Virtue in Democracy

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Virtue in Democracy

July 19, 2000 7 min read
The Honorable Henry Hyde
Senior Policy Analyst

It is a great honor to be asked to deliver the Russell Kirk lecture. It is good to see my old friend, Ed Feulner, and let me offer how grateful I am that there is a Heritage Foundation. It performs an absolutely indispensable task of providing policy guidance to all of us in Congress. Whether we ask for it or not, we get it, and it is invaluable. So, I salute you for supporting this great institution.

We have come to the end, as we are painfully aware, of a tumultuous century. I think in terms of centuries rather than millennia because like a billion dollars I find a millennium hard to contemplate. But in terms of the last century, we have gone from the Model-T to supercomputers to the exploration of deep space. We survived two world wars, numerous conflagrations, police actions, revolutions, a huge depression, and some lesser economic setbacks--in all it has been quite a century.

As we press our noses against the window pane of the next century we consider the fact that we have unlocked the secrets of the atom and thereby handed ourselves the keys to destruction of the planet if the wrong forces get hold of that power. We are told that some 20 countries have the capacity to join the nuclear club. More and more as time goes on, we are unlocking the secrets of biology, and we may be handing ourselves the key to manipulating human life by cloning it.

We are on the brink of some amazing advances. Some may view them as steps backward, but one should look forward only with great anticipation. The discoveries in medicine and pharmaceuticals are going to be revolutionary. They will soon, I am sure, find a cure to Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and it is going to be great to see and benefit.

In the exploration of deep space, I am told we have reached the end of chemicals as a propellant, that they have gone as far as they can go, and we are going to have to power our explorations with nuclear fission or fusion or some other power, but it is going to be quite a time.

History has a lot to teach us as a marker for the future, and I think that 137 years ago this November, in a little cemetery in Pennsylvania, one of Illinois' most illustrious sons, Abraham Lincoln, asked a very haunting question: whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure. That question has been asked of every generation that has come along, and will continue to be asked because we have to provide an answer to and for it in our own time.

I was so pleased to hear Ed Feulner talk about the requirements for graduation embracing a study of Western civilization as well as American history because the Declaration of Independence, our country's birth certificate, has within the compass of a very few words a magnificent statement on Western civilization: "We hold these truths"--truths, not opinions--"to be self-evident"--that is, beyond argument--"that all men"--meaning, all mankind, all members of the human family--"are created equal and are endowed by their creator." That means an endowment, not an achievement. In other words, by virtue of our humanity, we are endowed by our creator--the source of our human dignity, the source of our human rights--with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed." What a revolutionary thought! Power comes from the creator to the people and is then consigned temporarily to the rulers of the people, not directly to the rulers, as had been the practice and the belief for so many centuries. And so we learn from studying our Founding Fathers that democracy is more than a process. It is more than establishing a set of rules as to how we shall litigate, how we shall sue each other, but a democracy, envisioned by our Founding Fathers, that assigns value, intrinsic value, to every human being because each human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and we are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights, the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to pursue happiness.

And so, as we study the beginnings of our nation, we understand that to have a virtuous kingdom it is enough perhaps to have a virtuous king, but you cannot have a successful democracy without a virtuous people. And that is where today's great problem comes forward.

The rule of law is a concept that has identified America since the days of Madison and Jefferson and Hamilton. And the rule of law is best described as a three-legged stool. The first leg is an honest judge, the second leg is an ethical bar, and the third leg is an oath that is enforceable. And if you take any one of those legs away you have damaged, you have up-ended, you have destabilized the rule of law, and the rule of law is what protects you and protects me from the arbitrary fist in the tavern or the fire on the roof or the knock on the door at three o'clock in the morning.

Every generation has its ailments. Ours today is cynicism born of the failure, the default, of our leaders to measure up to the high ideals, to the virtuous people, that were envisioned when they drew up the Constitution and the predicate to it, the Declaration of Independence.

The culture has been suffering because we now have the blessing, or bane, of telecommunications. And so the good can get disseminated but it also can get overwhelmed by the bad, by the violence and the immorality that is the stock-in-trade of our entertainment. Our culture is how we think and how we live, and our culture has been declining, to use the phrase of Senator Moynihan, "defining deviancy down."

These are serious problems because how we raise our children is the most important thing we have to do in life. And they are being forced to confront materialism, egoism, so many things that are negative, so many things that are the opposite, I think, of what they and we are intended and is our responsibility. We have let it happen. We have tolerated too much. And so I think if there is any message that I would have today, it is the need for us to be vigilant as parents and as grandparents and as citizens to what our children are learning and, maybe more importantly, what they are not learning.

Russell Kirk wrote some magnificent books. The Roots of American Order is one that I am particularly fond of. But he also wrote a book that his wife, Annette, was kind enough to send me on Edmund Burke, and I developed a very strong feeling for Edmund Burke. I always knew I liked the guy, but I did not know how well until I read Russell Kirk's book.

Burke spent about 30 years in Parliament. He wasn't much for term limits either, and he was in the minority all of the time, but he was an influence far beyond his office. He supported the Irish when they were being persecuted by the British. He supported the American Revolution as much as he could effectively. He also prosecuted an impeachment, only his took seven years and was similarly unsuccessful. He sought the impeachment of Warren Hastings for misdeeds in India. Anyone who is conservative like Edmund Burke and who has those events color his life, it is natural that I would develop an affection for him.

I have always thought of Charles de Gaulle, something he said that is similar to something Oliver Wendell Holmes said. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "A man must take part in the actions and passions of his time at the peril of being judged not to have lived."

De Gaulle said it a little simpler but expressed the same idea about his country. He said that France would not be true to herself if she weren't engaged in some great enterprise. That is true of all of us. We are not true to ourselves if we aren't engaged in some great enterprise, something bigger than we are, something that will outlast us, something that makes the world a better place. And that great enterprise that you are engaged in, which consumes your time, is the enterprise of freedom.

We understand freedom. We know how painfully it is acquired and how painfully it is maintained, but freedom is worth it and we know that. So I salute you for your being deeply immersed and engaged in the struggle to preserve, protect, and advance our freedom as Americans. And I will leave you with a toast that I learned from Ronald Reagan's older brother some years ago. "Here is to those who love us. And to those who don't, may the Lord turn their heart. And to those that won't turn, may he turn their ankles so we know them by their limping."

The Honorable Henry Hyde, a Republican, represents the 6th District of Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also is the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Hyde spoke at a meeting of The Heritage Foundation's President's Club on May 15, 2000.


The Honorable Henry Hyde

Senior Policy Analyst