The Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, Va., recently held an essay contest for high school students on the topic: ”What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?” Over 50,000 students participated from all 50 states and U.S. territories. The winners and runners-up received cash prizes, with $5,000 awarded to each regional first-place winner. Eagle Publishing was proud to be one of the sponsors. HumanEvents.com will be publishing the top nine winning essays over the next two weeks. This is the eight showcased essay.
After heated debates, painful compromises, and concluding signatures, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Pennsylvania State House weary, but satisfied. A woman asked him what type of government the Constitutional Convention had formed. He answered, "A republic, if you can keep it." For over 225 years, what essential civic value has kept America faithful to its Constitution? Through individual responsibility, generations of Americans have preserved our Constitution from abuse and eventual demise.
In the months before the Constitution’s ratification, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote The Federalist Papers, a series of commentaries on the Constitution. In one paper, Hamilton wrote that the federal government "will indeed deserve the most vigilant and careful attention of the people." Although the Founding Fathers created Constitutional checks and balances to prevent loss of liberty through abuse of power, they foresaw that precautions are useless if each American is not individually responsible. To preserve liberty, we must each embrace our Founder’s legacy of responsibility. First, we must thoroughly study, understand, and then demand adherence to our Constitution. Subsequently, we must be continually aware of national issues to ensure the government follows the Constitution. Madison wrote that whenever the federal government oversteps its delegated authority, the American people can "by the election of more faithful representatives, annul the acts of the usurpers." By scrutinizing each candidate’s faithfulness to uphold the Constitution, we can avert usurpation. Finally, we must prepare to unfalteringly uphold the Constitution when called upon to serve our nation, whether by serving our community, running for public office, or contributing in any other capacity. If "we the people" neglect our responsibility – carefully studying the Constitution, continually considering governmental activities, regularly participating in elections, and individually preparing ourselves to serve our nation – the federal government may take advantage of our neglect and erode our liberty.
A superb example of a man who embraced his responsibility was George Washington. Following the Revolutionary War, Washington resigned as General, explaining, "I am not only retired from all public service, but I am retiring within myself; and … envious of none … I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers." Washington desired to live peacefully at Mount Vernon for his remaining years, yet he was not a man to abandon his nation. Though retired, Washington stayed informed of national issues, which then prepared him to act upon his responsibility when he recognized the necessity. He not only attended the Constitutional Convention, but selflessly agreed to become our first President. As Jefferson affirmed to Washington, "The confidence of the whole Union is centred in you…. North and south will hang together, if they have you to hang on." Although Americans unanimously supported Washington, he did not exploit their reverence by abusing his power. Throughout his Presidency, he continually measured his actions against the Constitution that he had signed. He understood it precisely. He recognized he was setting precedents. If he overstepped his authority, even with good intentions, future administrations would use his example to erode the liberty of the people. George Washington understood his responsibility to sustain liberty for future Americans. He embraced his responsibility.
Since my family closely follows national issues, I possess a natural interest in governmental activities. For many years, I was aware of the Constitution and understood its importance, but regrettably lacked interest to learn more. When I turned seventeen, however, I abruptly realized that I would be eligible to vote in the next election. How would I decide which candidates to support with my vote? So, I began a quest to learn about my country’s Constitution. For my senior year, I chose to take Constitutional Law. This class examined Constitutional principles and foundational Supreme Court cases that have shaped our nation. Gradually, my understanding of the Constitution heightened, maturing into a fervent passion for my nation and its Constitution. Now, I am dedicated to preserving the Constitution. I understand my fundamental responsibility as an American citizen to pass liberty to the next generation by thorough study of the Constitution, continual examination of governmental activities, regular participation in elections, and careful preparation to serve my nation.
Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, "Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people." If we desire liberty to prevail for future generations of Americans, we must follow George Washington’s example and embrace our individual responsibility, so that we can faithfully keep our republic.