The Public Square foresees a model of citizenship ahead that is truly aspirational. It would be less a box into which we fit than a platform through which we inherently, as people, shine.
The great beauty of America is how the arc of history made the individual primary. It is a gift of life that allows us to shake our past, locate the mind, lift the soul into tomorrow, and elevate us over a lifetime into a better future as Americans.
The citizen, one might say, is the vessel through which our nation was to operate.
The rights of personal conscience were enshrined in our founding. Government took its authority from the people, rather than people from the government. It remains our basic compact.
As early as 1793 James Wilson, associate justice of the Supreme Court, made the distinction between “the state” and “true sovereignty. “ In a court opinion he cited how toasts at dinner parties would all too often be made to “the United States” rather than to “the People of the United States.”
Because the Constitution dealt with structural balances to control unwanted concentrations of power, citizens were given named freedoms in exchange for an equal balance of responsibilities. It was a formula equating to the privilege of “true sovereignty,” but taken no further.
There was never any doubt the individual’s freedom not only strengthened each person, but also magnified the force and power of the Republic as a whole. And for 240 years, decade-by-decade, the beat of the citizen drum has been relentlessly pursued in the steady widening of American egalitarian democracy to all.
As the country prospered in its early years, its principles took on context. A mix of equality under law and nationalistic growth, fed by the simplicity and common sense of Jacksonian Democracy, wove themselves into our citizen code. Through common heritage, economic independence, pride in our identity, and an expandable future, Americans fashioned their ideals of patriotism and love of country.
The further maturity of our nation, however, has seen this Jacksonian wave gradually siphoned off to governmental planners. They too often organize our citizen dealings around a prescriptive point of view that exceeds simple administration.
The managers of our time are narrow overseers, not owners of our national life abiding by the citizen heart. These trained practitioners often replace the volunteer energy of people with the problem-solving skills of an administrative state.
The code today has broken the elements of citizen trust and empowerment, which must return. If we rely on “the state,” it can’t happen. But we rely on the notion of “true sovereignty,” it can – and will.
To grasp the future, we must go back to the trunk idea. Perhaps, as the Revelator in Scripture wrote, “I have set before thee an open door” (Rev. 3:8) is what liberty in America and our national compact really was charted to be.
In a funny way, just as we know life is not a big to-do list in the end so much as growing into of our place and station in the world, it’s possible we were at first too limited by the need to repay our freedom with citizen responsibilities for the privilege of having it? Without sacrificing that core, is it possible there is more to the equation?
One hardly can conclude the exchange of rights for responsibilities is not fundamental – it still is. But it may no longer be enough. Just as the voluntary energy of the Jacksonian model of volunteer democracy is no longer inclusive enough, so the transfer of citizen services to planners and experts often empties the whole idea of a citizen order.
So where do we go? The Public Square believes the time is here to recognize the role of the citizen could yet prove far more fundamental than we’ve dreamed. Far from a rigorous set of dour expectations, it is here to house hope and take our breath away. As with Eliza singing in the play Hamilton, we should at all times feel “How lucky we are to be alive right now.”
Citizenship is a wonderfully positive race for only the best in ourselves. But what can this mean? Rather than making too much of the “open door,” the question is, “Have we made too little of it?” Can life, as Samuel Longfellow (younger brother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) wrote in 1874, be “The freer steep, the fuller breath, the wide horizon’s grander view” for us?