There’s a lot of talk right now about character and virtue, and so I thought I’d share some thoughts from the Founders on the topic.
(1) “Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a State than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters.” – Samuel Adams
(2) “The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men.” – Samuel Adams
(3) “Good moral character is the first essential in a man.” – George Washington
(4) “[The people] have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge– I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers.” – John Adams
(5) “The uniform tenor of a man’s life furnishes better evidence of what he has said or done on any particular occasion than the word of any enemy.” – Thomas Jefferson
(6) “Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue.” – John Witherspoon.
(7) “The same fidelity to the public interest which obliges those who are its appointed guardians to pursue with every vigor a perfidious or dishonest servant of the public requires them to confront the imputations of malice against the good and faithful one.” – James Madison
(8) “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman & a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” – Thomas Jefferson
(9) “Oh! that I could wear out of my mind every mean and base affectation, conquer my natural Pride and Self Conceit, expect no more defference from my fellows than I deserve, acquire that meekness, and humility, which are the sure marks and Characters of a great and generous Soul, and subdue every unworthy Passion and treat all men as I wish to be treated by all. How happy should I then be, in the favour and good will of all honest men, and the sure prospect of a happy immortality!” – John Adams
(10) “But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.” – James Madison
(11) “As 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. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” – James Madison, The Federalist No. 55
(12) “When public Virtue is gone, when the national Spirit is fled, when a Party is Substituted for the Nation, and Faction for a Party, when Venality lurks and Skulks in Secret, and much more when it impudently braves the public Censure, whether it be Sent in the form of Emissaries from foreign Powers, or is employed by ambitious and Intriguing domestic Citizens, the Republic is lost in Essence, though it may still exist in form.” – John Adams