Cultivating Virtuous Citizenship?: A Law and Liberty Symposium on American National Character

These short essays are the first fruits of the American National Character & Civic Friendship Project, an initiative of the Ryan Foundation. The inspiration for the project derives from the frequent observation that the United States has become politically polarized. Our concern is not simply that Americans disagree on matters of policy, but that we are increasingly divided in terms of our most basic beliefs, commitments, habits, and affections – that we no longer live, or perhaps even wish to live, as one people.

Defining Freedom Up: National Character Revived

by W.B. Allen

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Religious Liberty, and America’s Character

by Sen. Rick Santorum

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Sharing Stories of American Civic Purposes

by Rogers M. Smith

Self-Government Cannot Live while Congress is Moribund

by Philip Wallach

George Washington wrote in a 1785 letter to James Madison that “we are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which has national objects to promote, and a national character to support.” Washington and Madison recognized the need to shape our national character and cultivate civic friendship, by which they meant the formation of habits of “a people” dedicated to a common purpose and informed by a certain set of principles and practices. Those principles were the principles that Americans had fought and died for in the American Revolution, summarily expressed in the Declaration of Independence and captured in the phrase “self-government.”

Each of the essays in this symposium addresses in some way the challenge of self-government and the obstacles it faces in our time. Are Americans today still animated, as Publius claimed “every votary of freedom” is ever animated, by “that honorable determination…to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government”?  Or has the experiment in self-government been abandoned, replaced by different principles and diverse purposes?  Our authors all seem to say or imply that we – Americans of all stripes – need to take stock of our original mission as a self-governing people. Of course, they emphasize different needs, but they speak with one voice in favor of the American political mission itself.

It is our hope that these essays, and the future fruits of the American National Character & Civic Friendship Project, will inspire fellow scholars and citizens to address, theoretically and practically, the question of what is most needed in our country today, if we are to remain one people.

The Ryan Foundation gratefully acknowledges the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s support of this project.

— Colleen Sheehan and Steven McGuire