The ideals of citizenship have only been faintly explored during the modern American era, but they hold the key to all we are – and want to be.
The vesting of American citizens began in two ways. The first is a broad understanding our government was formed to allow our people to live in freedom and also create “a more perfect union” for all.
Second, through law and custom, our citizens took on rights and responsibilities for their freedom. The rights are those of free assembly, speech, religion, press, among others. The responsibilities include school, work, voting, paying taxes, serving in the military, and accepting jury duty.
The carving of this compact remains the greatest political innovation in history. The purpose of the compact was to have it endure, not expire – and stay continuously in force.
We have protected our citizen ideals with great strength and courage. Our leaders at key times have understood this precious window of citizen liberty, grasped it, defended it, and enlarged it.
Throughout our history, Americans have tried to maintain the public good, carry the generosity of the American heart to friend and foe, and expand across decades the circle of equal opportunity for all.
But today, there is a dwindling of understanding about what really is important to the soul of our country. The citizen understanding that created our nation is not breathing in our notions or sentiments like it did and should.
The sapping of our country fiscally and in terms of international regard are just the outward symbols of a decline starting to cumulate. So we must look within. The answer before us is to start reinventing our citizenship for tomorrow.
The Public Square is beginning to ask what a more perfect union really means now? And where can it take us?
A citizenry’s heritage rest in some form of peril in any nation where the leadership is self-serving, where half the population does not pay taxes, vote, or carry its weight, and where the other half are held in a vice of special treatment through tax, pension, corporate, or regulatory provisions that make privilege captive.
In 1820, Jefferson noted there was “no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to improve their discretion.”
Jefferson did not think politics was a solution to problems. He was relying on a concept of citizen power to define reality, and to improve the very energy of the citizen order, through education. But it was a reformation of the citizen mind he ultimately viewed as the force of a moving democracy.
In a free society, citizenship is a privilege. It is an honor. It is more than a birthright. It is precious, to be coveted by all, nourished by each of us, built in common, to ever new levels. Citizenship is at the core of our land. It is the most fundamental element to the idea of America.
Citizenship is why we exist. It is sacrosanct, not to be lightly embraced. It is not to be spat upon, degraded, abused, ignored, shamed, or taken for granted. Our citizenship is woven to our very founding, to our history, our heritage, and our melding, and to our growth, our prosperity, and tomorrow’s American promise.
There is a side to our nationhood that is being lost, and it is time to witness its return. George Washington said in 1793 regarding the new Constitution, “…when men put a machine into motion it is impossible for them to stop exactly where they would choose…”
American union is meant both to succeed and transcend the parochialisms of time. As much as we guard it, it also guards us. Our freedom gives us power to create new pedestals and platforms of thought. We are, in other words, a mirror of what we think of ourselves.
Articulating a stronger vision of citizenship for the Republic is, in the end, our responsibility. No one else can take it. In coming columns The Public Square will explore aspirations that can renew our citizen model and help create “a more perfect union.”
American citizenship is a victorious idea. The only way for it become stronger is through its regeneration. We have a providence we cannot ignore. Will we reach deeply for the “wholesome discretion” as Jefferson, the author of our Declaration of Independence urged for us?