The Founding Fathers may have declared independence from Britain in 1776, but the real work of putting together the new government did not take place until the Constitutional Convention met between May and September of 1787 in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia.
After the debate and work ended, and the delegates were leaving the hall, Elizabeth Powell, who was waiting in the crowd, is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
The word republic comes from the Latin phrase res publica, meaning “thing of the people” or the public property. A republic is a form of government in which a state is ruled by representatives of the citizen body.
The philosophy that defines a republic is republicanism. Republicanism emphasizes several tenets: liberty, the importance of civic virtue, the benefits of universal political participation, the dangers of corruption, the need for separate powers within government, popular sovereignty, and a healthy reverence for the rule of law.
Sept. 17 marks Constitution Day, the anniversary of the Constitution’s ratification. It got me thinking: With all this talk of personal liberty, have we forgotten the importance of civic virtue?
The term “liberty” appears in the due process clauses of both the Fifth and 14th amendments. As used in the Constitution, liberty refers to freedom from arbitrary and unreasonable restraint upon an individual.
Liberty from the government does not mean that citizens can just do whatever they want. The Founders understood this and tied liberty to the second tenet: civic virtue.
Civic virtue is imperative for the success of any community. Closely linked to the concept of citizenship, civic virtue can be described as the dedication of citizens to the common welfare of their community even at the cost of their individual interests.
When the debate over masks and vaccines is viewed through the lens of liberty and civic virtue together, there really shouldn’t be any debate. We should be acting with the common welfare of our communities in mind.
There are plenty of examples of those who are not being their best selves. Many of these examples are taking place in schools and at school board meetings. Here are a few more examples of “adults” putting their interpretation of personal liberty above civic duty and the welfare of our children:
In California, a Sutter Creek Elementary School teacher was allegedly assaulted during an argument over a parent’s child having to wear a mask.
“The teacher was bleeding,” Amador County Unified School District Superintendent Torie Gibson told a local television reporter. “He [the teacher] had some lacerations on his face, some bruising on his face, and a pretty good knot on the back of his head.”
Gibson said the male parent verbally assaulted the school’s principal when his daughter walked out of a school building wearing a mask. When a male teacher stepped in, the situation escalated and a physical altercation happened, resulting in injuries.
Near Austin, Texas, Eanes Independent School District reported two events involving anti-mask parents. A parent allegedly grabbed the mask off of a teacher’s face and in a separate incident, a teacher was repeatedly yelled at by a parent who complained about not being able to hear what a teacher was saying because the teacher was wearing a mask, which the parent wanted removed.
A Fort Lauderdale High School father entered a school maskless. The father and his daughter argued with a resource officer over the school’s mask mandate. Another student began using her phone to obtain a video recording of the event. According to the police report, when the father realized the student was recording the incident, the father swiftly grabbed the female student’s hand, twisted it and pushed her against a gate. Officers pulled him off the student. The father has been charged with aggravated child abuse.
In Pennsylvania, a Central Bucks County school board member resigned over death threats he claims to have received over the battle of whether his public school district should require masks in elementary schools.
A high school student spoke at his Rutherford County, Tennessee, school board meeting. The student shared with the board the story of his grandmother, a former teacher in the district, who died of the coronavirus. The student said she died “because someone wasn’t wearing a mask.” Anti-maskers sitting in the crowd laughed and interrupted him.
The pandemic has caused Americans to lose their collective minds. Adults should be leading by example and teaching their children about the partnership between liberty and civic duty.
Community leaders, elected officials, gatekeepers and parents should start calling out those whose behavior is beyond acceptable. Far too few Americans believe in — and practice — civic virtue. It is time to start telling those who don’t that this is not who we are.
Will we be able to keep this republic, as Franklin declared? Unless we can call out those who have seemingly forgotten civic virtue, I am not so sure.
Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and editorial board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.