In Defense of the “Oath of an American Citizen”

A number of people with whom I shared the Oath of an American Citizen balked a bit at me using the word “responsibility” in relation to when our government goes awry. Responsibility, their argument went, creates too much of a commitment and renders the pledge too harsh. A better word would be “right”, they said. I want to take the time today to answer those concerns.

The fact is that I chose the word “responsibility” over the word “right” on purpose. A right is something one is allowed to or encouraged to do, but it’s also optional. Free speech and religion, the right to bear arms — these are rights. Nobody is required to exercise them, but they’re there just in case. A responsibility, on the other hand, is something one must do. It is not only allowed, not only encouraged, but necessary. Paying taxes, defending your home or family. My oath is all about responsibility, because having rights isn’t enough. Let me explain why.

There were two attempts at framing a government after the Revolutionary War, and the first was an utter failure. It failed for a number of reasons, but foremost among them was that it didn’t properly connect to the citizenry. While the Articles of Confederation did combine the 13 states as a nation and created an overarching federal structure, the citizens felt no responsibility towards it because the government had no power over their lives, and for their part the citizens had no direct voice in the government. The states had that responsibility. Within 10 years, as citizens ignored the national government, the founders could see anarchy on the horizon, their enemies in Europe waiting with bated breath. Their answer was the Constitution.

This second attempt created a federal structure with three branches, one of which consisted of two parts: one representing the states (the Senate) and one representing the people (the House of Representatives). Additionally, the federal government was given more power than it had before: ratify treaties, to raise an army, handle trade, and levy taxes, among them. The Constitution, in other words, gives the federal government direct say over people’s lives in very specific ways, but also gives people a direct voice in the government without removing states’ rights.

The Republic we are involved in requires full participation from all of its parts in order to be a cohesive whole, and one of those parts is the citizenry — it’s not a “House of Representatives” if they don’t “Represent”. It has survived — a second war with Britain, a civil war, the expansion west and the addition of 37 new states, two world wars — on the assumption that voters will choose representatives who serve their region’s needs, but also will have the presence-of-mind to understand those needs on a national scale. However, when a small percentage of a region’s voters turn out to vote, representation becomes “factioned”. In other words, a specific group becomes represented over a particular region.

And that brings me back to the topic of “responsibility” versus “right”. If it is only our “right” to vote, then we can choose not to exercise it. When that happens, it is inevitable that we will become a faction-controlled Republic, and the evidence is mounting quickly that we are already there. Voter turn-out has declined steadily since 1870 to the point where a “mandate” in 2006 was enacted by just 37% of the eligible, registered voters. We can see the results of this kind of “governing by the few”.

However, if each of us sees voting as our responsibility to the sanctity of our nation, each citizen sees the fate of the country as partly their task, and each citizen spends their requisite amount of time and energy applying themselves to that task, a faction-controlled government is theoretically impossible. Imagine, for instance, a mandate that was really a mandate. Imagine a president elected by more than a 25% “majority” (George W. Bush received 49% of the vote from 67% of the voters in 2004).

So yes, I used “responsibility” instead of “right” and I meant it. It’s not easy being a citizen of this experiment that is the United States of America, but then it was never intended to be. Easy citizenship leads to anarchy, fascism, monarchy. The founders expected their descendants to be intelligent and worthy of the mantle of responsibility thrust upon them by the Constitution. Are we, though?

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