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Can freedom survive where virtue doesn't thrive? It was an important question for the founders of the American republic, and it is a timely one for today.

The Founding Fathers saw the critical connection: They pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to defend the self-evident truths "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

We understand life and liberty as foundational, but happiness? The problem with happiness as it is defined today lies in the little word hap, chance. Happiness is circumstantial. It depends on what happens to give us pleasure or fulfillment. But the founders understood happiness in the classical sense of what the Greeks called eudaimonia, that is, the result of a life well lived, a life based on truth and virtue.

Christians know something else: true virtue, and hence genuine happiness, is not merely a matter of thinking correctly or behaving properly. As Jonathan Edwards put it, the seat of true virtue is in the heart. Real happiness flows from character and comes to those, as Jesus said, who are poor in spirit, merciful and meek, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness and peace.

Some of the founders were less than fully orthodox in their theology, but they believed this: No person or nation can be good without God. This is why, in setting forth the most radical program for self-government in human history, they appealed not only to nature, but also to nature's God.

True virtue is personal, but it is never merely private. It involves a commitment to civic duty and the common good—traits seen so clearly by Alexis de Tocqueville in the Americans of the 1830s.

"Americans ...

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In the Magazine

August 2011

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