One of the most important influences on the Founders was Montesquieu, who came up with the idea of separation of powers — a pretty good day’s work, and a foundation of our Constitutional republic.
Montesquieu also identified a republic’s necessary, animating spirit: virtue.
Virtue? I know, it sounds quaint.
That’s the problem.
If we citizens are to rule ourselves, each of us, as rulers, needs to care about doing what’s right in our civic life. But at the moment, too many of us, whether through inattention, ignorance, or outright cynicism, think having a Donald Trump as president is just fine.
In “The Spirit of Laws,” Montesquieu defines three kinds of government: monarchy, despotism, and republic. If a monarchy is to survive, it requires honor. Despotism runs on fear — sound familiar?
But a republic, since it is based on self-rule, requires virtue. For Montesquieu, virtue meant more than just morality, although it did mean that. He understood virtue in its classical sense, encompassing learning, judgment, and other capacities required of a citizen.
Jefferson was inspired by Montesquieu when he advocated for the primary importance of a free press and excellent public education. They were necessary to civic virtue:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.” (Letter to Edward Carrington, Jan. 16, 1787)
So how is it that all these years after Jefferson and Montesquieu, we find ourselves living under a wannabe despot?
It’s not Trump’s fault: he clearly can’t help being as low as he was made (by an abusive father, I’m guessing).
No, it’s our fault. It’s our fault for allowing it to become possible for a Donald Trump to even get close to the presidency.
For a country to reach a state as debased as the state we’re in, its rulers must have shirked their duty. And that would be us.
Benjamin Franklin, like Jefferson, like Montesquieu, saw this coming. When asked if America was to be a monarchy or a republic, he answered:
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”