HONOURABLE DANIEL WEBSTER.
IN your public addresses or speeches, and in those of other gentlemen of high political distinction, I have often seen an opinion expressed like this--That intelligence and virtue are the basis of a republican government, or that intelligence and virtue in the people are necessary to the preservation and support of a republican government. These words, intelligence and virtue, are very comprehensive in their uses or application, and perhaps too indefinite to furnish the premises for the inference deduced from them. Men may be very intelligent in some departments of literature, arts and science; but very ignorant of branches of learning in other departments. By intelligence, as applicable to political affairs, it may be presumed that those who use the term, intend it to imply a correct knowledge of the Constitution and laws of the country, and of the several rights and duties of the citizens.
But, Sir, the opinion that intelligence in the people of a country will preserve a republican government, must depend, for its accuracy, on the fact of an intimate, or necessary connection between knowledge and principle. It must suppose
that men who know what is right, will do what is right : for if this is not the general fact, then intelligence will not preserve a just administration, nor maintain the constitution and laws. But from what evidence can we infer that men who know what is right will do what is right? In what history of mankind, political or ecclesiastical, are the facts recorded, which authorize the presumption, much less the belief, that correct action will proceed from correct knowledge? Such an effect would imply the absence of all depravity in the hearts of men; a supposition which not only revelation, but all history forbids us to admit.
Let me ask, Sir, whether the Greeks, and particularly the Athenians, were not an intelligent people? Were they not intelligent when they banished the ablest statesmen and generals, and the purest patriots of their state? Was their intelligence sufficient to insure, at all times, a just administration of the laws? In short, if intelligence could preserve a republic, why were not the Grecian republics preserved?
Then let us turn our attention to the Roman state. Were not Sylla and Marius intelligent men, when they rent the commonwealth with faction, and deluged Rome with blood? Were not Caesar and Anthony and Lepidus, and Crassus and Brutus and Octavianus, intelligent men? Did not the Roman commonwealth fall into ruins in the most enlightened period of its existence? And were not the immediate instruments of its overthrow some of the most intelligent men that the pagan world has produced?
Then look at France during the revolution, when there was no settled government to control reason. Were not the leading men of the parties intelligent men?--men who
cut off the heads of their opponents with as little ceremony as they would tread a worm under their feet, and for the sake of liberty. When one party was crushed, the others cried out, the republic or liberty is safe. When another party fell under the guillotine, then the trimphant party shouted liberty is safe. But after all the republic was not saved; and all parties at last were glad to find peace and security under a throne.
Intelligence alone then has not yet saved any republic. But intelligence, it is said, must be accompanied with virtue, and these united are to give duration to a republic.
Now, Sir, what is this virtue; what does it mean in the sentiment or opinion above cited? What did Montesquieu intend by virtue, when he wrote about its influence in preserving a republic?--Spirit of Laws, passim.
The virtue of a Roman citizen consisted in personal bravery, and in devotion to the defence and extension of the commonwealth. In particular men there existed a strong sense of right or political duty, which may rank as a moral virtue. But such instances were rare, and most rare in the decline of the commonwealth, when the citizens were most intelligent. But in general, the virtue of the Romans was a passionate attachment to the commonwealth, for the grandeur of which they fought and conquered, till they had brought the civilized world to the feet of the republic. This virtue extended the dominion, but did not secure the existence of the republic.
If by virtue is intended the observance of the common social duties, this may proceed from a respect for custom,
and a regard to reputation; and either with or without better principles, is a useful practice.
But such virtue as this will not save a republic, unless based on better principles than a regard to custom or to reputation. The reason is obvious; such morality will often, not to say generally, yield to selfishness; that is, to the ambition of obtaining power and wealth. When strongly tempted by private interest, men often find the means of enlisting reason in its service; and invent excuses for disregarding the public good, which ought to be, and for the preservation of republican government, must be, the ruling motive of citizens.
The virtue which is necessary to preserve a just administration and render a government stable, is christian virtue, which consists in the uniform practice of moral and religious duties, in conformity with the laws both of God and man. This virtue must be based on a reverence for the authority of God, which shall counteract and control ambition and selfish views, and subject them to the precepts of divine authority. The effect of such a virtue would be to bring the citizens of a state to vote and act for the good of the state, whether that should coincide with their private interest or not. But when or where has this virtue been possessed by all the citizens, or even by a majority of the citizens of a state? History does not authorize us to believe that such virtue has ever existed in the body of citizens in any community; or to presume that such a community will ever exist.
If such virtue as this can be introduced into a community, the opinion that intelligence and virtue will preserve a re-