Skip to main content

Allen: The Good Citizen

The Good Citizen

W. B. Allen, Professor, Political Science
Michigan State University

The Philadelphia Society
Fall Regional
Meeting, November 11, 2000
Amway Grand
Plaza Hotel, Grand Rapids, Michigan

At the center of the town square of the Ville de TrÈguier in western
France stands a monument to Ernst Renan, who wrote the famous 19th
century classic, Vie de Jesus.  Renan was born and lived in TrÈguier, and his descendants
sustain his memory as an important luminary, the best of TrÈguierís citizens.

Since the heart of the teaching in Vie
de Jesus
is that the story of Christ possesses historical veridity precisely
in its human dimensions and not otherwise, we might say that Citizen Renan built
himself up by tearing down the Son of God. 
To be fair to Renan, I must acknowledge that he counseled against a
rationalism that ìwishes to govern the world without regard to the religious
needs of the soul.î[i] 
On the other side, though, one must acknowledge that there is no
acceptable equivocation on the question of divinity. 
A consequence of Renanís teaching was to contribute to what Chesterton
called the ìsmashing of universal laws.î[ii]

I wonder why it so often seems that good, notable citizenship thrives
upon eroding conceded moral principles rather than upon reinforcing them? 
I think here of Martin Diamondís frequent discussions of the need for a
ìcivil religionî in a regime of ìlow but solid virtues,î that is, a
regime in which real religion is no longer relevant. 
This is what lies behind the questions I have posed, What is the good
citizen?  How are we to recognize
him today?  May we recognize the
good man within the good citizen?  And,
how are we to generate, regenerate, and sustain good citizens? The answers to
these questions may prove elusive, but I am quite certain of the starting point:
the good citizen is at least the mature human, one who is ready to ìdigest the
doctrine of righteousnessî instead of living on ìmilk.î 
As the apostle said, these are ìmen with minds trained by practice to
distinguish between good and bad.î[iii] 

Our culture faces no questions more important than these, and I thank you
for the opportunity to reflect upon them with you. 
Nor are these questions important only for those who live in the United
States.  As a passion for democracy,
in a variety of guises, moves the hearts of peoples across the globe and as many
nations struggle to establish democratic states, the question of how to
recognize and form the good citizen concerns thoughtful individuals world-wide. 

But surely we already know the answers to these questions, some may say,
offering as proof our countryís successful history of two and a quarter
centuries as a democratic republic.  They
might point to the fall of the Berlin wall, the defeat of the Soviet Union, and
even the recent ousting of Slobodan Milosevic as evidence of the triumph of
democracy, secure in their confidence that democracy forms good citizens and
that democracy  flourishes across
the planet. 

Others, however ñ and perhaps many here today ñ may share my doubt
about just exactly what it is that is spreading so vigorously in the
global society of the twenty-first century. 
Has republicanism vanquished totalitarianism, or is it perhaps rather the
case that one economic system has proven a better road to prosperity than
another, leaving largely unexamined questions about the fundamental spring, the
way of life, that moves and unites a republic? 

Historyís dodo germinates future failures in the euphoric celebration
of recent triumphs.  Thus did Athens
squander in Syracuse what she won in Greece. 
Thus did Rome despoil at home what she had gained in Carthage and Europe. 
Thus did American statesmen welcome the greatest military victory in
human history ñ the victory of the United States over the Soviet Union ñ
with the invocation of a New World Order predicated upon economic determinism:
free markets make free men.  The
special insouciance of this blind reliance upon capitalism is its notable
failure to recognize the opportunity to convert a merely military victory into a
moral triumph.  The world,
therefore, joined the United States in easy assumption that the fall of
Soviet-directed communism and parties of the left in Europe, Africa, and Latin
America had disproved rather than merely disapproved of socialism. 
No one paused to inquire whether the soul of socialism had crept so
nearly into the core of western liberal democracies, including the United
States, that only the parasiteís host had fallen, while the parasite had
successfully migrated to fatter kine.[iv] 

What is this parasite?  There
are many ways that we might describe the corruption that lay at the heart of the
marxist regimes, but perhaps the most invidious aspect of Marxís doctrine of
historical materialism was its categorical refutation of the possibility of the res publica ñ that is, the reality of a true public and common
good in any of the arenas in which we traditionally observe politics. 
Marx wrote emphatically of the impossibility of community in general for
all men who had lived until the time he wrote and for most if not all who would
ever live.  What made community in
general impossible, in his analysis, is the view that what might be taken as the
differentiated dynamics of a single community constitute rather the inveterate
antagonisms of true enemies and not potential friends. 
The description of politics in Marx is a description of continuous
warfare, where the terms ìclassesî or ìsocial ordersî replace the terms
ìarmiesî and ìcommand and control.î[v] 

If we substitute the term, ìsocial groupsî for ìsocial orders,î I
think we can readily acknowledge that neither the capitalist nor the marxist
economic system has been able to create and sustain true peace and unity along
with prosperity.  Here in the U.S., and elsewhere throughout the world, an
active struggle among groups continues to characterize much of the social and
political dynamic. To the ages-old struggle among the classes, we have added a
myriad of new groups that insist on separateness, thereby fostering strife, and
in great measure placing the particular interests of a given group over the
general, public good. 

Nowhere is group membership more pronounced or more promoted than on our
college campuses, where the mantra of multiculturalism continues to be invoked
in the name of tolerance, enlightenment, and virtue. 
Student unions at campuses throughout the country accrue new associations
based on group membership the way ships accrue barnacles.  It no longer suffices to support a black student alliance, or
a center for hispanic students; universities must create centers for groups of
every nationality, ethnicity, race, religious belief, and sexual orientation. 
In the headlong rush to enunciate and celebrate the traditions,
preferences, and so-called rights of these many group affiliations, we lose
sight of transcendent human rights, shared needs, and the common good. 
We begin to deny even the possibility of the res
, a denial to which no milk-water civil religion could ever
constitute an adequate response. 

These ever-proliferating groups are only a modified and disguised version
of historical classes.  But what
matters is that they have become the motive force of the new equality, an
equality rather relative than moral, and which, above all, focuses on the
problem of race. 

Contemporary pluralism in the United States differs profoundly from the
first ideas of social organization that prevailed during the founding era. 
The original organization prescribed a political process meant to
ìharmonize, assimilate, and protectî the diverse interests or parties, which
constituted at least the thirteen member states of the American confederation
before 1789.  That is, the founders
strove to make one people out of many peoples (e
pluribus unum
).  Therefore, the
constitutional institutions were the appropriate response to the plurality of
views and ends to the exact extent that the Constitution wished to coordinate
them in some common view.  In
effect, a dynamic society passed through several stages to the end of attaining
ultimate unity.  Pluralism is one of
these stages.  For the Americans, it
was the authors of The Federalist who
had elaborated most fully the idea of unity in a free and republican nation ñ
the last stage of political development in a dynamic society. 

Contemporary pluralism, by contrast, values social differences and turns
these differences into forces hostile to the development of ultimate unity ñ
into forces that foment perpetual warfare and conflict.[vi] 

If this presence of warfare and conflict, this persisting invasion by a
parasite that feeds on envy and resentment and refutes the possibility of
attaining the res publica, this fostering of group rights over individual rights
ñ if these are all signs that we are not generating and sustaining a good
citizenry today, then we ought consider whether we have ever done so. 
Is the good citizen but a phantasm, an ideal toward which we may direct
our hopes and aspirations with no expectation that we would ever fully realize
this ideal? 

I think that there have been brief moments in the history of the United
States when good citizens have been generated and sustained. 
The chief such occasion was at the time of the founding of the nation. 
I know of no better way for us to seek to understand what the good
citizen is and to learn how to generate good citizens than by studying the
writings of the founders, particularly The
Federalist Papers.

The founders faced a number of conundrums even more challenging to the
formation of the nation than the military might of the British empire, which
they had successfully overthrown.  For
while it had long been thought that the good polity formed good citizens, many
of the founders ñ most notably Washington ñ understood that it is equally
and perhaps more true that good men form the good regime. 
It is a free people that that make this a free government and not the
reverse.  But where do we get a free
people that will make the government free?[vii] 
Washington was convinced that the foundation of a good polity was the
preference for justice over patriotism for souls forced to choose. 
He was, I think, correct; it is justice that vindicates patriotism,
rather than patriotism that produces justice.[viii] 

The genius of the founders was their ability to foster out of the diverse
interests of thirteen colonies a palpable sense of, and commitment to, a common
good, a shared interest, a holding the same things near and dear, sufficient to
create a new nation.  The founders
needed to form the good citizens at the same time that they sought to form an
entirely new regime ñ one in which the people would be fully and at all times
self-governing.  The undertaking was
all the more arduous, all the more daunting for the foundersí clear sense that
the success or failure of their endeavor would be regarded by the world not
merely as the outcome of an experiment by one group of men at one point in time,
but a real and significant test of whether such a regime were ever possible. 
You know what Publius wrote in the first paper: ìIt has frequently been
remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by
their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies
of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from
reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for the
political constitutions, on accident and force.î[ix] 

In order to create a new constitution, a new way of life, the citizens
needed to make a decision, a choice, that would be far more likely to be made by
a citizenry already knitted together by a shared way of life than by the
citizens of the confederated states, so cognizant of their diversity and so
zealous in guarding their liberty, which so many of them defined largely in
terms of freedom from government restraints. 
How were the founders able to accomplish this feat? 

A comprehensive answer to this question would take more than the space of
these brief remarks.  It might, in
fact, require a series of lectures, such as those that I delivered to teachers
in Louisiana and recapitulated in my book, The Federalist Papers: A
.  Today, I want only
to touch on what I think were the three overarching means that the Federalists
used to generate the good citizens, whom they expected (once constituted as a
citizenry) to approve a constitution that would then affirm, formalize, and
guide them as a nation.  Those means

A clear
and shared conception of what it would mean to be a good citizen in a democratic

stubborn conviction that imperfect men could and would form a more perfect
union; and,

consistent effort to encourage a fledgling people to pray to the same Solomon. 

Montesquieu ñ a philosopher whose writings
influenced both the Federalists and the Anti-federalists ñ correctly tells us
that ìvirtueî is the principle of republican government. 
He writes in Book 4, chapter 5 of The Spirit of the Laws: ìOne
can define this virtue as love of the laws and the fatherland. 
This love, requiring a continuous preference of the public interest over
oneís own, gives all the individual virtues; they are only that preference.î  [x] 
In his foreword to the 1757 edition, he added this statement about his
use of the term, ìvirtue:î 

For the intelligence of the first four books of this
work, it is necessary to observe that what I call virtue in the republic is love of the fatherland, that is to say,
love of equality.  It is neither a
moral virtue nor a Christian virtue; it is political
. . .   the good man
that is the question in Book 3, chapter 5, is not the Christian good man, but
the political good man . . .  It is
the man who loves the laws of his country and who acts from love of the laws of
his country.[xi] 

While I believe that Montesquieu is accurate in
naming virtue as the principle of a republican regime, I think he errs ñ or is
perhaps disingenuous ñ in distinguishing political virtue from moral virtue. 
My argument today is that they are, in fact, inseparable if not
identical.  Moreover, it appears
that the founders to significant extent treated political and moral virtue as
one and the same.  The good citizen is the good man. 

This daring affirmation surprises souls accustomed to
regard democracy as a compromise with merit and good faith. 
That perspective, however, fails to engage the conversation at the point
from which the founders set out; namely, the conviction that ìprivate
moralityî is the ìfoundation of national happiness,î to quote Washington.[xii]
It would be easy to cull from Washingtonís corpus an entire argument to
demonstrate that this conviction is the foundation of the confidence in public
opinion expressed most consummately in the Farewell
.  From his ready
assimilation of ìthe distinguished character of a Patriotî to the
ìdistinguished character of a Christianî[xiii]
in orders given at Valley Forge,  to
the carefully developed invitation to his fellow citizens to ìimitate the
Divine Author of our religionî early in the founding,[xiv]
to the argument advanced to Presbyterians that ìthe general prevalence of
piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economyî is ìparticularly
necessary for advancing and confirming the happinessî of the country, to the
first inaugural address, to his concluding insistence that ìreligion and
morality are the indispensable supports,Öthe firmest props of the duties of
Men and Citizens, one observes Washington developing an argument that responds
to the dramatic question he posed in the Farewell. 
ìCan it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of
a Nation with its Virtue?î

In sum, the founding depended upon goodness (which is
not to say perfection) in men to vindicate the founding itself. 
On the strength of that foundation they could entrust to public opinion
judgments upon which the fundamental justice of the society would rest. 
They were certain:  if folly
were not to rule in the democratic republic, it was not because ordinary human
beings were immune to folly; it were rather because ordinary human  beings with solid moral foundations were aided in resisting
folly.  What aided them? 
Their habits and their God! 

Why is this so? 
We can begin to answer this question by considering another: Why is it
that the idea of United States citizenship, without regard to community or
national origins, is intuitive to human beings around the world? 

The answer, I believe, is that American citizenship
is defined strictly in terms of those human characteristics and circumstances
that manifestly apply to all human beings. 
Because those terms, as suggested in the Declaration of Independence,
invoke human interests and ambitions as the basis of membership in a good
polity, it follows that wherever persons hope for the fulfillments to which
their individual interests and ambitions aspire, they will naturally regard
themselves as capable of American citizenship. 
This premise is the novus ordo
, a world in which persons can imagine ìmarrying themselves
abroadî without conceiving that to do so entails abandoning their dearest
attachments.    When
Aristotle identified intermarriage as the fundamental condition for unity in the
polis, he pointed beyond the immediate relationships among individuals to the
realms of human imagination.  In
that realm, what counts is the good that one can imagine for oneself. 
Whatever offers that prospect automatically becomes the standard of
individual decency and fulfillment. 

By holding out such a promise, the United States and
every similarly constituted republic makes a commitment beyond the limits of its
own territory.  That commitment is
to recognize and reward to the extent practicable the aspirations of human
beings who find in this promise cause for virtuous exertion. 
It is that condition of modernity which chiefly distinguishes it from the
ancient world.  One recalls Juba patterning himself upon the noble Cato.[xv] 
It might be thought that Juba wished to be Roman; in fact, he wished only
to be supremely human.  What is new is the ability persons now have to draw such
inspiration from the idea of citizenship in a free republic. 
It is a paradox of considerable complexity that what is held out to every
human being willy-nilly can still hold forth the prospect of excellence. 
There are many thoughtful critics who deny such a possibility a priori.  They do so,
in my view, in ignorance of the precise character of modern citizenship, which
hinges on the affirmation of the peopleís capacity for rule despite
long-standing doubts.[xvi] 

The Federalists were well aware of the long-standing
doubts about the capacity of any people, anywhere to be fully self-governing at
all times.  Yet, in the face of
these doubts and in full awareness that men are not angels, they firmly asserted
their conviction that such a government could and would be formed. 
Why is it that while acknowledging that the people are imperfect and that
their government is not able to make them virtuous and wise, the Federalists
nevertheless maintained that it would be wise and virtuous to construct such a

The argument, reduced to its sparest terms, is that
such a people rightly constituted would be persistently just — and improved by
their justice. 

The third and final mechanism that the Federalists
used to generate good citizens is one that I have already touched on in these
remarks ñ their consistent efforts to induce the fledging American people to
pray to the same Solomon.  The
essential task, at the founding, was to create a people who can be called
properly a people, who are sufficiently homogenous, sharing the same moral and
political principles and therefore able to work on the world stage as a single
people, rather than a heterogeneous collection of peoples with differing
interests.  Publius made it very
clear that any attempt to build a common life on the strength of differences
rather than the strength of similarities would fall prey ultimately to warfare.  There
is no middle ground on which we can preserve differences and still at the same
time expect peace to prevail.  Aware
of human ambition and the inclination to put self-interest above the public
good, the founders sought to insulate this characteristic in human beings by
teaching some set of human beings to hold the same things ìnear and dear.î 

The foundersí efforts to teach the people to pray
to the same Solomon were, I think, made a bit easier by the fact that all ñ or
virtually all ñ the people already believed in prayer and in the power of
religion to stabilize a nation.  Too
many people today, both in and outside elected office, believe that our
countryís promise of religious freedom means freedom from religion. 
It was not always so.  Tocqueville,
that keen analyst of the spring of the American way of life in the early and mid
19th century, wrote: 

Every American I meet, whether in
his country or elsewhere, I ask whether he believes that religion is useful for
the stability of the laws and the good order of society. 
Without hesitating he responds that a civilized society, and above all a
free society, cannot survive without religion. 
Respect for religion, in his eyes, is the greatest guarantee of the
stateís stability and the safety of individuals. 
The person least instructed in the science of government knows that much.[xvii]


My point, here, is partly to remind us that a people must share a belief
in principles of relationship independent of politics in order to make liberal
democracy work.  If one tries to
make politics the totality of the human experience and organizes politics on the
grounds of liberal democracy, one will produce moral chaos. 
One will leave people who require social and moral guidance without any
restraint or guidance.  They will see politics as the only instrument suited to the
pursuit of desire or ambition.  They
will turn all of their relationships and their differences into moments of
political contest and struggle.  Furthermore,
without these sorts of underlying principles, democracyís inherent potential
for corruption is left to develop unchecked, setting into motion leveling
influences that destroy the respect that human beings have for particular
excellences.  Thus, it leaves human
beings with nothing more to motivate their conduct than their own self-concern,
which expresses itself most powerfully in envy and resentment at all superior
endowments.  Without some sort of
underlying principles apart from politics, democracies tend toward a flattening
out of social distinction simultaneous with a heightening of ìevery the least
difference among men.î[xviii]


What set or sets of principles can adequately and reliably serve as the
moral foundation for liberal democracy?  It
may be that there are multiple possible answers to this question, and I invite
you to suggest some.  But for me ñ
and I think for the founders of our nation ñ there is no set of principles
that could serve this purpose more fully than those of Christianity, which is to
say the God of Israel become God of all.  And
so, my point is mainly to suggest that one of the best ways that we as a nation
might improve our work of generating, regenerating, and maintaining the good
citizen is by making greater and better use of the tools of religion to form the
good man.  It will be interesting to
observe whether the politicians who were willing, during the presidential
campaign, to affirm the centrality of religion to the American nation will
become the leaders able to demonstrate that conviction in how they govern.


Nor does it take much reflection to determine how this needs be done, for
there is no more compelling argument than the life of Jesus.  Renan to the contrary notwithstanding, I cannot conceive
anyone attentively listening to that story and not being convicted that God
strode among men and for their benefit, their salvation.  Nor is the evidence that of miracles, apart from the miracle
of the incarnation.  It is far
rather the very words, the claims, and deeds of Christ that recommend him to our
understanding beyond our ability to understand.  That is the sense in which the believer, seeking help to
remain steadfast and told to believe, could reply, ìLord, I believe; help thou
my unbelief.î


Everyone here today knows that if we can but be certain of the end toward
which we aim, we necessarily increase the odds that we will attain that end. 
And so, I will end these remarks by simply noting that the good man and
the good citizen each seek a common end, which is justice. 
Political philosophers from Socrates to Strauss have focussed on the
question of justice ñ how to define it, how to recognize it, how to create and
sustain it.  I find compelling
answers to this question in two works to which I return again and again ñ The Federalist Papers and the Bible. 
I will give the authors of these two works the last word this
afternoon and invite you to hear the similarity in the messages:


Madison offers us inspiration and guidance with these words: ìJustice
is the end of government.  It is the
end of civil society.  It ever has
been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in
the pursuit.î[xix]


We may expect that Madison did not stray far from Washingtonís teaching
in this paean to justice, a teaching that tied manís justice to Godís will. 
When Washington resigned in 1783 he had already made it clear that he
aimed to continue the effort to found a unified nation that could secure its
ìnational characterî into a remote futurity. 
Thus, it would not suffice for him to rule merely in his person. 
In phrasing his final prayer for his countrymen from Micah
6:8, so amended as to embrace the most extensive human ambition, Washington
projected the goal he aimed at:


[God] would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do justice, to love
mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of
mind, which were the characteristicks of the Divine author of our blessed
Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we
can never hope to be a happy nation.[xx]

imitatio dei converts Micahís humble
prayer (ìWhat does God ask of man, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to
walk humbly with your God?î) into an ambitious program to shape a
world-historical people.

[i] Cited by David Hartman, in
ìWhence Came the Transcendents,î Liberty: Manís Highest Political End; Graduate Essays on the Importance of Religion to a Free and Virtuous
, the 1993 Lord Acton Essay Competition, The Acton Institute,
Grand Rapids, MI, p.43.

[ii] Ibid., Collette Flood, in
ìTrue and False Freedom,î p. 22.

[iii] Hebrews,

[iv] Allen, W.B., The
Federalist Papers: A Commentary
.  New
York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Allen, W.B. ìEquality
and Right in the Contemporary World,î The Good Society: A PEGS Journal, vol. 9 no. 1, 1999, pp. 84-89.

[vii] The
Federalist Papers: A Commentary

[viii] Allen, W.B. 
ìThe Truth About Citizenship: An Outline.î 
Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law. 
vol. 4, 1996.

The Federalist Papers, no.

[x] Montesquieu, Charles de
Secondat, baron de, De líesprit des lois, (Paris: …dition Garnier FrËres,
1973). Book 4, chapter 5.  Translated
by Carol Allen.

[xi] Ibid.,

[xii] First Inaugural.

[xiii] ìGeneral Orders,î
May 2, 1778, delivered at Valley Forge: Washington instructed his officers
to attend religious worship.

[xiv] ìCircular Address to
the Governors of the Thirteen States,î June 14, 1783, in W. B. Allen, George
Washington: A Collection
(Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, Inc., 1988
[2d printing, 1991].

[xv] See Addison, Cato.

[xvi] ìThe Truth about

[xvii] Alexis de Tocqueville Líancien
regime et la rÈvolution
,  (Paris:
Gallimard, 1967), ed. J. P. Mayer, Liv. III, ch. 1. P. 248

[xviii] The
Federalist Papers: A Commentary
(citing John Locke, The
Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government
, p. 21).

[xix] The
no. 51 at 358 (James Madison) (Benjamin Fletcher Wright ed.,

Cf., ìCircular Address.î


© The Philadelphia Society 2024 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.