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Our country rests on people doing the right thing


Last updated 3/3/2021 at 8:15am

As the events of the past few months have unfolded, I have often found myself wondering what our Founders would have made of it all. Impossible to know, of course, but they had plenty of insight to offer.

In particular, I keep returning to these lines from James Madison: “I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom,” he said. “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure.” We depend, he said, not on the virtue of the people we elect, but of “the people who are to choose them.”

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? The design of our government may be remarkable, but it does not matter nearly as much as the qualities of the American people and their capacity to make it work. 

What may have been most impressive about the Founders was that they had confidence in the notion that people had the capacity to govern themselves. A key aspect of that idea, as Madison articulated, is that virtue is part of republican government. We tend to think of “virtue” as moral probity or integrity. Madison and the other Founders had something more encompassing in mind. They thought of virtue as including a sense of civic self-sacrifice: the ability to act for the benefit of the broader community.

What may be most striking is that they had confidence in the American people to carry out this grand experiment. I could not help but think of that faith in the wake of last November’s election, as countless poll workers and elections officials around the country stoically carried on their work to the best of their ability in the face of unrelenting antagonism.

We remain in a time of great testing for the system Madison and his generation created. Many Americans have lost trust in the system as a whole and in one another. This is not without reason. But it helps to look back and remember that everything rests on us — on our ability to choose our leaders wisely, to work with one another, and to reward the Founders’ faith that ordinary people can, by dint of their efforts, make this a more perfect union.


Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


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