The Republican in the Ruins

“THERE WAS another ideal of freedom which the English never had at all. There was another ideal, the soul of another epoch, round which we built no monuments and wrote no masterpieces. You will find no traces of it in England; but you will find them in America.

The thing I mean was the real religion of the eighteenth century. Its religion, in the more defined sense, was generally Deism, as in Robespierre or Jefferson. In the more general way of morals and atmosphere it was rather Stoicism, as in the suicide of Wolfe Tone. It had certain very noble and as some would say, impossible ideals; as that a politician should be poor. It knew Latin; and therefore insisted on the strange fancy that the Republic should be a public thing. Its republican simplicity was anything but a silly pose; unless all martyrdom is a silly pose. Even of the prigs and fanatics of the American and French revolutions we can often say, as Stevenson said of an American, that ‘thrift and courage glowed in him.’ And its virtue and value for us is that it did remember the things we now tend to forget; from the dignity of liberty to the danger of luxury. It did really believe in self-determination of the self, as well of as the state. And its determination was really determined. In short, it believed in self-respect; and it is strictly true, even of its rebels and regicides, that they desired chiefly to be respectable.

But there were in it the marks of religion as well as respectability: it had a creed; it had a crusade. Men died singing its songs; men starved rather than write against its principles. And its principles were liberty, equality, and fraternity, or the dogmas of the Declaration of Independence. This was the idea that redeemed the dreary negations of the eighteenth century; and there are still corners of Boston or Philadelphia where we can feel so suddenly in the silence its plain garb and formal manners, that the walking ghost of Jefferson would hardly surprise us.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Excerpt from The Republican in the Ruins, in The New Witness, 6/10/21.

The "Committee of Five" that drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence:
Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Robert Livingston. (Images from Wikipedia)