The Golden Triangle of Freedom

Imagine leadership without character, business without ethics and science without human values—in short, freedom without virtue. Os Guinness argues that while the laws of the land may provide external restraints on behavior, freedom requires virtue, which in turn requires faith.

Taken from A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness. Copyright(c) 2012 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

I am always intrigued by how few Americans know the account of what has been called the most important unknown moment in American history and the single most important gathering ever held in the United States: the incident in which America’s most noble Cincinnatus refused the title of “George I of the United States” offered him by the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York, toward the close of the Revolutionary War.

After the decisive victory over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, the army had moved into quarters near Newburgh to wait for the peace settlement. But without the war to concentrate on, various states had failed to meet their obligations to the army, and the Continental Congress had grown remiss in paying the soldiers to whom it owed its success. In many cases payments were years in arrears, pensions were in question altogether, and the soldiers feared that Congress would simply disband the army and default on its promises. Not surprisingly, the camp had become a breeding ground for bitterness in which talk of treason and sedition was rife.

In short, in 1782 the American Revolution had reached the stage characteristic of many republics and revolutions at which a dangerous vacuum of power had built up. The obvious way forward was for a strong man to step in and stop the slide toward chaos by wresting the situation to his will—as Julius Caesar did in Rome, Cromwell in England, Robespierre

in France and Lenin in Russia.

All those men did, but not George Washington. Letters and signed and unsigned papers began to circulate through the camp, stirring the restless dissatisfaction, as did whispering that the only solution to the “weakness of republicks” was a military dictatorship and that there was only one man fit for such rule.

But the first commander in chief would have none of it. When one of his own officers, Lewis Nicola, wrote to him saying that they would be better off with him as king, he flatly turned the thought aside: “Be assured, Sir, no occurrence in course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army as you have expressed.”1

Yet the angry talk swirled around Washington unabated, and the festering mutiny came to a head on March 15, 1783, when the general surprised the conspirators by entering their officers’ assembly and urging them strongly to turn back from such folly. Using three different lines of argument, he hit a brick wall each time and ended looking out on faces as stony and unresponsive as when he began. But then, just when it looked as if he had failed, he tried to read a letter from a Virginia congressman and fumbled for a pair of spectacles no one had ever seen him wear before—“Gentlemen,” their fifty-one-year-old leader said wearily after eight years in the field, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”2

Whether spontaneous or contrived, Washington’s simple symbolic act accomplished in a second what all his arguments had failed to do, and there was hardly a dry eye as the general walked out of the tent, mounted his horse and rode away. As Major Samuel Shaw reported at the time, “There was something so natural, so unaffected, in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory.” The incident was a non-event that was more decisive than most events. The American Revolution would not go the way of other revolutions. Washington was as victorious over the temptation to Caesarism at Newburgh as he had been over the British at Yorktown.3


George Washington truly was “the indispensable man” of the American Revolution, as historian James Flexner described him, and he was so by force of his character rather than his ideas or his eloquence. In this and other similar incidents, he was a one-man check and balance on the abuse of power, and decisively so well before the Constitution framed the principle in law.

Earlier Montesquieu had underscored the rarity and importance of such moderation in leaders: “Great men who are moderate are rare: & it is always easier to follow one’s impulse than to arrest it... it is a thousand times easier to do good than to do it well.”4 Jefferson wrote in the same vein, “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that Liberty it was meant to establish.”5 Similarly, Abraham Lincoln wrote later, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man, give him power.”6

Even Washington’s adversary George III was impressed.When his royal portrait painter, Jonathan Trumbull, told the king that Washington intended to retire to his farm after the Revolutionary War was over, he was surprised. “If he does that,” the king remarked—and Washington went on to do it not once but twice—“he will be the greatest man in the world.”7

Such heroic character shone brighter still when Washington became the first president. Then when he retired and died soon after, the tributes soared higher and higher until he was first elevated into the Moses who had led his people out of bondage and then—in “the apotheosis of Washington”—divinized as the creator, savior and father of his people. In the more straightforward words of Congressman Henry Lee at his memorial service, he was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”8 Far more, John Adams added, “For his fellow citizens, if their prayers could have been answered, he would have been immortal.”9

Excessive adulation of this sort, and the impulses toward a powerful civil religion that lay behind it, are rightly suspect today. But those who are zealous in debunking them often go to the other extreme and miss their real significance. For the founders, Washington’s exemplary character was not just the happy fluke of an exceptional individual at an opportune moment or even the social product of a young nation’s subconscious search for a center of national unity to replace an overthrown king. Its significance was at once simpler and more profound: character, virtue and trust were a vital part of the founders’ notion of ordered liberty and sustainable freedom.


Two things have consistently surprised me in my years in the United States: that the sole American answer to how freedom can be sustained is the Constitution and its separation of powers and that the rest of the founders’ solution is now almost

completely ignored.

It was not always so. Historians point out that the modern elevation of the Constitution as the sole foundation and bulwark of American freedom reached its present height in the 1930s. That was no accident. Significantly, it came right on the heels of a general secularization of American law that has led in turn to a general legislation of American life. The preceding decades were the time when legal contracts were strengthened and sharpened to take the place of weakening moral considerations such as character and trust (the “my word is my bond” of an earlier time).

Significantly the elevation of the Constitution also came after long periods of surprising earlier neglect. Michael Kammen has even written of the recent “cult of the Constitution” and of “the discovery of the Bill of Rights.” The motto of the American Liberty League in 1936 stated this elevated view beyond doubt: “The Constitution, Fortress of Liberty.”

I have no quarrel with that tribute, but its timing and its context are revealing. The U.S. Constitution and all legal contracts were elevated at the very moment when faith, character, virtue and trust began to be denigrated and relegated to the private sphere. The framers’ famous separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary is unquestionably distinctive and fundamental to the American vision of enduring freedom. But as an answer to how freedom must be sustained, it is neither an original solution nor the founders’ complete solution.

For one thing, even the separation of powers was once far stronger than it is today. It originally included a robust view of the rights and powers of local government to balance the power of the states and of the rights and powers of the states to balance the rights and powers of the federal government. Tocqueville saw the first of these as the seedbed of American freedom and Alexander Hamilton praised the second as “a double security to the people.”10 Needless to say, this entire dimension has been seriously emasculated, starting with responses to the Civil War and accelerating through the deliberate centralization of government under the Progressives and the Depression era leaders—and climaxing in the last decade.

All in all, this radical loss of local American self-government and the unchecked growth of centralized federal government has been the result of three things: the old evils such as slavery and the new dangers such as terrorism that made it necessary; the new technologies and procedures such as computerized bureaucracy that made it possible; and the new ideologies such as progressivism that made it desirable. The Fourteenth Amendment and its consequences, for example, were the steep but understandable price of rectifying the Constitution’s greatest flaw: the blind eye turned toward slavery. To be sure, the federalizing trend was therefore necessary and inevitable, but the lack of a careful, compensating devolution to restore the balance of individual self-reliance and local self-government is inexcusable. And the result is inescapable: the full system of checks and balances that the founders designed has gone.

For another thing, as I have repeated so often because it is even more often ignored, the great European commentators stressed that freedom in modern societies must be maintained and assessed at two levels, not just one: at the level of the Constitution and the structures of liberty, and at the level of the citizens and the spirit of liberty. Focusing solely on the separation of powers at the level of the Constitution is sobering enough, but it misses an equally important slippage at the level of citizens.

The framers also held that, though the Constitution’s barriers against the abuse of power are indispensable, they were only “parchment barriers” and therefore could never be more than part of the answer. And in some ways they were the secondary part at that. The U.S. Constitution was never meant to be the sole bulwark of freedom, let alone a self perpetuating machine that would go by itself. The American founders were not, in Joseph de Maistre’s words, “poor men who imagine that nations can be constituted with ink.”11 Without strong ethics to support them, the best laws and the strongest institutions would only be ropes of sand.

Jefferson even argued with Madison, who strongly disagreed with him, that because the earth belongs to the living, “no society can make a perpetual constitution... Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”12

More importantly, as Judge Learned Hand declared to new American citizens in Central Park, New York, in 1944: “The Spirit of Liberty” is not to be found in courts, laws and constitutions alone. “Liberty lives in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to save it. While it lives there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”13 The nation’s structures of liberty must always be balanced by the spirit of liberty, and the laws of the land by the habits of the heart.

All of which means there is a deep irony in play today. Many educated people who scorn religious fundamentalism are hard at work creating a constitutional fundamentalism, though with lawyers and judges instead of rabbis, priests and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical. But unlike the better angels of religious fundamentalism, constitutional fundamentalism has no recourse to a divine spirit to rescue it from power games, casuistry legalism, litigiousness—and, eventually, calcification and death.

So reliance on the Constitution alone and on structures and laws alone is folly. But worse, the forgotten part of the framers’ answer is so central, clear and powerful that to ignore it is either willful or negligent. What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of ordered liberty. Tocqueville called it “the habits of the heart,” and I call it “the golden triangle of freedom”—the cultivation and transmission of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, which in turn requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom and so on, like the recycling triangle, ad infinitum.

In short, sustainable freedom depends on the character of the rulers and the ruled alike, and on the vital trust between them—both of which are far more than a matter of law. The Constitution, which is the foundational law of the land, should be supported and sustained by the faith, character and virtue of the entire citizenry, which comprises its moral constitution, or habits of the heart. Together with the Constitution, these habits of the heart are the real, complete and essential bulwark of American liberty. A republic grounded only in a consensus forged of calculation and competing self-interests can never last.


Before we go a sentence farther, let me be absolutely plain. It would be a cardinal error not to recognize the originality of the modern liberal republicanism of the majority of the American founders and its crucial difference from two other positions: the classical republicanism of Greece and Rome and the republicanism of the so-called “devils party” led by Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and others.

The founders’ position was a significant advance on the earlier conception of the relationship between freedom and virtue…. Put differently, between the old orders of Athens, Sparta and Rome, and the new order of the ages wrought in Philadelphia lay not only two millennia in time but a chasm in thinking led by such revolutionaries as Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon and Hobbes. Among many differences, one is striking above all. Whereas liberty for the Greeks and the Romans was supremely a matter of political reason, virtue and what they did in public life, for modern people it is also and even more a matter of what is done in private life, and there is less place for public reason and the common good, and none at all for virtue...

Americans today have gone to the opposite extreme … and one that the founders disapproved of equally. If reliance on virtue alone is an unrealistic way to sustain freedom, so also is reliance on a constitutional separation of powers alone. If liberty is to endure, the twin bulwarks of the Constitution and the golden triangle of freedom must both play their part. To replace “virtue alone” with “no virtue at all” is madness, and what the Wall Street crisis showed about unfettered capitalism could soon be America’s crisis played out on an even more gigantic screen. Leadership without character, business without ethics and science without human values—in short, freedom without virtue—will bring the republic to its knees...


But who today acknowledges the gorilla in the room? Read the speeches and writings of the American founders on freedom, virtue and faith, and it is impossible not to notice a body of teaching that is clear, strong and central—themes that, as historian Bernard Bailyn observes, are “discussed endlessly, almost obsessively, in their political writings.”14 Yet somehow these themes are ignored today in the terms in which they were written. For, needless to say, the framers’ position raises hackles in many circles, as will the present argument unless considered without prejudice.

For a start, the golden triangle links freedom directly to virtue. In a society as diverse as today’s, that raises the question “Whose virtue?” and in an age that prizes toleration, it raises the specter of virtuecrats itching to impose their values on others. Worse still, the golden triangle links freedom indirectly to faith. I would soften that to a “faith of some sort,” and broaden it to include naturalistic faiths, but it still prompts a barrage of instant dismissals that blows dust in the eyes of anyone trying to take freedom and the founders seriously...


...Beyond any question, the way the American founders consistently linked faith and freedom, republicanism and religion, was not only deliberate and thoughtful, it was also surprising and anything but routine. In this view, the to rest on the self-government of free citizens, for only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or a dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self-control, training and discipline, not self-indulgence.

The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behavior, but the secret of freedom is what Englishman Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable,”15 which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith…. Tocqueville emphatically agreed. His objective in writing Democracy in America was not to turn Frenchmen into Americans, for liberty should take many forms. “My purpose has rather been to demonstrate, using the American example, that their laws and, above all, their manners can permit a democratic people to remain free.”16

…But that said, the golden triangle of freedom must be stated with great care. For a start, the word requires in “freedom requires virtue, which requires faith” does not mean a legal or constitutional requirement. The First Amendment flatly and finally prohibits the federal government from requiring faith in any established way. But a proper and positive understanding of disestablishment leads directly to the heart of the framers’ audacity: the American republic simultaneously rests on ultimate beliefs—for otherwise Americans have no right to the rights by which they thrive—yet rejects any official, orthodox formulation of what those beliefs should be. The republic will always remain an undecided experiment that stands or falls by the dynamism of its entirely voluntary, non-established faiths.

Also, the framers did not believe that the golden triangle was sufficient by itself to sustain freedom without the complementary safeguard of the constitutional separation of powers. That fallacy dogged many classical republics—they trusted too naively in virtue. As Madison warned, faith, character and virtue were necessary but not sufficient in themselves to restrain a majority from overriding the rights of a minority.

What motives are to restrain them? A prudent regard to the maxim, that honesty is the best policy, is found by experience to be as little regarded by bodies of men as by individuals. Respect for character is always diminished in proportion to the number among whom the blame or praise is to be divided. Conscience, the only remaining tie, is known to be inadequate in individuals; in large numbers little is to be expected of it.17

Faith, character and virtue were necessary and decisive, but never sufficient by themselves. They must be balanced by the immovable bulwark of constitutional rights, especially for those in the minority.

Above all, the point must be guarded from a simple misunderstanding. The framers’ near unanimity about the golden triangle of freedom did not mean that they were all people of faith or that they all agreed about the best way to relate religion and public life or that they were individually paragons of whatever faith and virtue they did espouse. In the language of Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 51, they were “men rather than angels.”

For a start, the framers demonstrated a wide spectrum of personal beliefs. Most were regular churchgoers, for whatever motive, but they ranged from orthodox Christians such as John Jay and George Mason to deists such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to freethinkers such as Benjamin Franklin.

In addition, the framers argued for different views of religion and public life, ranging from Patrick Henry’s bill to support all churches to Jefferson’s restatement of Roger Williams’s “wall of separation.” And as I stressed earlier, it is beyond question that several of them were distinguished for their vices and hypocrisies as well as for their virtues.


Yet for all these differences, inconsistencies and hypocrisies, the framers consistently taught the importance of virtue for sustaining freedom, which is the first leg of the golden triangle: freedom requires virtue….

Benjamin Franklin made a terse statement: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”18 Or as he stated it negatively in his famous maxims: “No longer virtuous, no longer free; is a maxim as true with regard to a private person as a Commonwealth.”19

“Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty . . . ,” John Adams wrote to his cousin Zabdiel in 1776. “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may exchange their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty.”20 Or as he wrote to Mercy Otis Warren the same year, “Public virtue cannot exist without private, and public Virtue is the only foundation of Republics.” If the success of the revolution were to be called into question, it was “not for Want of Power or of Wisdom, but of Virtue.”21

A key article in the influential Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 explicitly denies that “free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.” New Hampshire went further, substituting for “virtue” “all the social virtues.”22

As these quotations show, evidence for the first leg of the golden triangle is profuse—so much so that it is tempting to reach for one of the multitude of “quote books” that form part of the arsenals on either side of the culture wars. In contrast, works such as Edwin Gaustad’s Faith of the Founders or James Hutson’s The Founders on Religion establish the claim beyond argument but with the solid reliability of distinguished historians.23


Let me underscore the significance of the founders’ arguments. They deserve deeper thought because they stand out so sharply from much opinion today. First, the reason for the need for virtue is simple and incontrovertible. Only virtue can supply the self-restraint that is the indispensable requirement for liberty. Unrestrained freedom undermines freedom, but any other form of restraint on freedom eventually becomes a contradiction of freedom. For Burke, this was the dangerous irresponsibility of the French freethinkers: “They explode or render odious or contemptible that class of virtues which restrain the appetites.”24

Second, the founders went beyond broad general statements on the importance of virtue to quite specific applications, such as the need to integrate virtue in both private and public life. “The foundations of our National policy,” George Washington wrote in 1783, “will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality” (a phrase repeated word for word in his first inaugural address in 1789).25 “The foundation of national morality,” John Adams wrote similarly, “must be laid in private families.”26

This tirelessly repeated conviction lay behind the framers’ insistence on the importance of character in leadership. The golden triangle challenges the rulers as much as the ruled. In his “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” John Adams directly addressed the issue of preserving liberty. He concluded that the people “have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge— I mean of the characters and conduct of their leaders.”27 Note the astonishing string of words that today would be naturally associated with terms such as freedom and rights, but which Adams applies to the citizens’ right to know the character of their leaders.

Were the framers correct that character counts in leadership? One party in today’s debate would dismiss their concern summarily. In a day when followers are obsessed with rights and leaders with powers and privileges, mention of virtues is irksome. And with religion widely “privatized” and the public square increasingly considered the realm of processes and procedures rather than principles, character and virtue are often dismissed as private issues. In the run-up to President Clinton’s impeachment, for example, educated opinion was vociferous that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. For all that many scholars cared, the president might have had the morals of an alley cat, but however shameless he was, his character was a purely private issue. What mattered in public was competence, not character.

But there is another party in the debate, one taught by history and experience to prize the place of character in leadership. Montesquieu even claimed that “bad examples can be worse than crimes,” for “more states have perished because of a violation of their mores than because of a violation of the Laws.”28

The story of the American presidency could teach this lesson by itself. “The destruction of a city comes from great men,” Solon warned the Greeks. “It’s not easy for one who flies too high to control himself.”29 “The passions of princes are restrained only by exhaustion,” Frederick the Great remarked cynically about absolute monarchs. “Integrity has no need of rules,” Albert Camus wrote more positively, and its converse is that no amount of laws and regulations can make up for lack of integrity in a leader.30

George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson, looked back on his experience close to the Oval Office: “In the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations... Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from within the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the actions of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”31

One of the strongest but strangest endorsements of the importance of character comes from Richard Nixon. C.Q. (Character Quotient), he claimed, was just as important as I.Q. in political leadership and in choosing personnel.32 Ironically, no one need look further than his own administration for graphic illustrations of his point. Led by Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, not to mention the president himself, the towering egos, prickly vanities, bitter jealousies, chronic insecurities and poisonous backbiting of his White House virtuosi were a major factor in the tragedy of his undoing.

Character is far from a cliché or a matter of hollow civic piety. Nor is it a purely private matter, as many claimed in the scandal over Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. History shows that character in leaders is crucially important. Externally, character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides the leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean that there are no other limitations. Watching and emulating the character of leaders is a vital classroom in the schooling of citizens. “In the long run,” James Q. Wilson concluded, “the public interest depends on private virtue.”33

Whatever position one takes on the issue, it would be rash to dismiss the framers’ position as empty rhetoric—not least because the framers expressly denied that it was. “This is not Cant,” John Adams wrote to the same cousin, commending his teaching of virtue, “but the real sentiment of my heart.”34 That freedom required virtue, they believed, was a matter of political realism and a serious part of the new science of politics.


Third, the framers’ conviction about freedom’s need for virtue is part of their engagement with the great conversation that runs down the centuries from the Bible and the classical writers of Greece and Rome. To dismiss their point without realizing why and how they entered the conversation would be presumptuous, and to pretend today that we have no need for the wisdom of the great conversation would be foolish. For example, in May 1776, when John Witherspoon, president of Princeton and the “great teacher of the revolution,” preached his landmark sermon on the eve of the revolution, he openly addresses the classical concern we saw in the previous chapter: the corruption of customs and the passing of time—both of which for him are the product of sin and the corruption of human nature.

In his support of the coming revolution, Witherspoon was bold and unequivocal: “I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”35

But as the only minister who was to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon was no jingoistic cleric indiscriminatingly sprinkling holy water on the muskets on the eve of battle. Instead he looked ahead to the moment after the euphoria of victory when citizens should appreciate the need for “national character and manners.” Nothing is more certain, he warned, than that a corruption of manners would make a people ripe for destruction, and laws alone would not hold things together for long. “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery will ensue.”36 The golden triangle was not sufficient, but it was necessary.

George Washington’s “Farewell Address” in 1796 engages the same conversation. Whether original to him or the work of Alexander Hamilton, his point is unmistakable: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.”37

Supports, pillars, props, foundations, wellsprings—Washington’s choice of words tells the story by itself of how freedom requires virtue. But he too was aware of the classical understanding of decline and fall, and he addressed it directly even at that dawn-fresh moment in the new republic. “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?” he asked rhetorically. To achieve such “permanent felicity,” or Adams’s “lasting liberty,” he counseled them as “an old and affectionate friend” that they would need virtue to “control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our Nation from running the course which has hither to marked the Destiny of Nations.”38

If being a “nation of nations” means that Americans should have a wiser perspective on the wider world, then being the latest in the grand succession of superpowers means that Americans should also have a “history of histories” to offer a wiser perspective on the long reaches of time.

When Tocqueville came to write about America, he knew it would be difficult to rally his fellow Frenchmen to such an idea, but he would try nonetheless. As he wrote to Eugene Stoffels, a friend, “To persuade men that respect for the laws of God and man is the best means of remaining free . . . you say, cannot be done. I too am tempted to think so. But the thing is true all the same, and I will try to say so at all costs.”39

By design or by neglect, Americans continue that great conversation today, and it would be the height of folly to pretend otherwise, which is precisely why it is easy for a visitor to enter these debates today, for they are not unique to Americans.


Fourth, the framers’ insistence on the importance of virtue for freedom puts them squarely against much modern thinking in the debate between negative freedom, or freedom from interference, and positive freedom, or freedom for excellence. As we saw in chapter two, the American Revolution was unashamedly a struggle to gain negative freedom. Quite simply, the Declaration of Independence is the grandest and most influential statement of freedom from interference in history. But unlike many modern citizens, the founders did not stop there. They were equally committed to the complementary importance of freedom for excellence. Their aim, as we saw, was liberty and not just independence.

In other words, the founders held that not just individuals but the republic itself had an ongoing interest in the virtue of the citizenry. Private virtue was a public interest, not only for leaders but for everyone, and this was a prime motive in the rise of the common schools and the place of public education. Article III of the Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Confederation Congress and affirmed by the First Congress under the Constitution, stated plainly at the outset: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall for ever be encouraged.”

…That freedom requires virtue, then, is the first leg of the golden triangle.


If the framers’ position on virtue is suspect today and needs to pass through stringent intellectual security checks, how much more so their views on religion. Indeed, they are an open battleground, and all the earlier qualifications about virtue need to be underscored once again, and others added (the founders were not all people of faith; they had very different views of the relationship of religion and public life, for example). Yet the overall evidence for what they argued is again massive and unambiguous, even from some of the more unlikely sources such as Jefferson and Paine: the founders believed that if freedom requires virtue, virtue in turn requires faith (of some sort).

“If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion,” Benjamin Franklin said, “what would they be without it?”40
“It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being,” George Washington wrote, “and it is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.”41
“We have no government armed with powers capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion,” John Adams wrote. “Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”42
“Should our Republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance,” John Jay wrote about the importance of faith for virtue, “men are certain to shed their responsibilities for licentiousness and this great experiment will surely be doomed.”43
“The only surety for a permanent foundation of virtue is religion,”Abigail Adams wrote. “Let this important truth be engraved upon your heart.”44
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure,”Thomas Jefferson wrote, “when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are violated but with his wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep for ever.” 45
“Is there no virtue among us?” James Madison asked. “If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks— no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government can secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” 46
“The wise politician,”Alexander Hamilton wrote, “knows that morality overthrown (and morality must fall with religion), the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man, and confine him within the bounds of social duty.”47

Did this emphasis on religion mean that the framers were arguing for an official “Christian America”? Not at all. Unquestionably most Americans at the time of the revolution were either Christians or from a Christian background, and most American ideas were directly or indirectly rooted in the Jewish and Christian faiths. Thus even Franklin as a freethinker, writing to Ezra Stiles in 1790, made clear that he would never become a Christian, yet stated this: “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see.”48

But the historical and statistical importance of the Christian faith in 1776 did not for a moment translate into any official position for the Christian faith or for any notion of a “Christian nation.”

…The First Amendment, on the one hand, barred any official national establishment of religion, and over the next decades the States slowly came into line until the last establishment had gone. On the other hand, many of the framers, like President Eisenhower in the 1950s, spoke of religion in generic rather than specific terms, and they advocated religion only for secular or utilitarian reasons that the Romans understood well and on which Edward Gibbon commented famously. Religion, at the very least, was the sole force capable of fostering the virtue and restraining the vice necessary for the health of the republic...


Did this emphasis on religion mean that the framers did not grant freedom of conscience to atheists or that they thought atheists would not be good citizens? Again, emphatically not. In addition to the First Amendment, the Constitution itself required that there be no religious test for office in the United States. Properly speaking, atheism (or secularism as a practical form of atheism) is itself a worldview or form of faith, though expressly naturalistic and nonsupernatural. But regardless of philosophical niceties, the framers were emphatic that the right of freedom of conscience, or religious liberty, was absolute, unconditional and a matter of equality for all.

As early as 1644, Roger Williams had staked out the radical position in “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution” that freedom of conscience, or “soul freedom,” meant “a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries.”49 A century and a half later, the same note of universality and equality rings out clearly in 1785 in Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance”: “Above all are they to be considered as retaining an ‘equal to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of conscience.’”50 John Adams wrote unequivocally to his son, “Government has no Right to hurt a hair of the head of an Atheist for his Opinions.”51

It must be added, however, that like Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers who disdained religion, the founders were less sanguine about the consequences of a government of atheists or a society of atheists. “It would be better far,” John Adams wrote, “to turn back to the gods of the Greeks than to endure a government of atheists.”

Secularists, of course, are free to counter the founders’ misgivings by demonstrating their capacity to build an enduring, nationwide foundation for the virtues needed for American republic on entirely secular grounds, grounds that need no place at all for religious beliefs. Thoughtful atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, have stated this claim boldly in theory, but its challenge remains to be picked up in practice. The plain fact is that no free and lasting civilization anywhere in history has so far been built on atheist foundations. At the very least, it would be a welcome change for secularists to shift from their strident attacks on religiously based virtues to building their own replacements and attempting to persuade a majority of their fellow citizens of their merits.

What are we to make of the founders’ misgivings about a society of atheists? Is it an inconsistency or a form of hypocrisy or perhaps even an egregious contradiction like their views of slavery? Were they simply reacting to the excesses of the French Revolution? There was certainly an element of the latter. Washington referred delicately in his “Farewell Address” to the malign influence of “refined education on minds of peculiar structure,” and Hamilton blasted the French radicals more openly. “The attempt by the rulers of a nation to destroy all religious opinion, and pervert a whole people to Atheism,” he wrote, “is a phenomenon of profligacy reserved to consummate the infamy of the unbridled reformers of France!”52

But the founders’ position was far more thoughtful than just a reaction. They were convinced that only faiths that (in modern parlance) were thick rather than thin would have the power to promote and protect virtue. After all, raise such questions as “Why be virtuous? “What is virtue?” and “What happens if someone is not virtuous?” and anyone can see the faiths have more to say about the inspiration, content and sanctions for virtue than any other form of human thought—and that is certainly so for the overwhelming majority of people outside the circles of higher education.

Needless to say, individual atheists and secularists can be virtuous too—far more so in some cases than many religious believers. But the political question is whether atheism and secularism can provide a sufficient foundation to foster the needed virtues of the wider citizenry over the course of the running generations. This task waits to be demonstrated...


Needless to say, the third leg of the golden triangle is the most radical, and if the first two legs challenge the unexamined assumptions of many liberals today, the third does the same for many conservatives: faith requires freedom.

Nothing, absolutely nothing in the American experiment is more revolutionary, unique and decisive than the first sixteen words of the First Amendment that are the “Religious Liberty Clauses.” At one stroke, what Marx called “the flowers on the chains” and Lord Acton the “gilded crutch of absolutism” was stripped away.53 The persecution that Roger Williams called “spiritual rape” and a “soul yoke” and that Lord Acton called “spiritual murder” was prohibited.54 The burden of centuries of oppression was lifted; what Williams lamented as “the rivers of civil blood” spilled by faulty relations between religion and government were staunched; and faith was put on its free and fundamental human footing as “soul freedom”—Williams’s term for what was a matter of individual conscience and uncoerced freedom. The Williamsburg Charter, a celebration of the genius of the First Amendment on the occasion of its two hundredth anniversary, summarized the public aspect of this stunning achievement:

No longer can sword, purse, and sacred mantle be equated. Now, the government is barred from using religion’s mantle to become a confessional State, and from allowing religion to use the government’s sword and purse to become a coercing Church. In this new order, the freedom of the government from religious control and the freedom of religion from government control are a double guarantee of the protection of rights. No faith is preferred or prohibited, for where there is no state-definable orthodoxy, there can be no state-definable heresy.55

The First Amendment was of course no bolt out of the blue. It was the crowning achievement of the long, slow, tortuous path to religious liberty that grew out of the horrors of the Wars of Religion and the daring bravery of thinkers such as Roger Williams, William Penn, John Leland, Isaac Backus, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the Culpeper Baptists and many others.

Many of the great peaks of the story of religious freedom and many of the greatest protagonists of religious liberty lie in the terrain of American history. In the “argument between friends,” for example, the maverick dissenter Roger Williams clashed with the orthodox John Cotton of Boston in challenging the notion of “the uniformity of religion in a civil state” and the “doctrine of persecution” that inevitably accompanied it. This pernicious doctrine, he said, “is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.” In its place, he asserted, “it is the will and command of God that ... a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all countries: and that they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s spirit, the Word of God.”56

Almost like an echo, Madison rang out the same themes in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” protesting against Patrick Henry’s proposal to levy a religion tax that everybody could earmark for the church of his or her choice. No, the little man with the quiet voice protested, hammering home point after point with precision as well as force, that this was absolutely wrong and there was a better way. Among the highlights of Madison’s historic protest are the following:

First, the principle of religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, is foundational and inviolable: “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. . . . This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”57

Second, understanding that the flower is present in the seed and the greatest problems start with the smallest beginnings, “it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.” Even a minute tax of three-pence on behalf of religion should be enough to sound the alarm: “Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree.”

Third, the principle that rights are both inalienable and equal operates like the Golden Rule for religious liberty, “while we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

Fourth, it is both wrong and foolish to think “that the Civil Magistrate is a competent judge of Religious truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy.”(Or as Pastor John Leland wrote tartly, “If government can answer for individuals on the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let men be free.”58)

Fifth, the Christian faith needs no government support. To say that it does is “a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself; for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world.”

Sixth, establishing religion is disastrous for the church. “What have been its fruit? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”

Seventh, established religions are bad for civil government. “In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instances have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.”

Eighth, any establishment of religion departs from the generous American policy of“offering asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion” and thus lights “a Beacon on our coasts warning [the asylum seeker] to seek some other haven, where liberty and philanthropy in their due extent may offer a more certain repose from his troubles.”

Ninth, failure to guarantee religious liberty for all destroys the “moderation and harmony” of“the true remedy”that the United States has brought to an issue that elsewhere has spilt“torrents of blood.”

All these principles are as fresh today as when Madison wrote them. Freedom of conscience, for example, is the best single antidote to the radical extremism of certain Muslims, as it is to the state-favored secularism of the European Union and as it is to the illiberalism of American legal secularism. Coercion and compulsion from one side and exclusion from the public square from the other contradict conscience, and therefore freedom, at its core.

Without coming to grips with freedom of conscience, Islam cannot modernize peacefully, Europe cannot advance freely and America will never fulfill the promise of its great experiment in freedom. The present liberal reliance on such purely negative notions as hate speech and hate crimes is both inadequate and foolish, and can even be dangerous. Without acknowledging the cornerstone place of religious liberty, Europe will not be able to accommodate both liberty and cultural diversity; Muslims will not be able to maintain the integrity of their own faith under the conditions of modernity, let alone learn to live peacefully with others; and America will never create the truly civil and cosmopolitan public square that the world requires today.5

Os Guinness is senior fellow of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

1Carol Berkin, “George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy,” in I Wish I Had Been There, ed. Byron Hollenshead (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 38.

2William Safire, ed., Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York: Norton, 1997), 96.

3Berkin, “George Washington,” 49.

4Montesqieu The Spirit of Laws 6.28.41.

5Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to George Washington,” 16 April 1784, in The Papers of Thomas Je erson, vol. 18:4, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 397.

6Ashton Applewhite, ed., And I Quote (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), 268.

7Gore Vidal, Inventing a Nation:Washington, Adams, and Jefferson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 3.

8Henry Lee, “Speech delivered to the U.S. Congress on George Washington’s Death,” 14 December 1799, in Frank E. Grizzard Jr., George! A Guide to All Things Washington (Charlottesville, Va.: Mariner Publishing, 2005), 110.

9John Adams, “Reply to Congress After Washington’s Death,” 23 December 1799, in The Wisdom of John Adams, ed. Kees de Mooy (New York: Citadel, 2003), 254.

10Henry Cabot Lodge, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 2 (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1904), 444.

11John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (London: Granta Books, 2005), 145.

12Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to James Madison,” 6 September 1789, in Our Sacred Honor, ed. William J. Bennett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 342.

13Learned Hand, “The Spirit of Liberty” speech in Central Park, 21 May 1944, in Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses, ed. Irving Dilliard (New York: Knopf, 1963).

14Bernard Bailyn, To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Framers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 34.

15Lord Moulton, “Law and Manners,” The Atlantic, July 1924.

16Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press), 272.

17James Madison, debate in the Federal Convention, 4 June 1787, in The Papers of James Madison, vol. 2, ed.Henry D. Gilpin (Washington, D.C.: Langtree & Sullivan, 1840), 805.

18Benjamin Franklin, Letter, 17 April 1787, in The Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Jared Sparks (Chicago: Townsend Mac County, 1882), 287.

19David Hacket Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 185.

20John Adams to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776, in C. F. Adams, Works, vol. 10, (New York: Little, Brown, 1856), 401.

21Letter to Mercy Otis Warren, 16 April 1776, Papers of John Adams, vol. 4 124-25, ed. Robert J. Taylor, Gregg L. Lint and Celeste Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

22Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776.

23Edwin Gaustad, Faith of the Founders (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2004); James Hutson, The Founders on Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005).

24Letter to Claude Francois de Rivarol, 1 June 1791, in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. Thomas W. Copeland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958-1978), vol. 6, 265-70.

25GeorgeWashington, “First Inaugural Address,” 30 April 1789, in David Ramsay, The Life of George Washington (Baltimore: Joseph Jewett and Cushing & Sons, 1832), 177.

26John Adams, Diary, 2 June 1778, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Volumes 1-4: Diary (1755-1804) and Autobiography (through 1780), ed. L. H. Butterfield, Leonard C. Faber and Wendell D. Garrett (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1961).

27John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” in The Political Writings of John Adams, ed. George W. Carey (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2000), 13.

28Paul A. Rahe, Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 36.

29Paul Woodruff, First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 69.

30Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 66.

31George Reedy, The Twilight of the Presidency (New York:World Publishing, 1970), 20.

32Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman, The Forty Year War—The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 158.

33James Q.Wilson, On Character (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute Press, 1995), 23.

34John Adams, “Letter to Zabdiel Adams,” 21 June 1776, in Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1779, ed. Paul H. Smith (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976).

35John Witherspoon, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1783-1805, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).


37GeorgeWashington, “September 17, 1796, Farewell Address.”


39Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville, 320.

40Benjamin Franklin, “Letter to Unknown,” 3 July 1786, in The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 9, ed. Albert Henry Smyth (New York: Macmillan, 1906), 522.

41George Washington, Maxims of George Washington (New York: Appleton, 1894), 341.

42John Adams, “Address to the Military,” 11 October 1798, in America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations, William J. Federer (Coppell, Tex.: Fame Publishing, 1994), 10.

43John Jay, “Address to the American Bible Society, May 9, 1822,” The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, vol. 4 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1794) 484.

44O. E. Fuller, Brave Men and Women: Their Struggles, Failures, and Triumphs, (Chicago: H. J. Smith, 1884), 42-43.

45David Waldstreicher, ed., Notes on the State of Virginia, (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 195.

46James Madison, “Speech in the Virginia Ratifying Convention,” 20 June 1788, in Advice to My Country (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997), 24.

47Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1904), 277.

48Benjamin Franklin, “Letter to Ezra Stiles,” 1 March 1790, in Autobiography and Other Writings, ed. Ormond Seavey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 353.

49Roger Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution,” in Romeo Elton, The Life of Roger Williams (New York: Putnam, 1852), 67.

50James Madison,“Memorial and Remonstrance,” in The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison, ed. Marvin Myers (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 1981), 8.

51John Adams, “Letter to John Quincy Adams,” 16 June 1816, in Hutson, Founders on Religion, 20.

52Alexander Hamilton, “The Stand III,” 7 April 1798, in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 21 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 402.

53Dalberg-Acton, Essays, 30.

54Ibid., 93.

55Hutson, Founders on Religion, 165.

56Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent,” 66-67.

57Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance.” Following quotes refer to this work as well.

58John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” in The American Republic: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), 80.

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