Restoring Civic Virtue in America

Cultivating Virtuous Citizenship?: A Law and Liberty Symposium on American National Character


The Library of Law and Liberty’s symposium on American National Character addresses the current challenges to America’s political vitality, such as polarization and alarmism.  As part of the American National Character & Civic Friendship Project, an initiative of the Ryan Foundation, several of JMC’s fellows and faculty partners wrote essays reflecting on ways to revive America’s civic character. View the essays and learn about the project participants below.

Defining Freedom Up: National Character Revived

By JMC fellow W.B. Allen

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Religious Liberty, and America’s Character

By Rick Santorum

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Sharing Stories of American Civic Purposes

By JMC faculty partner Rogers Smith

Self-Government Cannot Live while Congress is Moribund

By Philip A. Wallach

George Washington wrote in a 1785 letter to James Madison that “we are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which has national objects to promote, and a national character to support.” Washington and Madison recognized the need to shape our national character and cultivate civic friendship, by which they meant the formation of habits of “a people” dedicated to a common purpose and informed by a certain set of principles and practices. Those principles were the principles that Americans had fought and died for in the American Revolution, summarily expressed in the Declaration of Independence and captured in the phrase “self-government.

Each of the essays in this symposium addresses in some way the challenge of self-government and the obstacles it faces in our time. Are Americans today still animated, as Publius claimed “every votary of freedom” is ever animated, by “that honorable determination…to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government”?  Or has the experiment in self-government been abandoned, replaced by different principles and diverse purposes?  Our authors all seem to say or imply that we – Americans of all stripes – need to take stock of our original mission as a self-governing people. Of course, they emphasize different needs, but they speak with one voice in favor of the American political mission itself.

It is our hope that these essays, and the future fruits of the American National Character & Civic Friendship Project, will inspire fellow scholars and citizens to address, theoretically and practically, the question of what is most needed in our country today, if we are to remain one people.

— Colleen Sheehan and Steven McGuire

Learn more about the Project here >>


W.B. AllenProfessor William B. Allen is a professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University, and 2008-09 Visiting Senior Scholar in the JMC partner program Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University. He also served previously on the National Council for the Humanities and as Chairman and Member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He was recently the Ann & Herbert W. Vaughan Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is an expert on liberal arts education, its history, importance and problems. He is also Chairman and co-founder of Toward A Fair Michigan, whose mission was to further understanding of the equal opportunity issues involved in guaranteeing civil rights for all citizens, and to provide a civic forum for a fair and open exchange of views on the question of affirmative action.

Learn more about William Allen >>

Rogers Smith photoRogers Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Associate Dean for Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Smith centers his research on constitutional law, American political thought, and modern legal and political theory, with special interests in questions of citizenship, race, ethnicity and gender.  He was elected as an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellow in 2004, a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2011, and a Member of the American Philosophical Society in 2016. Professor Smith was voted President-Elect of the American Political Science Association for 2017-2018.

Learn more about Rogers Smith >>

Philip WallachPhilip Wallach was a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute. He writes on a wide variety of domestic policy topics, including Congress and the administrative state, climate change, the debt ceiling, and marijuana legalization. He is the author of To the Edge: Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial Crisis (2015). He is an expert on the Clean Power Plan, interbranch relations, legal and political aspects of monetary policy, the Glass-Steagall Act, and regulatory capture.

His writing has been featured in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, National Review, the Hill, and Roll Call, National Affairs, and The New Rambler Review, as well as in scholarly journals including Studies in American Political Development. His current projects include examining the legitimacy challenge faced by America’s administrative state, working out the contours of a Congressional Regulation Office, and examining the possibility of partisan realignment in coming years.

Wallach received a B.A. from the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University.

Learn more about Philip Wallach >>

Colleen A. Sheehan, a JMC faculty partner and Professor of Politics and director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University, has served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and is currently a member of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. She is author of The Mind of James Madison: The Legacy of Classical Republicanism (Cambridge, 2015), James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government (Cambridge, 2009), and Friends of the Constitution: Writings of the “Other” Federalists, 1787-88 (with Gary L. McDowell, Liberty Fund, 1998), and is currently completing, with Jack Rakove, The Cambridge Companion to The Federalist.

Learn more about Colleen Sheehan >>

Steven McGuireDr. Steven McGuire is a JMC fellow and the chair of the Department of Political Science and regularly offers courses in the history of political thought at Eastern University’s Templeton Honors College. He has published essays on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Schelling, Voegelin, and others. He has co-edited three volumes, including Concepts of Nature: Ancient and ModernSubjectivity: Ancient and Modern, and Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought. He is currently working on a book-length study of the primacy of practical reason in Kant’s thought.

Learn more about Steven McGuire >>


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