Citizenship: Its Privileges and Responsibilities

WE in America have been much concerned in the past with the privileges of citizenship. The future of America will depend very largely upon what the American people agree are the responsibilities of citizenship and upon the manner in which we, in the critical years ahead, discharge these responsibilities.

For several years I have earned a livelihood as a teacher of citizenship and the social studies. Yet the very things considered the most important, and upon which I have placed the greatest emphasis, now appear decidedly secondary. To exercise the right of suffrage; to understand the content and spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; to salute the flag and sing the patriotic songs; to become informed regarding the resources and problems of the local community, are representative elements in our program of citizenship education. They are worth-while and should be retained, but they are not enough for a democracy competing in a world where the initiative rests with the political systems which require their citizens to give their all for the welfare of the fatherland.

Our attempts to instill the duty of exercising the right of suffrage have not been particularly effective. Glaring examples of corruption, which may be found in all parts of the country, have been possible because the so-called enlightened, educated, and good citizens of the community have stayed away from the polls.

There are many things to do. There are numerous sore spots in our national life, sore spots that no longer may be left untended with impunity. Depressed areas, maladjusted groups are potential ground for fifthcolumn activities. Total democracy is the appropriate American antidote for totalitarianism. Fortunately America is not guilty of the ‘sin of smallness.’ Nevertheless, we cannot depend upon ‘muddling through’ to a satisfactory solution of our great domestic and international problems.

A positive program for citizenship service would mobilize the youth resources of the nation to conserve and develop the natural economy and the social health of the nation. Some could serve best by helping to conserve the natural resources much along the lines of the CCC, but with a fundamental difference in emphasis. The primary objective would be the discharge of the citizen’s duty to the general welfare, rather than just to provide a place where a young person may spend a few months at public expense until more favorable employment or more favorable educational opportunities arise.

Young people intending to enter such professions as those of teaching and medicine might find they could serve best by going into the depressed areas to participate in the educational and health rehabilitation programs. The technically inclined, after a preliminary period of training, might contribute their services as technicians in some industry of importance to the national welfare.

After all, there are approximately four million young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four who are unemployed. A program giving this group something definite and worth-while to do and including experiences in outdoor recreation, health training, group living, and group discipline would go a long way toward conserving and developing the most important single resource the nation possesses. The health, morale, sense of duty, and background of experience of this group will largely determine the shape of things to come in this country.

Every situation tending to create unity and break down sectionalism should be looked upon with favor. Those who perform their period of service meritoriously might be rewarded with an opportunity to travel throughout the nation. By becoming acquainted with the resources and problems of the country, by getting to know the people of the various regions of the country at first hand, citizens must inevitably become more nationally-minded.

The ultimate goal for a program of citizenship would be a situation whereby any person could give a positive answer when accosted, ‘How did you serve?’

The stock arguments against compulsory service — that it is an infringement of liberty, a violation of long-established custom, and un-American — do not assume great importance upon analysis. The world is passing through a revolutionary epoch. Revolutionary changes are being forced upon America, whether desired or not. During the past ten years the citizen’s relation to his government has undergone a fundamental change. The citizen has been extended widespread privileges and services from the government, but has not assumed the corresponding duties which these privileges entail. It is freedom without responsibility, license rather than liberty, that the citizen now enjoys.

It is taken for granted that the government will provide the individual with an education, health services, a WPA job or home relief, and a pension in his old age. Yet there is nothing the citizen really has to do for himself or for the government. It is absurd to expect the average citizen to take a vital interest in his government when he puts nothing into it. Compulsory service would make everyone realistically citizenship-conscious.

Compulsory national service, it is said, would destroy the liberty which our forefathers prized so highly. But it was an entirely different kind of liberty that our forefathers enjoyed. I wonder if we are not a little naïve aud sentimental about that liberty. My great-grandfather was a pioneer farmer, and as such was fairly representative of American life and ideals during the period in which America was predominantly an agrarian society. He did enjoy liberty, but it was a rather harsh and arbitrary kind of liberty. By long hours of hard manual labor he could hope to insure himself against privation, and by good luck with the weather and prices he might secure enough worldly goods to guarantee him moderate security and allow him to case up a bit in his old age. He expected nothing from the government and gave nothing directly in return. He was disciplined by the harsh realities of his environment and became a citizen of courage and integrity. It was this type of American that laid the foundation out of which our present comfortable and easy civilization developed.

The theme of American life during the agrarian epoch was freedom, but the range of choice was extremely limited, the way was hard, and the penalties severe for those who lacked the stamina and the courage to make the appropriate sacrifices and adjustments.

The chief force underlying our modern industrial society is organization. Our abundance of material things rests upon mass production, which is, of course, organization carried to the highest degree. Organization is the key to national liberty. If the American people desire greater security, they must seek it through a more closely integrated, more highly organized, and less individualistic society. In such a society individuals must necessarily lose some of their former unrestricted freedom.

A program of positive citizenship would place a premium upon the intangibles of democracy, the privileges of the spirit. The most inspiring innovation in such a program is the abundant opportunity for individuals to live for something greater than themselves. The emphasis would always be away from the materialism of the past few decades toward more spiritual things. The citizen serves and makes sacrifices that his children may live in a society functioning according to the principles of justice and humanity. He serves and makes sacrifices in order to preserve a society that cherishes the right to be different — to worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience, to express varying and conflicting opinions.

In this epoch of change and hour of crisis, America must prove to herself and to the world that she is worthy to hold high the cause of reason and tolerance. America will not be found wanting if we work more for the general welfare and less for ourselves, if we hold the disciplined life higher than irresponsible freedom, and place greater value upon spiritual rewards than upon material comforts.

Only by meeting the challenge to their way of life with courage, daring, and sacrifice can the American people keep faith with that great group of men and women who have already made the supreme sacrifice for the cause of democracy and humanity.


  1. This essay was awarded Honorable Mention in the prize contest sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and the Moses Kimball Fund. The winning essay, by Roger W. Holmes, was published in the November issue of the magazine. — EDITOR