The Founding Fathers were never sure that the republic would last.
History, after all, was not on their side – and the Founding Fathers were very good historians. They understood how fragile republics were and how much they asked of their citizens, and they doubted.
A proper republic depended on the virtue of its citizens. This did not mean what it means today. We tend to think of virtue as a private quality that more or less translates either as honesty or purity (especially sexual purity) depending on the situation. This is a very nineteenth-century Romantic view and not one the Founders would have understood. No, to them virtue was a public quality with a very simple definition: the ability to rise above one’s private interests and act for the common good.
We don’t believe in this today. In modern America there is nothing above one’s private interests, and anyone who dares to suggest even the existence of a common good is labeled a Socialist. So perhaps the Founders were right about us after all.
They were a pessimistic group in some ways.
At the time the American republic was founded the number of successful examples of republics currently in operation was exactly zero. They had come and gone over the course of history, but fleetingly. We would be the only one, a new attempt to see if a republic would work. It was an act of exceedingly great optimism for this pessimistic group to take even to set up a republic here.
This balance between hope and history strained them. If you ever get the chance to read the newspapers published in the United States when the republic was new, you should – if only to gasp at the level of vitriol and anger and admire the sheer artistry with which they practiced it. Republics were fragile things and every misstep was sure to lead to catastrophe, so the stakes were high and the tempers were higher.
The republic is still here, more or less.
We no longer believe in the same virtue that the Founders did. Really, we no longer believe in just about anything the Founders did – things have changed over the last 224 years. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a different one.
Yet some things remain true even so.
Republics are fragile things. And if we wish to keep ours, we will attempt to practice the virtue republics require. We will rise above our petty private interests and look to the common good.
There is nothing self-evidently necessary about the American republic. It depends on the continued virtue of its citizens to survive from moment to moment. And it is a race between hope and history to see if the optimism of the Founders will be rewarded, or the pessimism.