Every great civilization of which we have record in history that came and went, failed from within. Edward Gibbon, in his seminal work The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, outlines this process in great detail: internal weakness precipitates external vulnerability and collapse inevitably follows.
Gibbon argued that the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions because of the gradual loss of civic virtues of its citizens. Thumbing through the pages of history, it is easy to see a similar pattern unfold in any great civilization, up to our present era. Basic civic virtue lies at the center of any great nation.
In a Republic such as the United States, decisions about public matters are made by a relatively large group of people, rather than just one person, such as in a monarchy. The decisions in such a system are ideally based on the civic virtues held dear by that society.
Benjamin Franklin was queried while leaving Independence Hall after the final day of deliberation of the Constitutional Convention in 1787:
“Well Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”
to which Franklin reportedly replied:
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Do you feel you’ve done your part to keep it?
George Washington, in a letter to Lafayette written in 1788 noted: “Though, when a people shall become incapable of governing themselves and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what quarter he comes.” In the absence of basic civic virtue, people become incapable of self-governance.
Virtue doesn’t appear automatically. It must be cultivated or drawn forth from the individual. Families, schools, churches, civic groups all have opportunity to strengthen the fundamental sense of virtue in their members. Benjamin Franklin emphasized this point, noting the importance of teachers:
“…I think with you, that nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of the state; more so than riches or arms… I think also, that general virtue is more probably to be expected and obtained from the education of youth, than from the exhortations of adult persons; bad habits and vices of the mind being, like diseases of the body, more easily prevented than cured. I think, moreover, that talents for the education of youth are the gift of God; and that he on whom they are bestowed, whenever a way is opened for the use of them, is as strongly called as if he heard a voice from heaven…”
Today I encourage you to consider your civic responsibilities, to cultivate a greater sense of civic virtue in yourself and in those around you and to thank a teacher (who deserves the thanks) for his or her work in shaping the future of our great nation.