The Dual Virtues of American Citizenship: Jealousy and Commitment

A naturalization address given last week by Professor Kevin Hardwick in Beaverdam, Virginia at Scotchtown, the governor’s residence of Patrick Henry during the War for Independence.

In the late 1790s, during the presidency of John Adams, Americans conducted a bitter public debate over the meaning of patriotism.  The dominant political party at the time, the Federalists, confronted an emerging opposition, headed by Thomas Jefferson.   The opposition, the Democratic-Republican party, sharply criticized the Federalists, and condemned both their policies and their motives.

The Federalists responded by passing legislation that banned public criticism of the United States.  This was the famous Sedition Act of 1798.  The law made it a crime “to publish,  . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States.”  It forbade any kind of public statement that intended “to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute, or to excite . . . the hatred of the people” against the existing government.   In effect this law made it a criminal offense for men like Jefferson to argue against the policies of the Federalists.  How can you run for office in opposition to the ruling party, without criticizing them?  Needless to say, supporters of the Jeffersonian opposition responded to the passage of this law with vehement indignation.

To a modern sensibility, the outrage of the Democratic Republicans is easy to grasp.  They protested the Sedition Act as an obvious violation of the First Amendment.  One important purpose of freedom of speech is to empower speech about public matters, even if it is not what those in government would prefer to hear.  The logic of the Jeffersonian opposition is to us quite straightforward—it appeals naturally to modern political dispositions.

It is much harder to understand the political reasoning of the Federalists who supported the policy.  It is easy to portray their actions as brazen power-politics, a crass effort to bludgeon their political opponents by partisan application of an unconstitutional law.  But many of them were careful statesmen, attentive to the Constitution.  Many of them thought hard about republican government and wanted it to flourish.

A sizeable number of thoughtful Federalist statesmen argued that laws like the Sedition Act were necessary if republican government was to survive.  Alexander Addison, a judge on Pennsylvania’s Fifth Circuit, represents a good example of their thought.  Addison argued that government restraint on public speech was necessary.  “Liberty without limit is licentiousness, it is the worst kind of tyranny,” he wrote in a 1798 charge to a grand jury.  “The exercise of those faculties of opinion . . . must be limited, so that it never represents a solemn truth or exercise of religion as false or ridiculous, an established and useful principle or form of government as odious and detestable; a regular or salutary act or motive of the authorities as unlawful or pernicious; or an upright man as corrupt.”

Federalist jurists and politicians like Addison expressed a deep concern for political stability.  The French Revolution reminded Federalist observers of the fragility of public order, especially in a government that derived its authority from the people.  The success of the republic, to them, seemed to depend on the willingness of citizens to support the government.  Federalist thinkers were worried that if the people ceased to respect the government, public order might break down—and the American republic might collapse.

The Federalists, then, emphasized commitment.  Any successful government, they suggested, can maintain order either by the voluntary submission of its citizens, or by direct application of force.  Republican government—government based on popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed—dies, if it requires systematic military or paramilitary force to sustain its rule.  Public, political speech, they argued, should be attentive to this reality.  The Federalist patriot loves our government, because our government is an expression of republican order, deriving its authority from the will of the people.   The Federalist patriot cherishes our system of constitutional government, because the alternatives to republican government are fraught with danger.  So the Federalists highlighted the necessity of laws that restrain liberty to orderly bounds.

Democratic Republicans, in contrast, stressed the civic virtue of jealousy.  The good republican citizen is jealous of his or her liberty, and watchful for threats to it. Patrick Henry shared many of the same civic inclinations as Jefferson.  He captured the ethos well in 1788, when he asserted that “suspicion is a virtue, as long as its object is the preservation of the public good, and as long as it stays within proper bounds.”  Jeffersonian patriots argued that power corrupts, and that the ultimate check and balance in the system of government created by the United States Constitution is the willingness of engaged citizens to be vigilant for abuses of power.

The civic health of our country surely requires both jealousy and commitment.  The lesson of the 1790s, or at least a lesson relevant to our contemporary circumstances, is that some appropriate balance between these dispositions must be sustained.

Civic sites across our country speak to what it means to be a patriot.  We are standing at one such site now.  There are lots of them in Virginia, and I hope you will visit some of them—they deserve our support.

Let me give an example.  The United States Marine Corps memorial, located just outside Washington DC, commemorates the heroism of United States marines in the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima.  From 1956 to the present, on Tuesday evenings, the United States Marines conduct there what they call a “sunset parade.”  They dedicate the occasion, like the monument itself, to the “uncommon valor” of the soldiers who died at the battle, for whom extraordinary courage “was a common virtue.”

The virtues the Marines celebrate—bravery, loyalty, self-sacrifice—are civic as well as martial.  We commemorate the valor of the marines who fought at Iwo Jima because we hope to inspire not simply admiration but also emulation among those who witness the ceremony.  The ceremony encourages those who witness it to elevate within themselves particular virtues.  The virtues the Marine Corps so powerfully and elegantly represent are, moreover among those suited to sustain republican government.  So this is an occasion very much about commitment, in the Federalist sense of the term.

Nonetheless, it is easy to be jealous of the Marines’ pageantry, in a Jeffersonian sense of that word. Just a few years after the Marines initiated their Tuesday evening parade and drill at the Iwo Jima memorial, an American cowboy and songwriter named Peter La Farge wrote a poem titled the “Ballad of Ira Hayes.”   The song became famous in the 1970s, when Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan performed it.  It tells the story of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian and one of the marines commemorated in the statue that comprises part of the Iwo Jima memorial.  The song is ironic; it contrasts the determined courage of Hayes and his commitment to the virtues that the Marine Corps rightly celebrates with the failure of America to treat Native Americans with justice.

The song’s concluding lyric describes what happened to Hayes after he mustered out of United States service, and returned to his reservation home:

Then Ira started drinking hard,
Jail was often his home,
They let him raise the flag and lower it
Like you’d throw a dog a bone.
He died drunk early one morning,
Alone in the land he fought to save,
Two inches of water and a lonely ditch,
Was a grave for Ira Hayes.

The song questions the commitment of our Nation to its founding values.  It is one thing to celebrate the valor of young men in battle, and another thing entirely to secure justice and decency for the people more broadly.  Where was our nation for the Pima Indians, whose land and water had been stolen by earlier generations of Anglo-Americans?  For what kind of nation did the marines who died at Iwo Jima give the last full measure of devotion? These questions are especially poignant since all young citizens who become marines, and who survive our nation’s battles, return to the body of the people, just as did Ira Hayes.  In the end, at least as I read La Farge’s poem, the song strives to remind us that our foundational values are aspirational, and that very often our society and our government fail to uphold them.

Taken to extremes, the jealousy of songs like that written by La Farge encourages us to treat every civic ceremony, every civic ritual, with skepticism.  This is a tendency especially present in certain species of academic, cultural analysis, that seek to uncover the way that civic sites serve hidden political and economic interests.   To the eyes of learned cynics, almost every civic site or ritual can be seen as asserting and protecting the unjust interests of the wealthy and powerful few against the claims of the beleaguered many.   When we succumb to cynicism, commitment and attachment vanish.

Jealousy and commitment, in other words, exist in continual tension.  Each, when emphasized unduly, corrodes the other.  They must be in balance if republican society is to prosper.

James Madison, writing in Federalist 55, captured this sentiment.  There is present in the nature of humans, he wrote, “some degree of depravity” that “requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust.”  Laws, and the order they provide, are necessary to secure a just society, since by intrinsic predilection so very many people are disinclined to treat others justly.

However, Madison writes, we also possess higher, nobler faculties.  “There are other qualities in human nature,” he suggested, “which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

American constitutionalism embraces the project of creating government predicated on the sovereignty of the great mass of the people.  It rejects other alternatives, like governments premised on the authority of monarchs or aristocrats, or worse, on the naked power of despots backed by armed force and secret police.  To be an engaged citizen of this country is to be actively committed to the success of republican government.

Republican government depends on the exercise of these nobler qualities of human nature.  “Republican government,” Madison says, “presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Taken to extreme, an over-zealous inclination towards suspicion and distrust implies that the entire republican project is misguided.  “Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character,” Madison wrote, “the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Cultural and political tendencies operative in contemporary America make it difficult to sustain the moderation Madison recommended.  Political processes that emphasize jealousy and discourage attachment and commitment seem everywhere to prevail.  Public figures across our political spectrum delight in unmasking the underlying motivations of their opponents, and more generally of the government institutions that they oppose.  Politicians distrustful of government bureaucracies work to undermine civic attachment more broadly.  In their eagerness to starve the American leviathan, many political figures are willing to deny to it any legitimate authority at all.

The United States Marines admirably celebrate self-sacrifice for the common good.  The virtues they display encourage all of us to think more broadly about the larger well-being of the society in which we live.  That is what it means to live in a commonwealth.  But our broader culture celebrates instead the cynicism of the entertainment we watch and absorbs productions like “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards.”   If everything reduces solely to the will to power, why should anyone be willing to sacrifice for the greater good?

Our country requires moderate patriotism from its citizens.  It requires vigilance and suspicion, but also steadfast respect and commitment.  It is a balance that is not easy to sustain.  Perhaps it is true of all ages, but it is certainly true today, that cynicism comes easily.  If this country—our country—is worth preserving, it requires from us an abiding patriotism.  It requires an act of faith from all of us, that we possess together the character and spirit and will necessary to sustain it.  It is a glorious, beautiful, and difficult thing to which you have committed yourself, when you took the oath of citizenship—to do the hard work necessary to sustain this kind of nation, this kind of society, this kind of people, for the benefit of yourselves and your neighbors, and your children, and grandchildren, and generations yet to be born.