The Founding Fathers were the most serious of men, and not merely because they were brave enough to risk the gallows. They had a sense that what they were doing was transcendentally important, that they needed to make their case, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They were not merely transacting business; they were instituting a new form of government while pledging to one another “our lives, our fortunes,” and perhaps most telling, “our sacred honor.”

They knew that seriousness is the greatest requisite for a stable democracy, because it allows us to think beyond the moment and to accept the weight of duty and communal responsibility. The many other civic virtues—prudence, engagement, respect, tolerance—proceed from seriousness. And only seriousness produces the mindset that forces us to accept the central tenet of democracy: We are adults who are masters of our own fates instead of irresponsible and powerless children.

Authoritarian regimes are less serious than democracies. It may seem strange to say that, because the day-to-day existence in such places is so grim. But authoritarianism relies on fatalism, which is one of the most pernicious forms of unseriousness. When nothing is in our control, nothing really matters. The experience of life dwindles down to taking care of one’s family and trying not to get sideways with those in charge.