here’s a good place to start:
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A thoroughly satisfying read. Say it louder for the folks in the back…
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