By NCCS – October 16, 2023
“Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature.”
– Thomas Jefferson (Letter to Edward Carrington January 16, 1787)
In 1788, James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, stressed the importance of a strong constitution and the citizen’s duty to preserve it. He emphasized that no citizen’s efforts are insignificant and that everyone can contribute valuable services to the state. Wilson urged the consistent pursuit of patriotism, which would eventually lead to remarkable contributions.
Wilson’s words are as relevant today as they were back then and underscore the essential role citizens play in preserving the principles upon which the nation was built.
Governmental Authority Derived from the People
The Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and the principles of natural rights. They believed that the source of all legitimate governmental authority lay within the populace itself. In other words, they rejected the notion of divine right or monarchy where power was centralized in one, or a few elites.
This idea is encapsulated in the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The government’s role, according to this perspective, was to protect these inherent rights of the people.
This foundational belief had a profound impact on the creation of our republic. It implies that the government exists to serve the interests and needs of the people, not the other way around. It is the citizens who grant authority to the government through elections and the rule of law. Consequently, government officials are considered public servants, and accountable to the people who elected them.
Active Citizen Participation in Local Governance
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned a system where citizens actively participated in the governance of their communities and where power was decentralized to local levels of government. They believed that the closer government was to the people, the more responsive and accountable it would be.
This vision is reflected in the concept of federalism, which divides powers and responsibilities between the national government and state governments. Additionally, it is embedded in the idea of local self-governance, where townships, villages, cities, and counties have a significant role in managing their own affairs.
The importance of local governance goes beyond mere administrative efficiency. It embodies the belief that citizens are best equipped to understand and address the unique needs and challenges of their communities. By actively participating in local decision-making processes, such as town/city councils and school board councils, individuals can have a direct impact on the policies that affect their daily lives.
Furthermore, this system is rooted in the notion of moral responsibility, emphasizing that citizens have a duty to contribute to the common good of their communities. By engaging in local governance and civic activities, individuals not only fulfill their responsibilities but also help safeguard constitutional government by ensuring it remains accountable and responsive to the people.
In essence, these two foundational assumptions underscore the democratic ideals that should guide American political thought and practice. They highlight the importance of active citizen engagement, government accountability to the people, and the ongoing pursuit of justice and equity in society.
At the heart of Americanism lay the conviction in a moral order guided by divine wisdom, which imparted a duty for the well-being of individuals and communities alike. Families, churches, and schools played crucial roles in instilling responsibility in the younger generation, emphasizing their individual actions, civic duties, and their role within the nation.
Moral Decline in Society
Over the past five decades, we have witnessed a notable decline in moral responsibility among Americans. It appears that an increasing number of individuals have become detached from the responsibilities associated with citizenship, choosing instead to rely on the government in Washington for their needs.
Recent statistics reveal the extent of this shift, with a growing segment of the population embracing a more dependent mindset. As government intervention and assistance programs have expanded, personal responsibility has taken a backseat, resulting in a society where many have grown complacent.
Personal responsibility, once the cornerstone of civic life, has gradually faded into the background for many. In an age of apparent affluence, it has become all too easy for people to forget that every benefit has a cost. These costs are often paid through hard work, fiscal responsibility, personal sacrifice, and at times, bitter toil.
This decline can be attributed to several factors, including:
- Family Life: The Breakdown of the Family, due to a mirid of economic and social changes, have disrupted the role of the family as a primary institution for instilling responsibility in young people.
- Religious Decline: In societies where religious awareness has waned, there has often been a corresponding decline in the sense of moral responsibility, as people may no longer feel bound by a sense of duty toward a higher power.
- Educational Shifts: Changes in the educational system, beginning in the 1960s, have led to a decline in the emphasis on teaching responsibility through history, government, and literature, and a shift towards a more vague and less rigorous approach.
- The Welfare State: Over the past half-century, the growth of the American welfare state has led many to believe that the government in Washington can provide for all their needs, leading to a diminishing sense of personal responsibility.
- Perceived Helplessness: The increase in the size and complexity of the government has left many feeling overwhelmed and believing that their individual contributions are inconsequential in addressing societal challenges.
In a society that frequently extols rights while relegating responsibilities, there must necessarily come a time when urgency demands individual responsibility in the face of societal ruin. Liberty can be fragile, and its preservation relies on the willingness of citizens to fulfill these responsibilities. History reminds us that past civilizations have seen their liberties erode when their citizens became complacent or negligent of their duties.
The strength of the Founders of the United States lay in their understanding of classical history and their awareness of how ancient Greek cities lost their liberties and how the Roman Republic declined under the weight of various societal challenges. The lessons of history underscore the importance of embracing and upholding individual and collective responsibilities as an essential foundation for the preservation of just and free societies.
The Renewal of Responsibility
To reverse this trend, Americans must take more responsibility in their local communities. Ultimately, overdependence on the national government cannot be solved in Washington D.C. without first addressing it on an individual, family, and community level. Responsibility and accountability must be rekindled at home before government dependence will decline.
Here are just a few places to start:
- Home: Responsibility begins within the family unit. Parents play a crucial role in instilling a sense of duty and accountability in their children. This can be achieved by assigning age-appropriate household chores, teaching personal discipline, and involving children in community service projects. Building a strong family foundation is the cornerstone of nurturing responsible citizens who understand the value of contributing to their community.
- Education: Advocating for a more comprehensive educational approach is vital. Parents should encourage schools to reintroduce subjects like genuine history, civics, and the Constitution into their curriculum. These subjects not only provide students with an understanding of their nation’s roots but also expose them to historical figures who exemplified moral character and personal responsibility. In addition to formal education, parents should actively engage in their children’s learning journey by supplementing their education with discussions about the importance of civic duty and personal responsibility.
- Public Life: Active participation in local and community affairs is essential for fostering a sense of responsibility. This involvement can range from running for local offices to volunteering for civic causes. By engaging with their communities, individuals can directly contribute to positive change, reinforcing the idea that personal responsibility extends beyond the home.
- Moral Responsibilities: Engaging in acts of charity and supporting worthy causes is an effective way to augment a sense of community and responsibility. Children and youth, in particular, benefit from participating in community service projects as it instills empathy, compassion, and a sense of duty toward others. Encouraging acts of kindness and philanthropy reinforces the idea that we all share a collective responsibility for the well-being of our society.
- Religious Awareness: Encouraging religious awareness can be a powerful means of fostering personal responsibility. Many religious teachings emphasize moral duties toward others and society as a whole. Recognizing the role of faith in promoting personal responsibility can inspire individuals to lead more ethical and accountable lives.
- Promote Civic Organizations: Joining and supporting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that perform vital services in communities can significantly contribute to a sense of responsibility. These organizations often rely on volunteers and community members to help fulfill their missions. By participating in such groups, individuals not only give back to their communities but also witness firsthand the positive impact of collective responsibility.
- Founding Principles: Regular discussions about the principles upon which the nation was founded, such as individual liberty and limited government, can reinforce the importance of personal responsibility. These principles remind citizens that they play an active role in maintaining a free and just society. By understanding the fundamental ideals of the nation, individuals are more likely to recognize their duty to uphold them through responsible citizenship.
Incorporating these elements into daily life can help rekindle a sense of responsibility and accountability among Americans, ensuring that these fundamental values remain at the core of the nation’s character.
The spirit of responsible citizenship is vital to the preservation of a free society. While the challenges are significant, America’s economic and intellectual resources provide hope for the revival of this sense of duty. It is incumbent upon individuals, families, communities, and institutions to work together to restore and uphold the responsibilities inherent in American citizenship. The future of the nation depends on it.
NCCS – National Center For Constitutional Studies