At first it might seem strange to ask what virtues citizens need in a free society. If citizens should be free, should we be concerned that they possess particular virtues? Is it appropriate for government to be concerned about character formation in free society? For the Founders the question was not strange. They thought that preserving freedom through self-governing institutions required that citizens have certain virtues. However, they did not believe that government would be primarily responsible for inculcating those virtues. Government depends on these virtues.
In Federalist No. 55, James Madison says that while “there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” America’s republican form of government “presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form” (James Madison, Federalist No. 55, 1788).
While government depended on these virtues, they would primarily develop through private institutions. Government could play some role in encouraging these qualities, particularly through education, the habits necessary for preserving liberty would be inculcated through churches, civic associations, and families.
What virtues do citizens need? While not comprehensive, at a minimum free societies need citizens to possess courage and boldness, independence and self-reliance, prudence and self-restraint, and reasonableness and civic knowledge.
To preserve freedom citizens must first have the courage and boldness necessary to assert themselves when their rights or the rights of others are being violated. Because of the power of public opinion standing against the majority is not an easy thing to do and requires significant fortitude. Citizens also must have qualities of independence and self-reliance. If individuals are to be free, they must be able to provide for themselves. In fact, these complement each other because providing for oneself reinforces a sense of independence, dignity, and freedom. That does not mean that assistance for those who have fallen on hardship can never be justified. However, for individuals to feel secure enough to exercise their rights and assert themselves when government violates those rights, they cannot be completely dependent on government for their subsistence. Alexis de Tocqueville showed that such dependence entices citizens to vote away their freedom for physical security, which reduces them to mere subjects or wards of the state. Once that freedom is forfeited, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to reclaim.
Free citizens must also exercise prudence, self-restraint, and moderation. The danger of liberty is that is can descend into license. License has sometimes been defined as a kind of false freedom, a freedom which destroys freedom. When individuals abuse their freedoms they violate the rights of others. A society where everyone behaves licentiously requires the government to assume more power to prevent the conflicts that inevitably arise when individuals invade the proper liberties of others. But the more power government has to regulate our lives, the less free we are to pursue our own projects without interference.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, citizens must possess is knowledge of their rights, why they have them, and how a properly functioning government should protect them. Without this understanding, maintaining a free society is impossible. This does not mean that we ignore the common good. Instead the common good is achieved through a system that protects individual rights. This is why great liberal political thinkers from John Locke, to Adam Smith, to the American Founders emphasized the importance of civic education in a free society. Citizens need to intelligently and responsibly perform civic duties such as voting and serving on juries. Responsibly and reasonably exercising the right to vote is crucial since individuals must vote to uphold the principles of liberty and constitutional government. If citizens cannot subject the promises of parties and candidates to rational scrutiny, voting becomes a form of emotional manipulation with citizens thoughtlessly exercising their franchise.
If self-government is to work, citizens need to be able to hold their elected officials accountable which is impossible without a measure of thoughtful reflection on the merits of those seeking office.
Thus classes which teach you about the American Constitution and the system of self-government and liberty it was meant to create and preserve are not just “academic.” They are comprehensive in the most fundamental sense and should help teach you to think carefully about the most important questions we face as a nation. In short, they should prepare you to be citizens.
The Virtues Required of Citizens In a Free Society
The Founders thought that preserving freedom through self-governing institutions required that citizens have certain virtues. However, they did not believe that government would be primarily responsible for inculcating those virtues. Government depends on these virtues.