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Citizenship and American History

by James Marshall - 1936

WHAT do we mean by training in American citizenship? Is it only to teach that we are a great country in which any native born American can become President, that everyone has a right to work and amass a fortune, that we have been victorious in our wars, that we have national heroes who should be emulated, that all citizens have a right to vote and ought to vote, and to make our students read the Constitution?

WHAT do we mean by training in American citizenship? Is it only to teach that we are a great country in which any native born American can become President, that everyone has a right to work and amass a fortune, that we have been victorious in our wars, that we have national heroes who should be emulated, that all citizens have a right to vote and ought to vote, and to make our students read the Constitution? Such teaching, together with a few projects in so-called self-government in classrooms and extra-curricular activities (such projects being well chaperoned by the authorities) are substantially our present training in citizenship.

Have we not now outgrown this concept of citizenship education? Have we not come to the point of inquiring what we mean by American citizenship? The active interest in the subject indicates that many of us, teachers and laymen, have doubts about the validity of what usually passes as education for citizenship, and we are searching for a new concept of American citizenship and a new means of teaching it.

Of course we must teach the form of government, who makes the laws, who administers them, how these officials are selected. But if the form of government is to be meaningful we must study it and teach it in the light of American history, of American economic development, and of American culture. If we are to understand American citizenship, its peculiar theme and virtues, we must find its meaning in the play of economic, cultural, social, and geographical forces. In other words, American government and American citizenship are not gems set in a museum show-case. They are set in the American scene and it is that setting which gives to them their content.


For an understanding of the evolving American conception of citizenship we must go back to the Puritan Revolution in England. Cromwell and his followers were not just a party of radicals out to behead a king and destroy noblemen. The Tudors had crushed medieval feudalism but the powers and privileges and sovereign weapons which had been divided under feudalism among the barons were now concentrated in the king and his retainers. In the application of these powers the kings interfered with the interests of the burghers, the merchants and craftsmen, who were growing in power. By the toll which he took on the business of this growing middle class, the king brought about a conflict which culminated in the Puritan Revolution, by which the new middle class sought to restrain the dictatorial interference by the sovereign with their enterprises.

The English people were freed of this dominion, but the colonies were not. The Crown still claimed dictatorial powers over the American colonies, and the English middle class, who had won their own independence and who were profiting from the trade with the colonies in tea and manufactured goods, supported the king. And so Burke cried out:

To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depredate the value of freedom itself; and we shall never seem to gain a paltry advantage over them in debate, without attacking some of those principles, or deriding some of those feelings, for which our ancestors shed their blood.

The American Revolution was the continuation on this continent of the middle class Puritan Revolution. By the time the American Revolution broke out, the American leaders had absorbed the political philosophy of Rousseau and Montesquieu and the other ideologists of the French Revolution, so that the keynote of the American Revolution became "liberty and democracy." If we are to train for American citizenship we must follow through this theme of liberty and democracy. How have Americans striven for economic freedom? How have they striven for political freedom, for religious freedom, for security, for democratic control?

For the greater part of the seventy years after our government was established, the agrarian South, dominated by the slave owning plantation magnates, controlled the policy of the government. At times, it is true, the mercantile and financial interests of the seaboard raised their voices and established the two United States banks. Under Jackson the small farmer of the frontier broke loose and toot control for a tune. But in the main it was the slave owning landlords of the South who controlled Congress and selected the Presidents until the eve of the Civil War.

When economic conditions became acute in the cities or when the farms of the East became exhausted and the small farmer could no longer compete on his old farm, new homesteads were staked out in the West. These farmers of the West, competing with the slave labor of the South, and the budding industries of the North, competing with foreign manufacturers, combined in 1860 to elect Lincoln as President. They wanted mobile labor; they wanted tariffs. Through the election of Lincoln control passed from the South to the East and Middle West. This has been sometimes called the Second American Revolution and it was followed immediately by the Civil War, a form of counter-revolution by the plantation owners who had been dispossessed of their domination. Then, in the name and in accord with the theme of liberty and democracy, slavery was abolished; the power of the class dominant in national affairs was destroyed. The states were prohibited from interfering with "life, liberty and property without due process of law." (Compare this with the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" of the Declaration of Independence.) And what did that mean? That also largely meant economic freedom. It meant, if one is to judge from the due process cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, essentially freedom of contract. It meant writing into the Constitution laissez faire, the economics of Adam Smith, Bentham, Mill and the utilitarian school generally, the economics which made possible the expansion of nineteenth century industry and commerce.


But laissez faire led to the merciless destruction of smaller competitors, and the trust-busting era set in. Freedom of contract led to the exploitation of labor, long hours, low wages, sweatshops, working conditions dangerous to health and morals. As a reaction, unionism developed and welfare legislation emerged. So again, the stage was set for a new orientation of the theme of liberty and democracy. And the depression has come and emphasized the problem anew.

How much liberty shall financiers and corporate managers have to issue securities as they please, to destroy their competitors, to interfere with the organization of their workers? How much liberty shall the workers have to attempt to control their working conditions through collective bargaining by representatives of their own selection, through strikes and political action? How much democracy can there be and how long can it continue in a country in which wealth has been concentrated in the manner shown by the report of President Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends? Are we perhaps reaching that dangerous period, the possibility of which was foreseen by Daniel Webster over 100 years ago when he said:

The freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable, if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless. In such a case, the popular power must break in upon the rights of property, or else the influence of property must limit and control the exercise of popular power. Universal suffrage, for example, could not long exist in a community where there was great inequality of property. The holders of estates would be obliged, in such case, either in some way to restrain the right of suffrage, or else such right of suffrage would ere long divide the property.

Should we not, in training for citizenship, ask our students to face this dilemma, so well expressed by Webster, and so graphically illustrated in the current history of Europe? Should they not consider whether liberty can exist without democracy and whether democracy can exist while big industry and finance are undemocratized? These questions may sound like the questions of Karl Marx but they are actually the questions raised by Daniel Webster.


Now, there are some who say that these things should not be discussed, that to criticize the economic system is radical and therefore un-American, that to oppose the policies of the government is unpatriotic and that to propose a change in the Constitution is treason. They want to suppress discussion. Paraphrasing the language of Burke, quoted above, and spoken with reference to the American colonies, these ignorant patriots, to prove that all who favor change are un-American, are obliged to depreciate the value of American freedom itself, and to gain a paltry advantage in debate attack some of those prin­ciples or deride some of those feelings for which Americans have shed their blood for over 150 years. You cannot suppress liberty of discussion without suppressing one of the very pillars of American citizenship, and I would rather see that liberty continue with all the factional disputes which it engenders than to suppress it in the interests of the undoubted solidarity which would come with the inevitable dictatorship which would follow on the heels of the elimination of factional dispute. There is nothing original in a militant defense of unlimited freedom of discussion. The so-called patriots who fear the liberty of discussion should refer to Madison's words in the Federalist, No. X:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires but it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

Liberty and democracy form the dominant chord in the symphony of American civilization. Their interpretation may differ at times, may differ among groups of the people, their achievement and their application may vary from issue to issue, but liberty and democracy must be the center of any program for training in American citizenship, because they are the essence of Americanism.

So far in this article the economic theme in our history has been emphasized, but in America and in training for American citizenship there must always be kept in mind the importance of the variety of the racial and cultural differences of our people. Equality before the law, of all people, irrespective of race, creed or color, has been written into the Constitution; and in training for citizenship we cannot emphasize too strongly the dignity of men, although they be not of our own race, and the value of cultures, though they be not cultures out of which we have grown. For contempt by one part of the population for other members of the population eventually leads to the exploitation of the latter by the former, and this in turn endangers liberty and democracy and creates points of tension and areas of conflict which impede the healthy development of the entire nation.

And in teaching American citizenship we must likewise emphasize religious liberty; we must explain that this means more than the mere right to go to the church of one's choosing. American religious liberty means that there is no official church, that there shall be no political discrimination and no economic discrimination based on creed.

It is scarcely necessary to emphasize that in teaching citizenship mere retailing of fact is not sufficient to the inculcation of intelligent citizenship. A viewpoint from which to interpret those facts is necessary. This creates true knowledge. If democracy is to continue, knowledge is essential. Here again Madison is our authority.

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives them.

In other words, liberty and democracy depend upon knowledge. Dictatorship thrives on ignorance, on terror, but self-government requires informed intelligence.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 2 Number 4, 1936, p. 113-115
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13228, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 4:49:58 PM

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