What does it mean to be a virtuous people?
Public virtue is a very special quality of human maturity in character and service closely akin to the Golden Rule. It is agreeing to forego some personal advantage for the betterment of one’s neighbor and society. As a modern historian epitomized it:
“In a Republic, however, each man must somehow be persuaded to submerge his personal wants into the greater good of the whole. This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interest for the good of the community — such patriotism or love of country — the eighteenth century termed public virtue…. The eighteenth century mind was thoroughly convinced that a popularly based government ‘cannot be supported without virtue’.”
When the colonists passed the non-importation acts, it meant that some businessmen could lose their businesses because the very products they were selling could only be obtained from the British. However, they felt the sacrifice was necessary for the eventual good of the entire nation. That is public virtue.
Can virtue be legislated?
The public virtue necessary for freedom cannot be legislated. It must come freely from the hearts of people who have a conviction that each individual is created equal to all others and that he has the same unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It must come as a result of people wanting to fulfill the commandments to love God and to love their fellow men and to not be arbitrary in their treatment of others. Some do-gooders in our day think that laws can be passed to force people to be kind to others or not to discriminate against people based on some distinguishing feature. This kind of force only invites more and more laws, more legal entanglements, and more hard feelings between individuals, groups, and nations. The purveyors of this thinking give no place for the influence of morality and religion which the Founders felt was the only true basis for lasting virtue. Its basis is free will, not force.
Is there enough virtue among the people to be free?
The people had an instinctive thirst for independence, but there remained a haunting fear that they might not be “good enough” to make it work. Some felt the people were ready, others felt they were not ready. Some of the doubts gradually diminished as their patriotic indignation was aroused by the harsh and sometimes brutal policies of the British crown.