Steering a Middle Course (Pt.4)

Michael Metzger

James Madison wrote that when a nation follows the “dictates of conscience,” a free people remain free. What then happens when conscience, a social guardrail for such things as capitalism, dissolves?

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison said a people remain free only as they act according to “the dictates of conscience.” This was central to America’s great “experiment,” a word that Madison used at least fifteen times in the Federalist Papers. Later in life, Madison’s reliance on conscience likely accounted for his attraction to the recently widowed Dolly Payne Todd. When Dolly was fifteen, her father “decided as a matter of conscience to free his slaves.”1 He was obedient to the unenforceable. As Madison learned of this story, he appreciated that Dolly was the offspring of a virtuous family.

Conscience is also why Madison had grave reservations regarding the French Revolution. When he learned that Napoleon had overthrown the French Republic, replacing the Directory with a consulate and installing himself as first consul, Madison expressed fears that too much liberty invariably brings about chaos, which in turn leads to monarchy. This swing from liberty to law is exactly what Lord Fletcher Moulton warned against in 1921. Nations tend to veer to free choice, then to law. The middle course shrinks.

Perhaps the last two movements to rely on conscience were the founding fathers and the Clapham Sect. Each recognized how conscience can be good or bad, and how only a good conscience yields good governance. It’s a guardrail against too much liberty or law. Consider the Clapham Sect.

The Clapham Sect “was a remarkable fraternity,” writes Sir Reginald Coupland. “They were mostly rich, but they all were generous givers to the poor.” Henry Thornton “gave away as much as six-sevenths of his income till he married, and after that at least a third of it.” Most of them wealthy, the movement’s leaders could have veered to a life of leisure; “but they all devoted their lives to public service.”2 They steered a middle course between unbridled free choice and unduly burdensome law.

This remarkable community, centered in Clapham, England, recognized this tension. The clearer the conscience, the less people veer toward liberty or law. If they veer too far to the right, liberty becomes licentious. If they veer too far to the left, law looks to governments to coerce behavior. In both extremes, virtue is the victim. This is why Sir James Mackintosh said this about William Wilberforce, the Clapham leader: “I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points. No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life.”

It was during this era that the term capitalism was coined, about 1820. Conscience and capitalism became connected, although it would prove to be a brief marriage. By the end of the 19th century, the idea of conscience, what historian Paul Johnson describes as the principle engine of healthy achievement, was dismissed.3 It dissolved. A study by Pelin and Selin Kesebir bears this out. They discovered that general moral terms like “virtue” and “conscience” largely disappeared over the course of the 20th century.

Nature abhors a vacuum. As conscience dissolved, free choice and law rushed in. Toward the end of the 1800s, crony and collusive capitalism encroached from the right. The less wealthy recoiled, looking to government as a corrective against corrupt capitalism. The middle course collapsed. Conscientious capitalism disappeared.

Winston Churchill once said democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. To paraphrase Churchill, capitalism is the worst economic system – except for all the others. Capitalism is the most moral of a bad lot of economic systems known to humans. This is why retrieving conscientious capitalism is essential. It’s the best way to steer a middle course. Next week we’ll examine the complexities of conscientious capitalism.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Lynne Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered (New York: Viking, 2014), p. 248.
2 Ernest Marshall Howse, Saints in Politics (London: George Allen Unwin, Ltd., 1952), p. 134.
3 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 11.


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  1. This reminds me of the tension around legislating morality. On the one hand, people think it is a waste of time because only the Spirit can change behavior. OTOH, people do not want to see bad behavior and therefore feel that laws can hide it from view making society better.

    I feel that we have enough temptations already and rather than allowing them to corrupt us, we should at least make it harder to find them.

  2. Good point, Tom. I like that you frame this as a tension. it is. Any and all laws legislate morality. Traffic laws are based in the assumption that taking a life is bad, that life is sacred, and that order protects life. Traffic laws legislate this morality, protecting life. Another tension is that behavior change is both/and – the providence of God and human agency. It is a mystery. Laws do not make people good but can encourage good behavior and punish bad. Thanks for your insights.

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