Documents and Civic Duties

By Potter, Lee Ann | Social Education, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

Documents and Civic Duties

Potter, Lee Ann, Social Education

When Benjamin Franklin emerged from the State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the close of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, he was reportedly asked what type of government had been created. According to lames McHenry, one of George Washington's aides, Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." Thirty-three years later, Thomas Jefferson shared a similar sentiment with his friend William Charles Jarvis. He stated, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves." And in 1821, in the Supreme Court's decision on Cohens v. Virginia, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, "The people made the Constitution and the people can unmake it. It is a creature of their own will, and lives only by their will."

Franklin, Jefferson, Marshall, and countless others have eloquently emphasized the responsibility that every citizen bears for insuring the success of our system of government. But for students there is often a disconnect between hearing that they personally bear an important responsibility, and understanding both what that means and what specific actions they can personally take.

Primary source documents can make that connection much clearer for students, by illustrating what is meant by responsible citizenship. The people who create documents as well as those who are featured in them can serve as models of civic behavior--both appropriate and inappropriate--whether they are performing a civic duty or, more specifically, exercising civic responsibility. The documents themselves can serve as tools for starting class discussions, encouraging research, prompting writing activities, and more.

Civic duties and responsibilities are numerous. They include voting, serving on a jury, signing a petition, writing to a government official, paying one's taxes, being knowledgeable about current events, registering for the draft, serving in the military, being a law-abiding citizen, volunteering, addressing issues that affect the larger society, contributing to the common good, protesting injustice, passing on civic values to the next generation, and more. Government documents, in their almost infinite variety, feature individuals and groups performing such civic duties, and often more than one simultaneously.

A letter sent to President Gerald R. Ford in September 1974 by elementary school student Anthony Ferreira is one document that exemplifies a citizen exercising multiple civic duties (p. 388). In a single sentence, on Big Chief paper (a lined writing tablet), young Ferreira demonstrated his knowledge of current events by capturing American public opinion about the president's decision to pardon Richard Nixon. "Dear President Ford," the letter says, "I think you are half Right and half wrong." While the historical context of the document may not be immediately evident to students, its vagueness may pique student curiosity. Although the letter may seem too simple to be an effective teaching tool, in fact, its simplicity serves as a powerful reminder that whether one is old enough to vote or not, all American citizens have a First-Amendment right to petition their government and the responsibility to contact their public officials. This document may be all the encouragement students need to contact their own public officials about current issues. The document also serves as a prompt for asking students to identify one of the powers granted to the president in Article II, section 2, of the Constitution--the power to grant pardons.

An 1844 anti-slavery petition from the women of Philadelphia to Congress is another example (p. 389). The signers of this document also did not have the right to vote, but they did have the right to petition, and they chose to exercise it. Students who are introduced to this document are likely to note how this legislative record relates to another civic duty: that of concerning oneself with issues that affect the larger society, or simply the "common good. …

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