Liberty and Virtue in the American Founding

"Liberty and Virtue in the American Founding," Never a Matter of Indifference: Sustaining Virtue in a Free Republic, Peter Berkowitz, ed., Hoover Institution Press, 2003.


Liberty and virtue are not a likely pair. At first sight they seem to be contraries, for liberty appears to mean living as you please and virtue appears to mean living not as you please but as you ought. It doesn’t seem likely that a society dedicated to liberty could make much of virtue, nor that one resolved to have virtue could pride itself on liberty. Yet liberty and virtue also seem necessary to each other. A free people, with greater opportunity to misbehave than a people in shackles, needs the guidance of an inner force to replace the lack of external restraint. And virtue cannot come from within, or truly be virtue, unless it is voluntary and people are free to choose it. Americans are, and think themselves to be, a free people first of all. Whatever virtue they have, and however much, is a counterpoint to the theme of liberty. But how do they manage to make virtue and liberty harmonious?

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