True Patriotism Demands a 'Debt of Service'

By Daily Editorials

July 5, 2016 5 min read

"There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him."

Thomas Jefferson wrote these words 20 years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, whose 240th anniversary we celebrate on this Fourth of July. They were part of an odd letter to his friend and fellow signer of the Declaration, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina.

Jefferson was writing to order 20 bushels of black-eyed peas from Rutledge's farm, but he went on to protest the abuse visited on those in public service. This was a man who had just been elected vice president and who, four years later, would be elected to the first of two terms as president after helping to heap abuse on his old friend John Adams.

But he wanted Rutledge to understand he wasn't seeking power; he was in public life only because he had a debt of service.

On the nation's 240th birthday, "debt of service" is no longer a universally embraced concept. Many Americans skate by. Roughly 40 percent of eligible voters don't show for presidential elections. Far fewer show up for off-year elections and local elections.

Only 1 in 14 of us has ever served in the military. Police officers, firefighters and other first responders pay their debt of service. So do elected officials, though too many of them see public service as a means of personal enrichment. They deserve the abuse that Jefferson spoke of.

Complaining about taxes has become a national pastime. Some of those on whom nature and fortune have bestowed the most bounty don't pay taxes at all and stash their money overseas.

Poll after poll shows a staggering lack of knowledge of civic affairs. Newspaper readership is down and so are audiences for TV and radio news. Microsoft estimates that a mere 4 percent of web users pay active attention to news sites — which is doubly troubling when matched with the numbers of presumably uninformed voters participating in elections.

Democracy can't work if its citizens don't pay attention. Demagogues and plutocrats will take advantage. False narratives can have disastrous consequences. See the Brexit election in Great Britain. That result was foreshadowed in April when an online survey found Britons eager to name a $300 million polar research vessel "Boaty McBoatface." Rue, Britannia.

Patriots pay attention. They don't take their country for granted or treat participation as a joke.

In the United States, the very word "patriot" has been appropriated by right-wing extremist groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center uses "patriot movement" as shorthand for conspiracy-minded groups that see the federal government as their primary enemy. There were 149 such groups before the nation elected its first black president in 2008. Now there are over a thousand.

We want the word "patriot" back. It belongs to anyone who pays his or her debt of service, even if it's just by paying attention to civic affairs. Anyone who seeks out facts and refuses to accept distractions and easy answers is a patriot. America is not just a name on a beer can.

That's a pretty low bar. Consider Jefferson, Rutledge and the 54 others who signed the declaration in 1776. Benjamin Franklin is said to have told them, "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Jefferson wasn't exaggerating when he wrote in the declaration that "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" were on the line. Those who today sneer at "elitists" should consider that the declaration was written and signed by the colonial elite. All of them would have been better off trying to get along with King George III.

Instead they led a revolution. They found huge and engaged support in the colonies for independence. Within four months of its publication, Thomas Paine's call to arms, "Common Sense," had sold 400,000 copies in a fledgling nation of 3 million people.

Not everyone was willing to pick up a musket and fight; George Washington's army at first was plagued by desertion and low re-enlistment rates. But when soldiers were offered land and opportunity they stayed and fought, enduring dreadful casualty rates. America's revolution was won, with a little help from France, by sharing the wealth.

This was an engaged citizenry. These were patriots. These were men and women who paid a debt of service for ideals they believed in. This is how the nation began, and this is the only way it will endure.

REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

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