As the events of the past few months have unfolded, I have often found myself wondering what our Founders would have made of it all. Impossible to know, of course, but they had plenty of insight to offer.
In particular, I keep returning to these lines from James Madison. He delivered them during the Virginia convention to ratify the Constitution, arguing that the surest safeguard against legislators and a government bent on malfeasance is the people themselves. “I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom,” he said. “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure.” We depend, he said, not on the virtue of the people we elect, but of “the people who are to choose them.”
That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Our country rests on the faith that we the people will do the right thing. The design of our government may be remarkable, but it does not matter nearly as much as the qualities of the American people and their capacity to make it work. If we do not step up, if we do not invest our time and energy and abilities in making the system work, it will not.
One of the remarkable aspects of the founding era was that a relative handful of people, in a country that did not even number 4 million at the time, developed a constitution with very little to go on and then made it work. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and a few others had the skills, knowledge, and insight to hammer out, debate, and craft a system from the ground up, then to articulate it and persuade the political elite that this republican form of government could work.
And what may have been most impressive was that they had confidence in the notion that people had the capacity to govern themselves. Yes, they hedged, both in the elaborate balance of power they built and in who actually got to vote. But they also created a system that, over the centuries, was capable of expanding the franchise and delivering a more equitable, broader voice in government because that was the idea at its core.
A key aspect of that idea, as Madison articulated, is that virtue is part of republican government. This sounds strange to say in the modern world. We tend to think of “virtue” as moral probity or honesty or integrity. Madison and the other Founders had something more encompassing in mind. They thought of virtue as including a sense of civic self-sacrifice: the ability to overcome self-interest and act for the benefit of the broader community. And they expected it not just in political leaders, but in citizens themselves.
What may be most striking is that they had confidence in the American people to carry out this grand experiment and believed in the patriotism and capacity of those people to serve as protectors of civil liberties and of the due process of democracy. I could not help but think of that faith in the wake of last November’s election, as countless poll workers and elections officials in towns and cities and states around the country stoically carried on their work to the best of their ability in the face of unrelenting antagonism.
We remain in a time of great testing for the system Madison and his generation created. Though it is a remarkable constitutional design, created during a period of enormous change, turmoil, and confusion, they understood that the whole thing would fail if the people lacked the capacity to make it work. A lot of Americans have lost trust in the government, in the system as a whole, and in one another. This is not without reason. But it helps to look back and remember that everything rests on us — on our ability to choose our leaders wisely, to work with one another, and to reward the Founders’ faith that ordinary people can, by dint of their efforts, make this a more perfect union.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.