Documents and Civic Duties

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1 Social Education 69(7), pg National Council for the Social Studies Part Documents Can Help Reinforce Behaviors (The Role that an Individual Plays in a Democracy) II Documents and Civic Duties Lee Ann Potter 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 James 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. N o v e m b e r / D e c e m b e r

2 This photo of young boys selling newspapers in front of the Capitol is part of a series by photographer Lewis Hine depicting the working conditions of children. A photograph taken in 1912 of a group of newsies, or newsboys, selling papers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., also reflects the civic duty to concern one s self with the common good. It is not the action depicted in the photo that serves as the example of the civic duty, but rather, the imperceptible actions of the photographer who took the photo and made it available. Asking students to think about why a photograph such as this one would be a government record may spark their interest in conducting additional research. Their research would reveal that this photograph was one of hundreds taken by Lewis Hine, a former New York City teacher who was so disturbed by the working conditions of children in early twentieth-century America that he quit his job to become a photographer for the federal Children s Bureau; Hine hoped that the images he captured would spur Congress to firmly address the issue of child labor. Although the bureau s ultimate objective (passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing child labor) was not achieved, other legislation did begin to address the issue. A letter sent to the secretary of the treasury in 1899 by an anonymous Civil War veteran introduces additional civic duties both appropriate and inappropriate. The writer served in the military, and during his service, he stole a loaf of bread. As explained in the letter more than three decades later, his conscience got the best of him and he chose to literally pay for his crime (p. 390). A document such as this may serve as a starting point for a classroom discussion about the relationships that exist between civic duty, individual character traits, and personal actions. Another document that might fuel such a conversation is General Dwight D. Eisenhower s in case of failure message from D-day. Eisenhower wrote the note (but misdated it) before he knew that the operation would be a success; nonetheless, as stated in the document, he took full personal responsibility for the decision to go ahead with the June 1944 Allied invasion of France (p. 391). Documents such as this, which illustrate personal accountability, offer powerful opportunities to talk with students about the role of the individual in civil society. They can also extend into thoughtful writing exercises. Finally, two photographs of children one that was taken during World War II showing a child using a war ration book, and one that was taken on August 28, 1963, featuring a toddler seated in a stroller at the March on Washington suggest yet another civic duty. Sharing these photographs with students and posing a series of document analysis questions such as What are these children doing? What civic duties do their actions relate to? What or who do you think motivated them to take such actions? may provide an opportunity to remind students that individuals are not born with good habits of citizenship. Such habits are learned, and often at a very young age. Each of us bears the responsibility of teaching civic duties and responsibilities to the next generation, and documents can help. S o c i a l E d u c a t i o n 386

3 Document Resources All of the documents featured in this article come from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, and all are available online from the National Archives in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) at research/arc/. The Ferreira letter is from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library (ARC # ); the antislavery petition is from the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46 (ARC #595408); the Lewis Hine photograph (ARC #523531) is from Records of the Children s Bureau, Record Group 102; the letter sent to the secretary of the treasury is from the General Records of the Department of the Treasury, Record Group 56 (ARC # ); Eisenhower s in case of failure message is from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library (ARC # ); the photograph of the child in the stroller comes from the Records of the U.S. Information Agency, Record Group 306 (ARC# ); and the photograph of the child with the war ration book comes from Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208 (ARC # ). You may reproduce these items in any quantity. What are these children doing? What civic duties do their actions relate to? What or who do you think motivated them to take such actions? Lee Ann Potter is the head of Education and Volunteer Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. N o v e m b e r / D e c e m b e r

4 S o c i a l E d u c a t i o n 388

5 N o v e m b e r / D e c e m b e r

6 S o c i a l E d u c a t i o n 390

7 N o v e m b e r / D e c e m b e r

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