Public Virtue

Alasdair MacIntyre

  • Explaining America: The ‘Federalist’ by Garry Wills
    Athlone, 286 pp, £14.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 485 30003 6
  • James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition by David Hoeveler
    Princeton, 374 pp, £13.70, June 1981, ISBN 0 691 04670 0

When the Scottish radical lawyer, Thomas Muir, was tried before the infamous Lord Braxfield in 1793, he declared that if what he had advocated was treasonable, then Plato, Harrington and David Hume were equally guilty. To the present-day student of Hume, Muir’s inclusion of him in his catalogue of reformers must appear even odder than his appeal to Plato: for Hume is usually and rightly portrayed as a consistent defender of the 18th-century Hanoverian status quo. But Muir’s sense of Hume did not altogether lead him astray: for the essay by Hume which he cited, the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’, had already been put to revolutionary use. The list of books James Madison had recommended in 1782, as the first acquisitions for a library for the Congress, had included Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects as well as his History of England; and in his contributions to the Federalist in 1787-8, Madison had drawn upon several of those essays, including the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’. Hume therefore did in fact contribute to one of the classic statements of 18th-century republicanism. Douglass Adair – in Fame and the Founding Fathers (1976), but the discovery was made in his doctoral dissertation of 1943 – was the first to identify Hume’s detailed and specific influence on Madison, and to understand that influence as part of the general culture of the Scottish Enlightenment which Madison acquired at Princeton from the teaching of John Witherspoon. Professor Garry Wills has now followed Adair and extended his thesis in producing an interpretation of Madison in which the Scottish influence on him has a central place.

Wills’s earlier book Inventing America perhaps overstated the case for Scottish influences on Jefferson, but his general thesis that the Scottish Enlightenment provides the most important clues for understanding the thought of the Founding Fathers is triumphantly vindicated in his new book on Madison. Wills’s own attention is concentrated upon the interpretation of Madison’s contributions to the Federalist in their immediate historical context: but in so doing he brings out even more clearly than Adair and others had done the importance for later American history of John Witherspoon’s presidency of the college that was to become Princeton University.

Witherspoon had been one of a remarkable group of five undergraduate students at Edinburgh in 1738 who had petitioned the Principal to re-establish the procedures and standards for graduation, which had been allowed to lapse, and he then took his degree by defending a Latin dissertation orally. He very soon became one of the few learned Church of Scotland ministers who belonged to the Popular or Evangelical Party and he was by far their most effective polemical and satirical preacher and writer. He received invitations to pursue his ministerial career in Holland and in Ireland as well as in the United States. But it was Princeton that he finally chose. And at Princeton every year Witherspoon as both President and Professor of Moral Philosophy delivered what became almost exactly the same course of lectures on ethics and politics (published in 1800 after he was dead as Lectures on Moral Philosophy and Eloquence). The influence of those lectures is in part to be measured by the fact that the graduates of Princeton in his period provided nine members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, numerous members of the Senate and the House, three Supreme Court justices, and a host of governors and state legislators. The most eminent name on the list is that of Madison.

Witherspoon’s most important doctrines were three in number. First he taught that there are objective moral standards in the discernment of which reason and feeling coincide. In this part of his lectures he is profoundly opposed to Hume. (We may note that Madison did not recommend either Hume’s Treatise or the Enquiries to the Library of Congress.) Witherspoon’s positive doctrine combined, without his apparently ever noticing the tension between them, a version of Hutcheson’s moral sense theory and something very like Reid’s account of moral principles as grasped by each individual’s rational common sense – an account which is quite incompatible with Hutcheson’s. But it is not just that Witherspoon was eclectic: in the versions of his lectures which we possess he offers remarkably few arguments. What made his specifically moral doctrines more convincing to his pupils than they seem to us was perhaps their relationship to two other parts of his teaching. In politics, Witherspoon imported the doctrines of the Scottish Whigs. Consent is the basis of any legitimate polity; and consent may be withdrawn when laws are imposed which are ‘pernicious and destructive to the ends of the union’, in order that men may ‘resettle the whole upon a better footing’. And it was when Madison came to consider what that better footing might be that he turned to Hume, as Witherspoon himself never did.

A third crucial element in Witherspoon’s teaching concerned the relationship of moral philosophy to religious beliefs. It was Witherspoon’s contention that the findings of moral philosophy are not merely consistent with Evangelical Protestantism: they are a kind of prologue to it. Nonetheless they can and ought to be defended on their own independent rational grounds. And it was Witherspoon who, in so arguing, more than any other individual laid the basis for a cultural alliance between moral philosophy and Protestant religion which in the first part of the 19th century partially defined moral consensus in America.

Garry Wills’s focus is upon showing how Madison’s specifically constitutional arguments are both intelligible and defensible in their historical context. But it is one of the great merits of his book that it raises even larger questions, central among them the question of the need for public virtue in a republic. ‘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.’ Thus Madison in the Federalist, No 55, identifies the need for virtue in the citizens of a republic, while in No 57 he says that ‘the aim of every political constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society.’

It is in the context of utterances such as these that what Madison has to say about the divisive forces of faction and interest, and the need to provide constitutional safeguards against such forces, must be read. For Madison is crucially misread if he is taken to be merely proposing a system of checks and balances so that the good of the whole may emerge by mechanical contrivance from the partial and one-sided interests of a variety of contending interests. A republic will survive and flourish only if it is able to enlist in its service genuine disinterestedness.

Wills contends cogently that in the Federalist, No 51, Madison argued for a multiplicity of competing interests and for a system of checks and balances which would allow those interests to offset each other, not so that some kind of summing of interests might occur, but so that the variety of interests might neutralise each other, and public right, a respect for the true common good, might prevail instead. We are in Madison’s political theory at the furthest remove from those modern political scientists who understand the political process as one of bargaining between interest-groups.

Wills ends his study of Madison on an elegant note. He effectively concedes that the Constitution was not quite what Madison took it to be and that later American government has a shape very different from that envisaged by the Constitution – although not inconsistent with it. He explains Madison’s failure to foresee future American reality by suggesting that ‘his analysis was based on different cultural realities than the ones that succeeded his age,’ and more specifically that in Madison’s world ‘the concept of public virtue had a hard and clear meaning, a heft and weightiness of the real, no longer apparent to us ... It was the job of modern statesmen to play the role of a Brutus or a Cato; and yet the role-playing was deadly serious.’

When did the notion of public virtue lose its place in American political life except as a piece of cant and humbug? The closing paragraphs of Wills’s last chapter suggest, although no more than that, that he takes the end of the 18th-century Enlightenment to mark the demise of public virtue as an effective republican ideal. But in fact there were important features of American public life in the first half of the 19th century which sustained the ideal of public virtue even if in somewhat impoverished forms. Madison may have had few direct heirs in that period, but those aspects of the moralism of the Scottish Enlightenment which Madison and others had embodied in the founding doctrines and customs of the Republic were very far from antiquarian irrelevances, if only because, unlike Madison, Witherspoon had many heirs.

Adair had already noted that, not only at Princeton, but also ‘at William and Mary, at Pennsylvania, at Yale, at King’s, and at Harvard, the young men who rode off to war in 1776 had been trained in the texts of Scottish social science’ (Fame and the Founding Fathers). But from 1800 onwards the influence of the Scottish moral philosophy increased enormously. Moral philosophy had the key place in the college curriculum. It was generally taught by the president of the college, who was equally generally a Protestant minister. In college after college the set texts became either works by Reid and Stewart or in time American texts which repeated the views of Reid and Stewart. Union College, Schenectady, under its President, Eliphalet Knott, was one centre of the Scottish philosophy, and it was one of Knott’s pupils, Francis Wayland, who as President and Professor of Moral Philosophy at Brown University published in 1835 the most popular textbook of them all, his The Elements of Moral Science.

Wayland never mentions Reid or Stewart: the only British thinker whom he quotes extensively is Butler, although he does also quote from Stewart’s pupil and successor at Edinburgh, Thomas Brown. Nonetheless his mode of argument in fundamental moral truth follows Reid and Stewart very clearly. What Wayland teaches, as Reid and Stewart taught, is that any individual who inspects his or her own consciousness with honesty and clarity will find therein a stock of truths that he or she cannot reasonably doubt, among them the basic principles of morality. These principles have to be elicited, but once elicited the perception of their truth is so clear that no one could seriously doubt them – except, Reid had added, a lunatic or a philosopher.

Wayland’s book sold 25,000 copies in ten years. Its sale is only one index of the immense influence of Scottish moral philosophy upon the college-educated élite. It furnished them with a shared idiom, a set of public standards and modes of public rhetoric. I believe that without it the sense of public duty on which Lincoln was able to call when the Republic encountered its greatest crisis could scarcely have been what it was.

Parts of this history have already been written. But the compartmentalisation and specialisation of academic inquiry has tended to deprive us even of adequately formulated hypotheses about important causal chains. So we possess excellent treatments of the thought of Reid and Stewart by historians of philosophy. We have some fine studies of higher education in 18th and 19th-century American colleges. And there are some splendid historical treatments of the political arena. What we do not have is any adequate narrative of the causal chain that runs from Reid and Stewart, through the teaching of minor thinkers such as Knott and Wayland, to the sustaining of a common moral culture which furnished the setting for political debate and political action.

When this narrative comes to be written, when we finally have a history of the rise, flourishing and final exhaustion of the Scottish philosophy as a distinctively American cultural phenomenon, one culminating figure will be that of James McCosh. McCosh became President of Princeton in 1868, one hundred years after Witherspoon had arrived there. Both were Evangelicals, both had been ordained as ministers of the Church of Scotland, although McCosh had followed Thomas Chalmers into the Free Church in the great Presbyterian schism of 1843. McCosh was the first historian of Scottish philosophy and it was his life’s work to reunite Evangelical theology and moral philosophy as Witherspoon had done before him. Yet where Witherspoon had succeeded, McCosh, an intellectually more able thinker than Witherspoon and at least as able an educator and an organiser, failed. And he failed precisely because it was he who more than any other individual transformed Princeton from a college whose ethos was still that of the earlier 19th century into what is recognisably the same university that it is today. It is no accident that for present-day Princetonians and for the greater part of a century McCosh has been the name of a building, not of a philosopher.

Professor J. David Hoeveler Jr has written a splendid intellectual biography of McCosh. He has a fine appreciation of the complex relationships of intellectual and institutional history, of how ideas become socially embodied and of how they are transformed by such embodiment. He portrays McCosh clearly as a transitional figure, and it is no defect of his biography that it needs to be placed within a larger historical framework. For the fact that McCosh had no intellectual successors worth speaking of, that with him the hegemony of the Scottish philosophy finally ended, confers a significance on McCosh quite independently of his achievements. It was not only that the Scottish philosophy suffered intellectual defeat in the later 19th century: the moral culture in which it was rooted and which it helped to sustain was lost for ever.

The consequences for American political culture in the longer run have been dramatic. Moral philosophy, having lost its key place in the curriculum, lost most of its social influence. Evangelical Protestantism was fated to become systematically isolated from intellectual life, and its leadership fell to the largely uneducated. Where McCosh’s Calvinism had led him to grapple systematically and seriously with the problems posed for his theology by Darwin, the theology of later Evangelical leaderships simply excluded serious thought. A confrontation between a liberal intelligentsia whose abstract principles can appeal to no foundations recognised by most of their fellow-countrymen and a mindlessly militant Evangelical minority, portrayed in their own rhetoric as a Moral Majority, has been a long time in the making. One of its major causes – although only one – lay in the defeat of the culture of that American century which began with Witherspoon and ended with McCosh. When the narrative history of that century is finally constructed, we shall have even more cause to be grateful than we have now to the seminal writing of Professor Wills and Professor Hoeveler.