The Founding Fathers may have declared independence from Britain in 1776, but the real work of putting together the new government did not take place until the Constitutional Convention met between May and September of 1787 in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. After the debate and work ended, and the delegates were leaving the hall, Elizabeth Powell, who was waiting in the crowd, is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
The word republic comes from the Latin phrase res publica, meaning “thing of the people” or the public property. A republic is a form of government in which a state is ruled by representatives of the citizen body. The philosophy that defines a republic is republicanism. Republicanism emphasizes several tenets: liberty, the importance of civic virtue, the benefits of universal political participation, the dangers of corruption, the need for separate powers within government, popular sovereignty, and a healthy reverence for the rule of law.
With all this talk of personal liberty, have we forgotten the importance of civic virtue?
The term liberty appears in the due process clauses of both the Fifth and 14th amendments. As used in the Constitution, liberty refers to freedom from arbitrary and unreasonable restraint upon an individual. Liberty from the government does not mean that citizens can just do whatever they want. The Founders understood this and tied liberty to the second tenet: civic virtue. Civic virtue is imperative for the success of any community. Closely linked to the concept of citizenship, civic virtue can be described as the dedication of citizens to the common welfare of their community even at the cost of their individual interests.
When the debate over masks and vaccines is viewed through the lens of liberty and civic virtue together, there really shouldn’t be any debate. We should be acting with the common welfare of our communities in mind.
There are plenty of examples of those who are not being their best selves. Many of these examples are taking place in schools and school board meetings.
The pandemic has caused Americans to lose their collective minds. Adults should be leading by example and teaching their children about the partnership between liberty and civic duty. Community leaders, elected officials, gatekeepers and parents should start calling out those whose behavior is beyond acceptable. Far too few Americans believe in — and practice — civic virtue. It is time to start telling those who don’t that this is not who we are.
Will we be able to keep this republic, as Franklin declared? Unless we can call out those who have seemingly forgotten civic virtue, I am not so sure.
Lynn Schmidt is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.