This was a speech that I entered in the American Legion Oratorical contest. A vital point that I did not put into the speech (because I was trying to win), is that you shouldn’t vote if you aren’t willing to put up to an hour (or more) into researching the candidates.
Thursday, November 19th, 1863. The place? Gettysburg Pennsylvania. One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War had just been fought, with more than 46,000 casualties in just three days. President Abraham Lincoln gave an address which has been remembered from generation, to generation. In that speech he said that “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. … that these dead shall not have died in vain … and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
A government of, by and for the people. What does this mean? The phrase “of the people” expresses the fact that we possess it. The government is ours. We in America are a democratic republic. We have a voice, and we have a vote. But we are also “by the people”, which means that those very people who we vote for are regular citizens. Anyone can run for office, and potentially be elected to serve in our government. But the most important concept, is “for the people”. A government for the people is one that protects their rights, and does what is in their best interest. Nothing so well portrays this idea than the American jury system.
For the next few minutes I will discuss these principles and how they relate to us, and to our government. If the thousands who died at Gettysburg are not to have died in vain, it is these three concepts, that we must work to preserve.
When you think about your duty to your country, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For many it is voting. To be sure, the importance of voting is talked about so much, it has almost become cliché. But it is true nonetheless. If people don’t vote, Abraham Lincoln’s description of America as a “government of the people”is a false one.
Do you know that during a general election for president only slightly more than half of people eligible to vote actually do so? And worse yet, during the off years, only about 37% vote! This isn’t democracy! And yet, a Gallup poll from last September found that 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with their government. That’s more than four out of every five people! If you want your government officials to act differently, it is up to you to cause that change. But you shouldn’t just be satisfied with simply voting for President. An American Presidential election has never come down to just one vote. This isn’t to say that your vote doesn’t matter, because if several people didn’t vote, the outcome of an election could be changed entirely. For instance, the 2000 presidential election between George Bush & Al Gore was decided upon the results of the State of Florida, and George Bush won Florida by just 537 votes. The election could have been swayed by the votes of just a small town!
But the most important elections, the ones where your voice can have the largest impact, are the more local ones. Many people don’t vote in these so-called ‘minor’ elections, because they see the office as having little significance. But if you add up the influence of these offices all over the country, they become farmore powerful than a President could ever hope to be. And not only so, but smaller elections are often swayed by only a couple of votes! Occasionally some larger elections also are determined on a verysmall margin.
In 1839, the people of Massachusetts put on their hats & overcoats, and set out to their local polling places, to choose a governor. Some walked, some rode on horseback, and others went by carriage. When the Citizens of Massachusetts had all placed their votes, and all 100,000 votes had been counted it was determined that Marcus Morton had become governor by one vote. Your vote doesmatter.
But what happens if the person you supported didn’t win? Or perhaps the candidate didn’t turn out to be everything you’d hoped for? In any case, it is our responsibility as Americans to keep our elected officials accountable. After all, this is what a government “of the people” is all about.
In early 2010, South Carolinian Congressman Jim Clyburn describing the operations of Washington DC said that quote, “most of what we do down here, is not authorized by the Constitution.” Every congressman, every senator, and every president swears an oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States’ to the best of his ability, and yet this is the end result. Why? In part, you and I are to blame. Far too often we become apathetic toward politics and government. But at what cost? At what point will we say “No more!”, and insist that our elected officials act only within the bounds of the Constitution?
In the past I have written to my State Senator, and other elected officials, on specific issues of concern to me, and have gotten personal, handwritten replies. They are interested in hearing our opinions, if we will only take a moment out of our day to voice them. After all, they are our representatives.
We as free citizens of the United States, have the duty to try to the best of our ability to ensure that the Constitution is followed.
In his farewell address, President Andrew Jackson said that quote, “But you must remember, my fellow citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty; and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your states as well as in the federal government.”
There is however the occasional person who becomes corrupted while in office, and won’t listen to their constituents. The obvious solution is to vote them out. But sometimes there is no individual running who is any better, what then? Whatever you do, don’t give up in apathy. There is still an excellent course of action: YOU can run for office, and preserve the United States as a government “by the people”. In fact, in America, you could be president!
Typically, local elections only have a couple of people running. Sometimes, only one person is running, and sometimes there are offices for which no one is running. In Raynham North Carolina, the November 2011 elections had three open seats on the Town Council, and only one candidate. Very often small towns like Raynham have these problems, and you can be part of the solution!
In 2008, a 19-year-old college student named John Hammons was elected as mayor of Muskogee Oklahoma, a town with 38,000 residents. But what is really impressive, is that he beat the three-term incumbent with 70% of the vote!
If a college freshman can become mayor, you can as well.
Our responsibilities as Americans however, are not just limited to choosing the members of our government. Another vitally important obligation we have as Americans, is Jury Duty. It is understood in America, that everyone has the right to a jury of their peers. This comes with truly having a government “for the people”. But yet many individuals would do almost anything to get out of having to serve on a jury. This isn’t the way that it should be! While I understand the concerns of some who think that it is too great of a responsibility for them, it is those very people who are best suited for jury duty. It is they who understand the importance, and what is at stake.
When discussing jury duty, the classic Henry Fonda picture, Twelve Angry Mencomes to mind. It tells the story of a jury’s deliberation on a murder trial. At the start, all of the jurors think that the young man is guilty, except for one who doesn’t find the evidence compelling. As they deliberate over the case, Henry Fond’s character singlehandedly tries to convince the other jurors of the young man’s innocence. Tension in the room rises, and the other members of the jury begin to doubt whether the evidence is sufficiently convicting to send a young man to his death. In the end they find him ‘not guilty’. If you have the opportunity to serve on a jury, you play a vital role in the application of justice.
Apathy is a great danger to our system of government. Will you allow the thousands who died at Gettysburg, and the hundreds thousands who have lost their lives in all the wars since then to have died in vain? Or will you step up, and assume the responsibilities that come with being a free American?
Please, for the sake of your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. Go out and vote, become involved in your community, and seek to retain a government of, by and for the people.
And in all of this, always remember the words of Edmund Burke, when he said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”