Of Virtue and Morality, by Clarence Carson

Clarence B CarsonTHE AMERICAN TRADITION: CLARENCE CARSON

Source: The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, Date 01 March 1964

Writers in the twentieth century have often entertained them­selves (and presumably their readers) by taking pot shots at their particular betenoire, the despised Puritan. If  Americans are not spontaneous in their sex relations as some writers would like, it is ascribed to repres­sions inherited from Puritanism. If they are stingy or ungenerous on occasion, that too must come from their Puritan heritage. If they lack the French joie de vivre, it can be blamed on Puritanism.

In vain, I suspect, some schol­ars, notably Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller, have  shown that the Puritan of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not that way. In reality, he was not always stern, joyless, and forbidding. However valuable such work may be, it could not be ex­pected to stem the torrent of  ad verse criticism manufactured  by “imaginative”  writers  and jour­nalists. Most of them  probably could not care less what the Puri­tan of earlier times was like. They were after more consequential game. For Puritanism as it is popularly conceived and described is none other than the American tradition of virtue and morality.

The historical confusion en­gendered by such oversimplified misappellations can be passed over for the moment. The point is, Pu­ritanism was used as a symbol of distaste; and, since the character­istics ascribed to Puritanism were in reality characteristic of Amer­ican ways, the assault upon this symbol was an assault on the American tradition. The discred­iting of the one tended to under­mine the other.

There was, then, an American tradition of morality and virtue. It is most difficult to delineate, however. Morality and virtue have usually been associated with re­ligion. Indeed, they may be in­ separably joined in some way. George Washington maintained that they were. In memorable words, he declared:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispen­sable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness – these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious prin­ciple.

Yet the United States did not have an established religion, nor was Washington advocating one. There were already a considerable variety of sects, and more would arise or come in the future. How­ever, traditions are not laws, as I have already pointed out. It is possible to have a tradition of morality and virtue – which, in turn, is dependent upon religion – without its being legally pre­scribed. Indeed, America had one.

This was made possible by the fact that morality was primarily an individual matter. To put it more directly, only individuals could be moral according to the prevailing ethos. For action to become moral it meant that in­dividuals should have made choices. Thus, prescribed moral­ity was antithetical to the tradi­tion. The corollary to individual morality was individual responsi­bility. When an individual chose his course of action, he became responsible for its consequences. If he affronted the community codes of behavior, he would be made to feel the contempt and displeasure of that community. If he violated laws, he would be held responsible by punishment. In like manner, individuals received the rewards of their endeavors. This was facilitated by provisions for private property, by definite distinctions between what belonged to one man and what to another, and by community approval of those who justly acquired wealth or fame.

Outstanding Virtues

To my knowledge, no one has attempted to rank the virtues which were admired in the Amer­ican tradition. It is doubtful that it could be done, for Americans did not go in for hierarchies. But certain virtues were prominent. According to one historian, the following were the leading virtues in the middle of the eighteenth century: “patriotism, public serv­ice, industry and frugality, jus­tice, and integrity.” Another historian, writing of the nine­teenth century American, attrib­utes these virtues to him:

The American had a high sense of honor and would not tolerate acts dishonorable by his standards. Words like truth, justice, loyalty, reverence, virtue, and honor meant much to him . . . . He admired industry, tem­perance, sportsmanship. . . . He recognized the sovereignty of the in­dividual conscience, consulted it on most matters, and yielded the same privilege to others.

But a random listing of virtues does not do justice to the tradition. After all, virtue and moral­ity were the mortar which held the bricks of the American tra­dition together. These virtues were not chosen at random; they were an integral part of the struc­ture of the life of a people. Liber­ty, individualism, voluntarism, personal independence, and indi­vidual responsibility can only be made to work by a people who have developed virtues which will buttress these ideas and prac­tices. For people in general to concur in practices by which each man receives the fruits of his labor, they need to have a set of values in keeping with these prac­tices. These values must exist in intricate interrelation, not in careless disarray.

High on the list of American virtues were industry, thrift, and frugality. Hard work was not only a practical means to acquir ing goods but also a positive good itself . Undoubtedly, many be­lieved that an idle mind was the devil’s workshop, but there was also the consideration that a man who had worked hard all day could sleep the sleep of the just. Work was the sovereign prescription for sorrow, for heartache, and for vague discontent. It kept the young out of mischief and filled the long hours of the aged. Work was not so much a curse to be avoided as a blessing to be sought. It was the means by which an individual assumed responsi­bility for himself and his own, achieved independence, and showed himself to be a man.

Thrift, too, was a positive vir­tue. If capital accumulation was the aim, a penny saved was indeed a penny earned. Waste not, want not, was the negative way of jus­tifying frugality, but the prac­tice had deeper sanctions. That which we hold is a gift of God, held in stewardship from him. To treat it casually or carelessly would be to hold the giver in contempt. The counter vices to these virtues were laziness, extrava­gance, and wastefulness. These vices were universally condemned in an earlier America. Indeed, it was generally held that those who were deprived in some way were usually to blame because they had yielded to the vices and not practiced the virtues.

Simplicity was much admired by Americans. This probably reached its peak, so far as public affairs were concerned, during Andrew Jackson’s time. But re­publican simplicity had been ad­vocated and practiced by Jeffer­son also. Simplicity of manners, directness of approach, straight­ forwardness of action were the standards Americans applied to behavior. They disapproved of pomp, “putting on airs,” an undue complexity, and deviousness. Rhetorical flourishes were all very well in a public speech, but ordinary business should be conducted without obscurity.

This preference for simplicity can be understood; it had an im­portant role in the ethos. If men are to look after their own affairs, if each man is to be re­sponsible for himself, if he is to make choices, the alternatives must be clear. Questions must be raised above the level of compli­cating circumstances. In effect, this means that they must be posed as moral alternatives, in most cases.

Many twentieth century writ­ers have derided the tendency of Americans to turn questions into moral problems. Yet it is not at all clear how they would propose alternatives to most men. Moral choices can be and are made by simple men who could not hope to understand all the factors in a complicated situation. Indeed, it is doubtful that anyone knows all the particulars of a given situation, or that they could reach a decision if they did. Simplicity is required for individual responsi­bility and for choice.

Self-respect was another of the major virtues in the American tradition, along with its corol­lary, respect for others. To be self-respecting meant that one was self-supporting, independent, dependable, conscious of the good opinion of his neighbors, honest, and able to contribute in some way to common tasks. Somewhat of disgrace was attached to falling short of any of these. In his own eyes, a man lost stature by fail­ing to provide for himself. To his neighbors, his virtue was at least suspect. Respect for others in­volved a consciousness of distance between you, a distance to be bridged only when both parties desired. This meant that anoth­er’s property was something you used only at his invitation, his time you imposed on at his be­hest, and his religion, beliefs, and habits you tolerated so long as they did not too grossly off end the taste of the community. American communities were apt to uphold moral standards, not so much by laws as by informal re­proval of undesired conduct.

The Moral Adhesive

These virtues were knit to­gether and given force by the religious and philosophical heritage which most Americans shared. Most Americans have been and are Christian, nominally, devoted­ly, or haphazardly. Within Christianity, the tone was set by vari­ous Protestant sects, at least un­til the twentieth century. Moreover, these were distinctly col­ored by English Protestantism, which was heavily suffused with Calvinism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Puri­tans contributed to the American ethos the conception of each man having a calling, of the impor­tance of work, of the practice of thrift and frugality. From the Quakers came the emphasis upon the individual conscience, upon an inner light, and upon the command to obey its promptings. The Baptists insisted upon religion being freed from political control and upon the right of a man to choose how he would worship.

Many of these sectarian belief s were fused or transcended by re­vivalists in the Great Awakening, which occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century. There­after, most of Protestantism came to share a common ethos. One writer lists the characteristics of American Protestantism in the early nineteenth century, and follows them with these comments:

It is notable that each of these characteristics emphasizes the free decision of the individual will. Christianity in America has emphasized these expressions of a change of heart and of the conversion of the individual: the pious practice of the believer, the revival in the society, and missionary effort to the uncon­verted. Fundamental to all of this is a fresh grasp on a free and inward decision of the spirit as essential to real religion, and a corresponding rejection of any coercion in religious belief.

The personal piety which religion promoted was evinced in the mor­al life and the practice of those virtues enumerated above, and others.

But this is to affirm what has not yet been demonstrated, i.e., the connection between religion and morality. To make this dem­onstration, it will be useful to raise some ultimate questions. Why is self-respect a virtue? Why should men be honest? Why should they tell the truth? Is it good to be independent? In short, what makes those things virtues which men have so denominated?

In our day, there are many intellectuals who doubt that there is any necessary connection between religion and morality. They profess to see no need for a metaphysical realm in which the physical must subsist and have its being. For them, the above questions can be answered prag­matically, so far as they need to be answered. Thus, they might say that it is important that peo­ple be honest in order that society may function smoothly. If people did not tell the truth, they would stop trusting one another, and re­lationships would deteriorate. In brief, they argue that human rea­son and social needs form a sufficient base for rules of behavior.

Philosophical Foundation

It is not for the historian to answer these ultimate questions that have been posed. His task is completed when he has described what men believed and did – and what the consequences were. Thus, so far as the questions are philosophical or theological, they fall outside the area of my com­petence. But so far as the actual beliefs that men have held and the relationship of these to the practices of morality and virtue are concerned, these are very much historical questions.

There is no doubt in my mind, then, that American morality was closely connected to religion and philosophy. Nor do I wish to imply that this was merely a for­tuitous nexus. Powerful sanctions usually accompany the taboos and imperatives which a people accept. The rationalist may conclude, for example, that murder is an obvi­ous evil, that all men will readily concur with him in this opinion. Surely, he might think, there is no need for supernatural sanc­tions against murder. The matter may be otherwise, however. Re­move the sense of awe and mys­tery which men have before God and who is to say that you do not contribute to the removal of the awe and mystery which envelops human beings and protects them from one another ordinarily?

Religious Sanction

At any rate, the American tra­dition of virtue and morality had deep religious sanctions. These religious beliefs can be set forth in philosophic terms, though it must be understood that most Americans could not have articulated them in this way. Gener­ally, Americans believed that they lived in a created universe. They believed in a Creator, God transcendent, who stood outside the humanly conceived dimensions of time and space and who made this world.

The common appellation for God in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was Providence. God as provider meant different things to different people, of course, depending upon the amount of learning and depth of thought about it. In general terms, though, it meant that he had provided whatever existed in nature, i.e., the universe, its laws, man and his nature, the materials with which men worked. President John Adams captured this con­ception in the closing words of his Inaugural Address:

And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.

The great support of morality in these religious beliefs was the conviction that this created uni­verse was pervaded by a moral or­der. By the eighteenth century, many thinkers interpreted this moral order in terms of natural laws. From this point of view, to say that there is a moral order in the universe means that this universe works according to laws. But whether it be understood as natural law or Divine injunction, the belief in a moral order made morality and virtue imperative. Those acts are morally good which are in keeping with moral order; virtues are those principles of action which are consonant with the order.

Let us revert to an earlier ques­tion. Why is it good to be inde­pendent? Because this universe is pervaded by a moral order. Because man is a moral being. Be­cause choice is essential to mo­rality. Because independence is necessary to free choice. How may a man become independent? He may do so by practicing industry, thrift, and frugality. Industry, thrift, and frugality lead to independence because there is an order in the universe, an order in which rewards are likely to be pro­portioned to effort, in which pos­sessions may be augmented by careful husbandry, in which thrift will be rewarded by increased savings. It may appear a quibble, but let it be noted anyhow: these actions are not good because they have good consequences; they have good consequences because they are good – i.e., that they are in keeping with the moral order. Self-respect begets respect for others; honor begets honesty ; fidelity begets faithfulness.

An Optimistic View

The belief in the existence of a moral order had many attendant results for Americans. It meant that the triumph of right was established and certain. There could be no ultimate tragedy : right would win ; justice would triumph; goodness would over­ come. Observers have of ten re­ marked that Americans were op­ timistic. Recent interpreters have tended to ascribe this to their ex­ perience and environment. Let us suggest a deeper source, the be­ lief in an ultimately triumphant moral order.

This belief served as a profound basis for freedom for Americans. In the first place, it was cond u­ cive to faith. The man who lacks faith will be easily inclined to the view that he must do everything himself, that if men are not com­ pelled they will not act in desired ways, that someone or a group must provide a master plan else society will come to pieces, and chaos will reign. The man with faith in an order higher than himself can be content to leave other men to their devices, secure in his knowledge that God is not mocked, that right will triumph, and that his major task is to see that he is not destroyed in the process. He can believe that an economic order may work justly without society’s intervention by way of a master plan. There is an order in the universe that brings a harmony out of the di­verse activities of men if it is not interfered with by rules de­vised by men and promulgated in the society, if aggression is estopped, and if freedom prevails in the market.

Second, such a belief in a mor­al order can serve to promote lib­erty because it is to the advan­tage of men to come to know the order. They can do so most ade­quately if the greatest liberty prevails. The consequences of ac­tions are not obscured ; the re­wards of endeavors can be viewed without obstruction. In this view, no amount of human effort can thwart the moral order, of course, but human intervention can great­ ly confuse the onlooker. For ex­ample, he may ascribe his pros­perity to human agency, or his discoveries to invention. It is ex­tremely important for men to dis­ cern cause and effect clearly, for their actions will tend to be pred­ icated upon conclusions about this. Liberty is an important con­dition of such discernment.

Third, the individual responsi­bility that follows from living within a universal moral order is essential to the working of lib­erty. If each man is to have lib­erty, he must assume responsi­bility for himself. If he does not, or if society does not impose it upon him, he will suffer, and he may use his suff ering as an ex­cuse for compulsory social action.

A tradition of virtue and morality took shape in America, then. It was supported by religion and buttressed by philosophy. It was made manifest in numerous customs and practices : in indi­vidualism, in voluntarism, in lim­ited government, in extended lib­erty, in laws which placed the primary responsibility for his actions upon the individual. In­dividuals were impelled to work, to strive, to accomplish, because they assumed the responsibility for their well-being. Above all, the belief in a moral order was dem­onstrated by the things which Americans did not attempt to do by compulsion: by permitting voluntary religious associations, by leaving the individual free to work out his own salvation in his own way, by not planning the economy, by not presuming to control the behavior of other nations, by resting the government on the free choice and activity of the citizenry.

Remove the Temptation

This system was not founded upon the notion that men are naturally virtuous or morally good, though some could be found who would subscribe to such prop­ositions, but upon the view that there is a moral order in the uni­verse, that all men’s schemes will come to nought if they are in op­position to it, and that it is better to remove the temptation for interfering as far as possible from men by checking power and limiting its legitimate use by govern­ment.

There should be no doubt that long strides toward the abandonment of this tradition have taken place in the twentieth century. According to much of current eco­nomic thought, those who prac­tice thrift are enemies of pros­perity because they lower consumption and slow the wheels of production. Hard work may be a virtue in some circles, but the good life is portrayed in America as a play life. As for frugality, articles have actually appeared suggesting that waste is neces­sary to full production and em­ployment. My impression is that self-respect and personal independence are not highly rated. today. Sociability is a much higher vir­tue. At any rate, less and less is left to the individual and more and more power is assumed by governments.

Undermined Foundations

The philosophical props have been knocked from under the American tradition; theologians and preachers have long since ceased to support it with one voice. Intellectuals, many of them, have come to doubt that there is any order in the universe, much less a moral one. The Darwinians promulgated a constantly changing universe, one in which the only enduring quality was change itself . The Marxists turned the old order upside down, made tech­nology rather than man the mov­er in this world. They and other socialists thingified society (with help from some conservatives) , and reduced the individual to a cog in its giant wheel. Environ­mentalists denied the freedom and responsibility of the individual, and pragmatists proclaimed that these were meaningless .questions. Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” and his disciples attempted to raise man in His stead. Preachers of the Social Gospel emphasized the reform of society and worked for the King­dom to come, a kingdom which bore a striking resemblance to the materialistic utopias advanced in the nineteenth century. Melio­rists set out to create their own moral order, one at considerable variance from that made by the Creator. In short, the older be­liefs were turned upside down. The tradition was undermined.

Emphasis on Planning

These intellectual developments set the stage for many twentieth century practices and attitudes which are by now familiar. If there is no moral order in the universe, the economy must be planned, else chaos will result. Man, or society, must plan and do everything. If the United States does not exert its power and in­fluence in the world, great harm will presumably result. Who knows what France might do with atomic bombs? If men are left to their devices – are left at liberty – what might be the conse­quences? Children must be prop­agandized, adults kept at work, the aged supervised or provided with suitable tasks. Lacking a faith in a moral order, men must engage in frenetic social activities to maintain order. Lacking a working belief in a transcen­dent God, men will play at being gods. They cannot accept freedom because they cannot predict the consequences of freedom. Hence, they are driven to more and more controls in order to have a predictable condition. Lacking a belief in immutable law, judges presume to make their own law.

Could George Washington have been right? Is there a connection between religion and morality ? More, is there a connection be­tween these and the possibility of maintaining liberty ? In the American tradition, there was. Can it be that this connection subsists in reality? Those who maintain otherwise, or who act otherwise, need to demonstrate how they, of their own efforts, will maintain freedom without a moral order. The consequences of their experiments thus far are not such as to inspire faith in man’s unaided abilities. One wonders if any more journeys into the twilight zone of human­istic meliorism are warranted! The residues of the American tradition of virtue and morality point in another direction.


Clarence B. Carson (1925-2003) was a frequent contributor to The Freeman: Ideas On Liberty, and was Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, and the author of 12 books including his noteworthy six-volume work: A Basic History of the United States.


Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.


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