I’ve heard the saying that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty since history class in junior high. I grew up thinking my parents were eternally vigilant. Every election I would watch the ritual of civic duty performed as my parents watched a debate or two and heading down to the local elementary school to vote. With freedom firmly secure they would return home with an “I voted” sticker displayed on their shirt and we’d all feel warm and fuzzy that democracy was alive and well. They followed the voting example of their parents and for many years I followed theirs. I believed my duty was to check my media outlets against the one or two debates I had watched and wisely vote for the lesser of two evils.
Then came the opportunity to host a book group in my community. The subject: America’s Founding Documents. I wasn’t well-versed in these documents, but found the deadline for accomplishing a monthly reading appealing. With my love of history in tow along with my conservative religious views I began a journey that I thought would confirm my views of one’s civic duty.
My journey has taken me through the writings of Locke, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, Machiavelli, The Cato Letters, Thomas Paine, The Declaration, The Articles of Confederation, The Constitution, The Federalist Papers, The Anti-Federalist Papers (fyi, the origin of the Bill of Rights), The Northwest Ordinance, Washington’s Farewell Address, multiple Founder’s Inaugural Addresses, Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, The Gettysburg Address, The Making of America, The Communist Manifesto, Animal Farm, 1984, The 5,000 Year Leap, and one of my personal favorites The Adams – Jefferson Letters. I am sure I left some out.
I list these not to brag, but more to show the ignorance that existed. I was fully content believing that my eternal vigilance was fulfilled at the ballot box until the principles of correct government were exposed by these readings.
These readings exposed to me the three keys of eternal vigilance. Each key is essential to each other. If one of the three keys is missing you pass the next generation either bad information, the wrong example (like my idea of civic duty growing up), or nothing at all.
The first key is devotion to truth. This requires the dedication to acquire knowledge and an openness to seek truth. Abigail Adams said, “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” One must purposefully seek for the acquisition of knowledge. It will not find you, you must seek it. If the goal is truth, then humility and courage are essential; humility to admit when you were wrong and ask for direction when needed, and courage to communicate the truth with others.
The second key is a lifelong commitment to activism. Contrary to public opinion pushing buttons on a voting machine at your local school does not constitute your civic duty. One must know what to protect and then protect it. All government originates locally, each communicating with the next level. Your city government coordinates with your county and your county with your state and your state with the federal. Protecting liberty must happen on a local level to ensure its protection elsewhere. This means you will sit through more than a couple boring meetings to hear the one thing you needed to hear, or say the one thing that needed to be said.
“But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government.” –Andrew Jackson
The third key is to teach. Make converts of those who are sitting on the fence. (There’s a good good and bad way to go about this.) But most importantly, teach your children. If you know it they need to know you know it. Governmental principles like virtues do not teach themselves. They must be identified and emulated. If our generation does not acquire it for ourselves and then teach the next generation then all will be lost. I love the fervent regard for posterity and the emphasis placed on responsibility from the founding generation. Their aim was to make all decisions in regard to its effect on the next generation. We owe them much and should aspire to do like-wise. John Quincy Adams said, “Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”
May we all reconsider our obligation to those who came before and those who will come after. And maybe someday when we recognize those like us, or see our efforts in our children we will receive a truly legitimate warm and fuzzy figurative sticker of approval.