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 last essay in the series.
In Revolutionary Characters, Gordon S. Wood explains the importance of making the ideas of the present adapt to the ideas of the founders. An important idea of the founders was disinterestedness, or freedom from bias or selfish motives. Disinterestedness is one of the essential civic virtues that Americans must have, because it prevents a single faction from taking too much power in government, and prevents the oligarchy the founders tried so hard to protect future generations from.
George Washington, arguably the most influential founder for the modern generation, demonstrated disinterestedness by stepping down from the presidency in September of 1796. He had the option of keeping the presidency, and the people were even willing to vote for him as an absolute monarch. He refused this because he had experienced life under an absolute monarch, and he did not want that fate for the future generations of Americans. Instead, he acted disinterestedly. The disinterestedness that he demonstrated was emulated by many of the presidents following him.
In Washington’s Farewell Address, he addressed the subject of the "Spirit of the Party" which was caused by the people not being disinterested. He said that the spirit of the party "opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions." If the people of America do not show disinterestedness, they end up corrupting the government and making it work towards their own personal benefits. Disinterestedness is fundamental to preventing democratic despotism and ensuring the rights of the minority.
This raises the question of how ordinary American citizens can live disinterestedly in the public sphere. All politicians should live disinterestedly because it is necessary for their job, but it is harder for citizens to live disinterestedly. People seem to often forget that the government of America is a republic, and in a republic, it is the people who have their say in the government as opposed to an absolute ruler. Two examples of apparent modern issues could be solved if the people were more disinterested, both of which come about from the involvement of parties in government.
The first problem is a government is often controlled by the most dominant party. In modern times, it seems that whichever party controls the executive branch also has significant power in the legislative branch. Presently, there is a majority of Democrats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Under George W. Bush, there were more Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate. People associate themselves with parties, and then feel obligated to vote for members of that party. A disinterested person would be more likely to investigate the morals and ideas of each individual running regardless of their political affiliation.
There is another problem with people who associate themselves with parties. They tend to pick up certain ideas simply because their party advocates these ideas. A current example is that a majority of Democrats are for the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act, where a majority of the Republicans are against it. Most people have a set mentality about the bill prior to reading it. People should investigate what they vote on, and not willingly give in to the pressures of party fidelity. These acts of disinterestedness are things that all American citizens can practice.
At a much more local level, last year during the school elections, one of my best friends asked me to vote for his sister in the elections. After listening to her speech, I realized that her ideas were not as good as some of the other ideas presented by other candidates. I had to make the decision of voting for my friend’s sister, or voting for the person who was best for the school. I choose to vote for the one who was best for the school. This, though I was unaware of what the term meant at the time, was an act of disinterestedness. Being under eighteen, I cannot vote for members of the government, but on a much smaller scale, I am able to show the virtue of disinterestedness within my school.
Disinterestedness is an essential virtue of the American people because it prevents the oligarchy that factional control is known to cause and that our Founding Fathers tried so hard to prevent. We should take Washington’s idea and use it in our daily lives as Wood suggests. Without disinterestedness, the great nation of America could not be the government that it is today.