Americapedia

Responsibility

Responsibility means meeting one’s obligations promptly, thoroughly, and willingly, without expecting others to take care of them. Responsible people think about the consequences of their words and actions, and accept those consequences—bad or good. The responsibilities of citizenship include both private and public responsibilities.

The Founders believed that the government created by the Constitution was unfit for anything but a virtuous people, and therefore Americans must uphold certain values in their private lives. John Adams said, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.” Richard Henry Lee claimed, “A popular government cannot flourish without virtue in the people.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.” Thus the citizen’s primary responsibilities are to take care of oneself and family, and to show consideration for the rights of others. These responsibilities are facilitated through the practice of private civic values—including courage, initiative, industry, justice, integrity, moderation, perseverance, respect, and others—that help ensure the happiness of society as a whole. Citizens can be responsible in their private lives by providing for themselves and their families, following through on personal commitments, obeying laws, picking up trash, and keeping up the appearance of their homes. Involvement with local churches, charities, public libraries, interest groups, and other institutions provide even more opportunities for individuals to be responsible and productive in their communities. When citizens act responsibly, society as a whole benefits. When citizens are irresponsible, society suffers.

In addition to these private responsibilities that deal with general virtue, Americans also have particular responsibilities as citizens. The Founders believed that liberty required responsibility—both for oneself and for the common good. Thomas Paine asserted in The American Crisis, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” In his First Inaugural Address, President John F. Kennedy urged citizens to be responsible: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America warned against the danger to democracy that arises from excessive individualism, and encouraged public responsibility on the part of citizens.

Since America is a republic based on popular sovereignty, citizens have the responsibility to stay informed about and engaged with their government. Voting, which Samuel Adams called “one of the most solemn trusts in human society,” is one important way to be actively involved in the political process. Citizens are therefore responsible for knowing how their government operates and what their government is doing. Reading the newspaper or watching the news are easy ways to stay informed about local, state, and national politics.

An understanding of constitutional principles including individual rights, federalism, limited government, and majority rule versus minority rights is also fundamental to American citizenship. Citizens must also know and obey the law, pay taxes and perform jury duty.

Furthermore, citizens should be aware of the many avenues they have for individual efficacy, including circulating and signing petitions, volunteering, speaking and writing for or against the passage of laws, working on political campaigns, serving in the military, or serving in government.

American individuals who exhibited or urged responsibility include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville, Douglas MacArthur and Ronald Reagan.