In Search of the Republic provides evidence of a remarkable change in American scholarship on the founding of the United States. This study by Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner is all the more valuable in proportion as the change they record has heretofore passed unperceived. Where once scholarship debated the question whether the United States were founded purely on material considerations and a view of human nature as evil or, alternatively, on moral considerations and possibly some particular providence, today the debate is radically altered. That is why this book is able to announce its purposes as to “consider the evolution of the idea of public virtue,” “to discuss its central role in the political thought of the founding,” and “to describe its relationship with the other political and cultural elements of the American republic” (2). The question now is whether virtue (or morality) constituted a foundation of the United States Constitution, or whether virtue is the goal of that enabling instrument. Superseding all former quarrels, this new debate installs virtue on each side of the equation. Thus the old battle is terminated, though it remains obscure how that came to pass.
Vetterli and Bryner seem to me correctly to have grasped the metamorphosis taking place—as is reflected in the title of Lance Banning’s essay “Second Thoughts on Virtue. . . .” Nevertheless, no less recent a production than Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind maintains with considerable persuasiveness the thesis that the founding was radically flawed, Hobbesian, and altogether hostile to the claims of virtue and nobility. This study, on the other hand, situates the founding so squarely in two millennia of concern for virtue that it creates the impression that The Closing of the American Mind sprang purely from the brow of Allan Bloom without any foundation in the American past.