Archive for May, 2010

Dear Bill,

I think you might like these (with thanks to Liberty Fund for publishing Otis’s two volume history of the American Revolution).  I hear some Livy and some Puritan Divines in here:

“Though the name of liberty delights the ear, and tickles the fond pride of man, it is a jewel much oftener the play-thing of his imagination, than a possession of real stability: it may be acquired to-day in all the triumph of independent feelings, but perhaps to-morrow the world may be convinced, that mankind know not how to make a proper use of the prize, generally bartered in a short time, as a useless bauble, to the first officious master that will take the burden from the mind, by laying another on the shoulders of ten-fold weight.”

“She has in great measure lost her simplicity of manners, and those ideas of mediocrity which are generally the parent of content; the Americans are already in too many instances hankering after the sudden accumulation of wealth, and the proud distinctions of fortune and title.  They have too far lost that general sense of moral obligation, formerly felt by all classes in America.”–Warren, History, 1805

“We wish for the duration of her virtue; we sigh at every appearance of decline; and perhaps, from a dread of deviations, we may be suspicious of their approach when none are designed.”–Warren, History, 1805

“She has in great measure lost her simplicity of manners, and those ideas of mediocrity which are generally the parent of content; the Americans are already in too many instances hankering after the sudden accumulation of wealth, and the proud distinctions of fortune and title.  They have too far lost that general sense of moral obligation, formerly felt by all classes in America.”–Warren, History, 1805

“This may in some measure have arisen from their late connexions with other nations; and this circumstance may account for the readiness of many, to engraft foreign follies and crimes with their own weak propensities to imitation, and to adopt their errors and fierce ambition, instead of making themselves a national character, marked with moderation, justice, benignity, and all the mild virtues of humanity.”–Warren, History, 1805

“If this should ever become the deplorable situation of the United States, let some unborn historian in a far distant day, detail the lapse, and hold up the contrast between a simple, virtuous, and free people, and a degenerate, servile race of beings, corrupted by wealth, effeminated by luxury, impoverished by licentiousness, and become the automatons of intoxicated ambition.”–Warren, History, 1805


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Dear Gerald,

It’s wonderful to have your post here–thanks very much for joining in the discussion.  And, not surprisingly, you ask a vital question.  There are certainly parallels between today and the time period immediately preceding the American Revolution, to be sure.  Unfortunately, our own populist revolt at the moment is decentralized, leaderless, and, seemingly, without a philosophical backing.  Lots of anger and criticism, but not many solutions being offered.  There are not persons–at least as far as I know–such as a Charles Carroll, a George Washington, or a John Adams waiting to emerge and claim republican leadership.

In large part, I believe (somewhat over the top), this is due to the very poor and corrupt leadership of those in the baby-boom generation.

Regardless. . . .

The issue of virtue, as you well know, has become a tricky one in our post-modern era, and I’m not convinced Carroll (if alive today) would respond to the present crisis of culture, morality, economics, etc., as he did in the 1770s and 1780s.  Of course, we have no way of knowing for sure what he would do.

This is a convoluted way of stating, Gerald, I’m not sure there is a Carrollian answer to the problems of today.

Most Americans–even conservatives–rarely employ the language of virtue, a term so comfortable to the founding generation.  Americans of today almost always speak of “values.”  A huge gulf separates the two terms.  A virtue, of course, represents/manifests an objective truth; a value represents only the beliefs–right or wrong, good or ill–of a community or a society.  Consequently, American society would need to travel a significant and profound path to return or rediscover the language and meaning of virtue.

The founders had no such divide, for the most part.  With the exception of Franklin’s homemade hierarchy of virtues and a few others who embraced “enlightened” ideas, the vast majority of the founders accepted the seven classical and Christian virtues as truths.  A full understanding any one of the seven virtues would be problematic because a finite man can only dimly and partially understand an infinite thing–but an infinite thing a virtue remains.

So, our language matters.  Until we have the courage to admit to higher truths, dimly understood, we cannot embrace or expect full reform or purification of our society.
Carroll wrote brilliantly of the providential and organic reform necessary for a society to rebuild.  In this, he followed the teachings of Polybius, Livy, and St. Augustine.  Each of these men, of course, observed and recorded the death of their own societies while witnessing–however partially–the birth of something new.

We might very well be in the same situation.

On that bleak note, I’m off to a dinner party with that “egg head” who regularly appears on the Glenn Beck Show–R.J. Pestritto.

Yours, faithfully,


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I am very pleased to be joining in the discussion of Brad’s excellent book. Work has not allowed me to comment until now, but I have read the preceding posts.

What struck me was Brad’s description of the hindrances to public life faced by Catholics at the time, and that got me thinking about our own time. Then, it seems, while Catholics were prohibited from holding office and voting, nevertheless their private life (such as school, charities, religious expression) was allowed to exist. (Is this right, Brad?)

However today’s policial culture is quite different. While Catholics (and other Christians) are allowed to vote and hold public office, the law is not friendly to the institutional action reflecting religious belief. I am thinking here of the laws passed that make it essentially impossible for religious hospitals to act according to their mission, something I have often written about. The secularity of the modern state, it seems, encroaches on religious activity in a different, perhaps more dangerous, way than what Carroll faced.

Brad, is there a Carrollian approach to this dilemma?

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Dear Bill and Kevin,

The founders often talked in terms of virtue, tied to liberty.  Indeed, virtue without liberty could not be virtue at all, and liberty without virtue merely meant license.

In this belief, the founders were VERY western.  Tvirtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance appear first in Plato’s Symposium.  In the dialogue, the characters merely take the virtues for granted.  There is no discussion; the virtues simply are.

Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics:  “Men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or building badly.  For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft.  This, then, is the case with the virtues also.”

Such character, according to the Greek and Roman ancients, involved duty, loyalty, mercy, justice, and, ultimately, being willing to lay down one’s life for one’s beliefs, the greatest of all sacrifices.   One understood that one lived in a community and worked for the common good (the res publica).

The great Roman Senator and republican Marcus Cicero furthered this line of thinking in his On Duties.  One “must believe that it is characteristic of a strong and heroic mind to consider trivial what most people think glorious and attractive, and to despise those things with unshakable, inflexible discipline.”  Furthermore, he stressed, one must “endure reverses that seem bitter” and “to endure them so that you depart not one inch from your basic nature, not a jot from a wise man’s self respect.”

John Adams, certainly one of the greatest of the American Founding Fathers, differed little in his understanding of virtue: it is, he argued “a positive passion for the public good.”  Further, it will serve as “the only Foundation of Republics.

Even that great deist, Thomas Jefferson, noted the need for virtue.  In the Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote unequivocally that virtue “is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour.

Catholic Charles Carroll believed the same, understanding virtue to be a gift of grace, forming the essence of a thriving society.  His father had written to him repeatedly in the 1750s about the need of virtue, and the letters reveal much about the founding generation.

–Virtue is always greater than wealth (October 12, 1751)

–Proud of his son for recognizing the “advantage of a Virtuous Education” Further, “Men of Sense do not content themselves with knowing a thing but make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the Reasons on which their knowledge is founded.  I beg you will carefully observe this in your present and future Studies, Memory may fail you, but when an impression is made by Reason it will last as long [as] You retain your understanding.”(October 10, 1753)

But, most importanly, from Proverbs: The Beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (July 26, 1756)

Only a vigilant, wise, and virtuous people can maintain a free society.  If one cannot government himself, he cannot be trusted to govern others, Carroll argued.

Further, “Not a single instance can be selected from our history of a law favourable to liberty obtained from government, but by the unanimous, steady, and spirited conduct of the people,” Carroll argued.  “The great charter, the several confirmations of it, the petition of right, the bill of rights, were all the happy effects of force and necessity.”

This past week, I had the great privilege of staying at Piety Hill, Russell Kirk’s ancestral home and spending time with Kirk’s beautiful widow, Annette.  I was reminded of Kirk’s immense work on the meaning of virtue in the republic: virtue “is [the] energy of soul employed for the general good.”



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Virtue and Liberty

A recurrent theme in the life of Charles Carroll is the union of liberty and virtue.  How does a Republic preserve virtue?  What happens when public virtue declines?

Any thoughts?

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Thomas, I think.

Thank you, Bill, for this opportunity to debate the merits of Charles Carroll and his contributions to the American founding.

As it turns out, I’ve spent nearly the entire day in an archive going through letters and debates from the 1950s, so my mind (and hopefully my soul) were somewhere a half decade in the past.  I’m exhausted but, perhaps, somewhat coherent.

So, back two centuries. . . .

One of the things that surprised me most in my research on the decades surrounding the American Revolution was the predominance of Whig historical and political thought that held sway over nearly all Americans.  Even the Loyalists, from my research, were generally Whiggish in their views of history, culture, law, and politics.  The Loyalists differed with the more radical Whigs in trying to decide at what point in history they found themselves–in the Polybian understanding of birth, middle age/corruption, and death.  For the Loyalists, though decay and death were inevitable for all fallen things, the British had not reached the point of no-return.

For the radical Whigs (such as Carroll and his fellow Patriots), the British had long passed the point of no-return.  The only salvation for the American people would come from separation from the mother country, purification of the English Constitution, and a return to first principles.  In this sense, as one of my students, James Joseph, pointed out to me, the Americans were following the entire history and example of the Reformation.  But, in a larger sense, I would argue, the Americans were following the entirety of the best of the western tradition–from Socrates to St. Benedict to the Protestant Reformers.  All things go through organic cycles.  The Americans, such as Carroll, recognized this and acted accordingly.

As to your other point, Bill.  As far as I know, Carroll was referencing Thomas Rutherford’s Institutes of Natural Law.  I’m not positive, however, and it is possible that Carroll was referencing Samuel Rutherford.  Certainly, as a man of Irish ancestry, Carroll would have been influenced by Jansenism.

So, maybe. . . .  Generally, though, Vattel and Thomas Rutherford are referenced together.

Thanks, Bill.

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One thing is clear.  Charles Carroll was a Whig.  This was something of a surprise, although I am not sure why.  The American Founders where Whigs to a man.  Some were Old Whigs, some were New Whigs, but all were Whigs.  This was a fascinating realization for a Covenanter who normally identifies the 17th and 18th Century English Catholic tradition with the Cavalier and the Jacobite.

I should have known better.  I have long told anyone who would listen that the origins of 17th Century Scottish Covenanter thought were heavily influenced by the Spanish Jesuits de Mariana and Suarez.  The same Spanish Jesuits who Brad tells us helped form the young mind of Charles Carroll.

Interestingly, on page 137 Brad illuminates the intellectual sources of Carroll’s 1780 three-part article in the Maryland Gazette, the republican statesman drew upon the works of Livy, Blackstone, Nicolo Machiavelli, John Milton, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Rutherford, and Emmerich de Vattel, claiming each as his authorities.” My question is this- who is Thomas Rutherford?  I have googled in vain.  Have I missed something?  Or was this a typographic error? My suspicion (hope?) is that Carroll’s source was none other than the Covenanter Samuel Rutherford of Lex Rex fame.

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