Can the Republic survive?

Bruce Fein
November 27, 2007

The United States culture is decaying, growing steadily less capable of supporting a republican form of government.

Unless the cultural pendulum swings back toward civic virtue and learning, the United States will plunge to government by executive edict. It will follow the fall of the Roman Republic in 27 B.C.

The result will be chronic follies like post-Saddam Iraq pivoting on the delusion of executive infallibility and the conviction that decisive power is invariably military power.

In “Federalist 55,” James Madison observed that, “Republican government presupposes the existence of [qualities in human nature that justify esteem and confidence] in a higher degree than any other form.” Those qualities include wisdom, honesty and courage; a subordination of egomania to the common good; moderation; self-doubt and self-discipline; and, charity toward the shortcomings of others. A culture that pays homage to these qualities, as in the time of the American Revolution, gives birth to towering leaders like Cincinnatus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

As president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 amid petty bickering and maneuvering for political advantage, Washington admonished the delegates: “If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest may repair.”

The delegates did not jeer. They did not retort, “We don’t have the votes.” Instead, they labored to subordinate their parochial interests to the common good and achieved a miracle. A century later, the United States Constitution was acclaimed by Lord Gladstone as, “The most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

American culture has degenerated since the Founding Fathers into a celebration of vice, ignorance, drivel and self-promotion. Money, beauty, sexual indulgence, athletics and fame are saluted as the summum bonum of existence. Exemplary are the wild enthusiasm for “American Idol,” obsession with the tawdry comings and goings of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton and the apotheosis of professional athletes who contribute nothing to preserving government of the people, by the people, for the people. It is inconceivable that a Washington, Madison or Jefferson or Lincoln could emerge from the contemporary culture.

Parents seldom read to children. Students seldom read from inspiration. A dwindling number make it a habit to peruse a serious daily newspaper. Not a single public official or figure in the United States could author paragraphs worthy of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s Farewell Address or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The nation has become leaderless amid its arid and brainless culture, like an acephalous church. Think of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and President George W. Bush. The American Revolution would have capsized if they had been its political helmsmen.

Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid would have accepted the tyrannies of the Stamp Tax and Writs of Assistance because they would not then have had the votes for revolt. Mr. Bush would have quarreled with every indictment against King George III penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence because it contradicted his monarch-like theory of a unitary executive. And none of the three would have possessed the wisdom and courage to understand and pursue government by the consent of the governed and unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They would not have known that concentration of power is what invariably precedes destruction of human liberties.

Before the Constitutional Convention gathered in 1787, Madison read voluminously about every federation and confederation since the beginning of recorded history. Like his contemporaries, he believed serious reading and writing were the secret of political maturity and wisdom.

Thomas Jefferson sermonized: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Thus, the Founding Fathers mastered John Locke, Montesquieu and Blackstone. They knew the fates of Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. They were versed in Petrarch’s “Lives,” Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Plato’s “Republic” and William Shakespeare’s masterpieces.

Authored by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the Federalist Papers brim with historical and literary allusions that bespeak erudition and philosophical wisdom. The authors would have been aghast at President Bush’s assertion he does not learn from reading. They would have been shocked at the stupendous ignorance of the typical member of Congress, whether about the Constitution, constitutional philosophy, history, philosophy literature or otherwise.

Read the debates of the First Congress of the United States. Compare them to the debates of the 110th Congress memorialized in the Congressional Record. The deterioration in learning is alarming, virtual disproof of Charles Darwin’s theory of progressive evolution.

Diagnosing cultural flaws is much easier than prescribing a cure. Attempting to change culture is more guesswork than science. I would nevertheless recommend beginning with a return to the educational standards of the Founding Fathers. A child should be taught to adulate Socrates and the freedom of inquiry before excursions to the cinema or football stadium.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer with Bruce Fein & Associates and chairman of the American Freedom Agenda.

another article by Bruce Fein:  It’s time to check the balance of power:

It’s time to check the balance of power: Congress must rein in Bush’s abusive actions
San Francisco Chronicle, By Bruce Fein, 07/29/2007