1961 Revisited by H. Michael Karshis
"The trumpet summons us again ...to ...struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself."
President John F. Kennedy, 1961 [i]
The New Vision
In his Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy outlined a new conception of citizenship. There he said:
"Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are--but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation'--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.'"
The Old Philosophy of Citizenship
Many hold that our society is merely a rule-of-law system with no need to have any concern for the quality of the individual citizens who populate it. Such individuals tend to believe that our founding fathers did not have a common view of citizenship or they believe that this view is embedded in the constitution. But this is not correct. Their real view was actually embodied in their way of life. And they were conscious of this fact.
On this point President Thomas Jefferson said:
"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen of God...whose breasts He has made His particular deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which might otherwise escape from the face of the earth. Corruption in the morals of the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It [Corruption] is the mark set on those who 'depend' on casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any State to that of the husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure the degree of corruption ... The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manner and spirit of a people, which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker that soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." [ii]
Clearly, Jefferson thinks that farmers are morally superior to city-dwellers because of the nature of their work. He refers to farmers as "God's chosen people." And feels that the "dependence" of the city dweller creates corruption: it "begets subservience and venality" and "suffocates the germ of virtue." Strong words. But not as strong as the closing phrase that asserts: "It is the manner and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker that soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." This is not a statement about the infallibility of the rule of law: Far from it. It is a statement about the interdependence of law and constitution on the character of its people
The problem with their belief (assuming it is true) is that it is limited by technology. We are no longer a nation of farmers. Jefferson's forces no longer exist. But JFK's call suggests there is another way to build the values necessary for good citizenship.The Peace Corps As Prototype
In 1960 Senator John F. Kennedy campaigned for the office of President of the United States. During that campaign he promoted a new program, a new kind of public service eventually called the Peace Corps. October 14, 1960, on a campaign visit to the University of Michigan, he first suggested the idea with these words:
"How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: How many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we've ever made in the past."
Here President Kennedy directly asks his audience "not merely to serve one year or two years in the service", but be willing "to contribute part of your life to this country." This is a concept of service that in my opinion goes far beyond any sort of elective office, volunteerism, or charity.
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