Prudence at the American Founding—and Today

July 1, 2009 | by | Topic: The Content of CharacterPrint Print

Will you be celebrating prudence this July 4th? Maybe you should. Or, at the least, it’s worth pausing to think about.

Prudence is a timeless virtue never more relevant than right now. And, as usual, the American Founders, in their timeless wisdom, understood its import. Kudos to Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel of the excellent group, Americans United for Life, for resurrecting the concept and sensing its vital need in today’s political landscape.

Forsythe has released a much-needed work, Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2009). Quoting great minds from Aristotle to Augustine to Aquinas, from Hamilton to Madison to Jefferson, from Lincoln to Wilberforce, Forsythe reminds us that we live in a fallen, imperfect world—comprised of fallen, imperfect men and women—and thus ought to expect fallen, imperfect results from our political system.

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But men aren’t angels, and neither are their governments.

Thus, the need for prudence—a word used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

Prudence is a cardinal virtue. It is concerned with right action, and requires deliberation, judgment, decision, and execution. Forsythe draws a distinction between prudence and wisdom: While wisdom “understands what is right,” prudence involves making the right decisions, “with moral purpose,” and implementing those decisions well. Indeed, acting prudently allows other virtues to take place. It is no coincidence that prudence is a cardinal virtue, since the word cardinal derives from the Greek word for “hinge.” The cardinal virtues are those on which the other virtues hinge.

It is also no coincidence, adds Forsythe, that virtually every American Founder wrote on the importance of virtue in a republic: Jefferson, Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, James Wilson. At the Virginia constitutional ratification convention, Madison declared, “If there be … [no virtue among us], we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure.”

But while the citizenry must strive to be virtuous, we must realize that a perfectly virtuous republic is impossible. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65:

If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government, until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy, and the world a desert. Where is the standard of perfection to be found? Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of the whole community in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his infallible criterion for the fallible criterion of his more conceited neighbor?

America will never be, and can never be, perfect—and ditto for its politicians. The sooner we Americans—especially conservatives—come to that realization, the better off we will be, and much less frustrated. Forget about finding “perfect” political candidates; they do not exist in this world. Leave utopia to the secular left.

The Founders grasped this, which is why they established a system of checks and balances and separation of power.

Over 230 years later, this enduring insight is badly needed, particularly for conservatives dispirited to the point of depression over the November 2008 election. For me personally, it has been difficult to watch voters elect a president and Congress with whom they largely disagree ideologically. There was little sense in the way the public voted. Poll after poll continue to show that Americans call themselves “conservative” rather than “liberal” by margins of two-to-one, and yet they elected the most leftist federal government in the nation’s history, from President Barack Obama to the Congressional leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Why? How? Because we live in that fallen world of fallen people—from politicians to those who elect the politicians. We should hope for the best but not expect the best, and should never place our happiness in politics.

Clarke Forsythe directed his book at these frustrations. As he notes, “the ideal is not possible,” and frustration will be the norm. Achieving meaningful change means accepting that “political change usually comes slowly in a democracy;” it often comes incrementally. Forsythe wants conservatives—especially in the pro-life movement—to grasp this. In doing so, he says, “I hope to encourage citizens and activists to persevere in politics and public policy.” Our aim in politics, he writes, “is not the perfect good but the greatest good possible.”

The Founders understood this. We need to understand it. To cite a couple of other virtues, that’s our hope, and that’s where we should place our faith. Prudence dictates it.

Paul G. Kengor

Paul G. Kengor

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.

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