<< The Body Politic

Citizenship lessons from the vault

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Horace MannWe recently came across this speech by the education reformer and Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann (1796–1859) and had to share. Given in celebration of Independence Day in 1842, Mann discusses the need to think seriously about the perpetuation of our political institutions (a theme Abraham Lincoln had given attention to in his 1838 Lyceum Address) and the role that a strong culture of civic education plays in doing so. We thought it especially appropriate to share now, as it relates to the recent release of our latest case study looking at civic education and school culture in charter schools.

[L]et me again say, how obvious it is that we stand in the same relation to posterity that our ancestors do to us. And, as we boldly summon our forefathers to our tribunal for adjudication upon their conduct, so will our conduct be brought into judgment by our successors. Each generation has duties of its own to perform; and our duties, though widely different from theirs, are not less important in their character, or less binding in their obligations. It was their duty to found or establish our institutions, and nobly did they perform it. It is our duty to perfect and perpetuate these institutions; and the most solemn question which can be propounded to this age, is, are we performing it nobly? Shall posterity look back upon our present rulers, as we look back upon Arnold, or as we look back upon Washington? . . .

I have said that it is our especial and appropriate duty to perfect and perpetuate the institutions we have received. I am aware that this has been said for the last fifty years, thousands of times every year. I do not reiterate the sentiment, therefore, for its originality; nor even for its importance; but for the sake of inquiring, in what manner this work is to be done? It has long seemed to me that it would be more honorable to our ancestors, to praise them, in words, less; but in deeds, to imitate them more. If from their realms of blessedness, they could address us, would they not say?  “Prove the sincerity of your words, by imitating the examples you profess to admire. The inheritance we left you is worthless, unless you have inherited the spirit also by which it was acquired. The boon we would bequeath to the latest posterity, can never reach and bless them, save through your hands. In these spiritual abodes, whence all disturbing passions are excluded, where all illusions are purged from our eyes, we can neither be beguiled nor flattered by lip-service. Deeds are the only language we understand; and one act of self-sacrifice for the welfare of mankind is more acceptable to us than if you should make every mountain and hill-top a temple to hallow our names, and gather thither the whole generation as worshippers.” . . .

In this exigency, I affirm that we need far more of wisdom and rectitude than we possess. Preparations for our present condition have been so long neglected that we now have a double duty to perform. We have not only to propitiate to our aid a host of good spirits, but we have to exorcise a host of evil ones. Every aspect of our affairs, public and private, demonstrates that we need, for their successful management, a vast accession to the common stock of intelligence and virtue. But intelligence and virtue are the product of cultivation and training. They do not spring up spontaneously. As yet, all Utopias belong to fiction and not to history; and these fictions have so little verisimilitude, that ages have passed since the last one was written. We need, therefore, unexampled alacrity and energy in the application of all those influences and means, which promise the surest and readiest returns of wisdom and probity, both public and private.

This is my subject on the present occasion;—a demonstration that our existing means for the promotion of intelligence and virtue are wholly inadequate to the support of a Republican government. . . .

If then every government,—even the simplest,—requires talent and probity for its successful administration; and if it demands these qualities in a higher and higher degree, in proportion to its complexity, and its newness; then does our government require this talent and probity, to an extent indefinitely beyond that of any other which ever existed. And if, in all governments, wisdom and goodness in the ruler, are indispensable to the dignity and happiness of the subject; then, in a government like our own, where all are rulers, all must be wise and good, or we must suffer the alternative of debasement and misery. It is not enough that a bare majority should be intelligent and upright, while a large minority is ignorant and corrupt. Even in such a state, we should be a house divided against itself, which, we are taught, cannot stand. Hence knowledge and virtue must penetrate society, through and through. We need general intelligence and integrity as we need our daily bread. A famine in the latter, would not be more fatal to natural health and life, than a dearth in the former to political health and life. . . .

But men are not born in the full possession of such an ability [to rule]. They do not necessarily develope any such ability, as they grow up from infancy to manhood. Competency to fill so high a sphere can be acquired only by the cultivation of natural endowments, and the subjugation of inordinate propensities. We laugh to scorn the idea of a man’s being born a ruler or lawgiver, whether King or Peer; but men are born capable of making laws and being rulers, just as much in the Old World as in the New. With us, every voter is a ruler and a law-maker, and therefore it is no less absurd to say, here, that a man is fit to be a voter by right of nativity or naturalization, than it is, in the language of the British constitution, to say, that a man shall be Sovereign, or Lord, by hereditary descent. Qualification, in both cases, is something superadded to birth or citizenship; and hence, unless we take adequate means to supply this qualification to our voters, the Bishop of London or the Duke of Wellington may sneer at us for believing in the hereditary right to vote, with as good a grace as we can at them, for believing in the hereditary right to rule.

Mann continues at some length extolling the necessity of civic education if the American experiment in self-rule is to continue successfully. You can read the whole speech here.

AEI