The Virtue of an Educated Voter

tags: Founding Fathers, election 2016

Alan Taylor is a historian at the University of Virginia. He has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history, most recently in 2014 for "The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832." His latest book, "American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804," has just been published.

Almost everyone praises education, but consensus dissolves over who should pay for it. This dilemma runs deep in our history, back to the founders who led the American Revolution and designed a more participatory form of government, known as a republic. They declared that Americans needed more and better education to preserve their state and national republics from relapsing into tyranny. A governor of Virginia, William H. Cabell, asserted in 1808 that education “constitutes one of the great pillars on which the civil liberties of a nation depend.” More than a mere boon for individuals, education was a collective, social benefit essential for free government to endure.

Those founders worried that their 13 state republics, loosely tied in a new union, were vulnerable to internal divisions and external manipulation. They lived in a dangerous world dominated by empires and kingdoms run by monarchs and aristocrats who inherited and guarded their wealth and power. In European history, previous republics had been short-lived and usually small: cantons or city-states such as Pisa and Florence. How then could an immense and growing union of diverse states sustain a form of government that had always failed in the past? The American political experiments seemed especially threatened by contentions over balancing power between the states and the nation and between the regions: North and South, East and West.  In addition to the North-South division that would nearly destroy the union during the 1860s, 18th-century Americans feared a violent split between the old states east of the Appalachians and the new settlements emerging in the vast watershed of the Mississippi River. Lacking a strong national identity, the people of 1787 identified with their states and distrusted outsiders. That pervasive distrust, rather than any common sense of nationalism, led the founders to craft the federal union as a “peace pact” meant to avert wars between the states.

American leaders worried that their imperial neighbors—French, Spanish, and especially British—would exploit the new nation’s internal tensions to break up the tenuous union of the states. Poorly educated voters might also elect reckless demagogues who would appeal to class resentments and promote the violent redistribution of wealth. In such a nightmare scenario, a military despot—an American Caesar—ultimately would seize power and restore order at the expense of free government. John Adams warned the people, “When a favourable conjuncture has presented, some of the most intrigueing and powerful citizens have conceived the design of enslaving their country, and building their own greatness on its ruins. Philip and Alexander are examples of this in Greece—Caesar in Rome … and ten thousand others.” Though a blessing for common people, a republic seemed dangerously fragile.

Republican political theory of the day held that empires and monarchies could thrive without an educated populace. Indeed, kings and nobles could better dominate and dazzle the ignorant and credulous. But republics depended on a broad electorate of common men, who, to keep their new rights, had to protect them with attentive care. These citizens, theorists insisted, needed to cultivate a special character known as “virtue”: the precious capacity to transcend their diverse self-interests by favoring the common good of the political community. If everyone merely pursued his private interest, a republic would succumb to the perverse synergy of demagogues and tyrants. To override the selfishness assumed to be innately human, people had to be taught the value of virtue. Thomas Jefferson noted, “I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.”

To sustain their republics, American leaders felt compelled to reform the morals and manners of the nation’s citizens. “We have changed our forms of government,” Benjamin Rush declared, “but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government that we have adopted.” Having grown up in colonies ruled by an empire committed to monarchy, the founders wanted the next generation of Americans to master a new culture of republicanism. Schools needed to produce well-informed protectors of republican government. “If the common people are ignorant and vicious,” Rush concluded, “a republican nation can never be long free.” A physician and reformer from Philadelphia, he sought to use education “to convert men into republican machines” in order to “fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Putting revolutionary turmoil behind them, citizens had to become orderly supporters of the new state and federal governments. They also needed enough education to distinguish worthy from treacherous candidates for office—lest the republics succumb to those reckless demagogues or would-be aristocrats. As Jefferson put it, “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.” ...

Read entire article at The American Scholar

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