Take A Seat: Civic Engagement in Society

Dicebamus hesterna die, last evening the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown sponsored a debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists in commemoration of Constitution Day.  The former were represented by Villanova University professor Dr. Colleen Sheehan, and the latter by Front Porch Republic editor Bill Kauffman.  It was encouraging to see quite an impressively full house for such a non-sexy, admittedly academic topic, and an audience composed not only of students, alumni, and faculty, but also members of the community and those simply interested in exploring the topic.  The liveliness of the discussion and the appreciation of the audience for it was very evident, and in particular I managed to provoke what I feel was one of the best lines of the evening.

During the Q&A session, before the closing statements made by each side, I asked the speakers to comment on how their respective factions looked at the 3/5 compromise.  As I mentioned yesterday, for those of my readers unfamiliar with this part of the Constitution – and which fortunately has been repealed – the Southern states were allowed to count slaves as 3/5 of a person at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. This was for the purpose of having greater proportional representation in the House of Representatives than they would otherwise have had, due to their more sparsely populated nature – as compared to the North – at the time.  The fear was that the wealthy and populous populations of New England and Pennsylvania, which were largely abolitionist, would come to dominate the House and thereby outlaw slavery entirely.

Mr. Kauffman had spent much of the evening as a kind of semi-reluctant, cheerleader-in-chief for the opinions of a man who today is a somewhat obscure member of the Founding Fathers, at least with respect to the task of rattling off the names of the Founding Fathers in a pub quiz, the Anti-Federalist Luther Martin of Maryland (1748-1826).   This is not to say that he was an apologist for the man, since he did not overlook the fact that Martin was something of a blowhard at times, in addition to often being roaringly drunk.  In response to my question, in any case, Mr. Kauffman spoke passionately about Martin’s words, as well as those of other Anti-Federalists, regarding the evils of slavery.

In response, Professor tossed back her hair, looked up thoughtfully for a moment, and then turned slightly to Mr. Kauffman and asked, simply but slightly archly, “Did Luther Martin own slaves?”  Of course, she knew that he had, and Mr. Kauffman had to fall backwards over himself a bit, admitting as much, but that this was beside the point. As Mr. Kauffman had most of the laughs that evening, making allusions to contemporary politics and some amusing characterizations, it was a wonderful little thing which Professor Sheehan managed to pull off, much appreciated by those of us in the audience who love a well-executed, verbal coup de grâce.

Now at this point, gentle reader, I could go in several directions with this blog post, but I am probably not going to go the way you think I will.  I am not going to talk about the Constitution, Luther Martin, well-worded rejoinders, or the like.  I am going to challenge you, particularly if you are no longer in school of any kind, to put down the remote and get thee to a public event such as this.

It occurred to me at one point during the evening, sitting there at my alma mater with a group of friends and listening to this interesting and often very lively debate, that there was seemingly no obligation for me to be there.  I had not paid to attend, nor was I one of the speakers, nor a necessary participant.  I was not even particularly interested in the subject matter of this week’s presentation, but attended in part to exercise the brain and to engage in the practice of civic participation.

With the increase in means and methods of entertaining ourselves at home, Americans do not attend things such as lectures, debates, symposia, etc., as much as they did in previous centuries, when people in towns and cities large and small would gather in the evening at the local college, club, or civic building to hear things such as discussions about the issues of the day, visiting experts describing the wilds of Wyoming or the habits of the platypus, and so on.  It was thought to be an encouragement to the building up of American society and the education of its citizens that Americans would take part in such events, since they would not only prove to be opportunities for broadening the mind, but also for engaging with one’s neighbors before and after the event.

Today it seems that only political campaign events continue to draw out average Americans from their homes of an evening, and then mainly those who either strongly support or strongly oppose the candidate in question.  We have lost the idea that the duty of the citizen in society is to try to better his society, and part of that involves bettering himself and encouraging the betterment of his neighbors.  A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, but it seems that we are more interested now in flopping about in the mud of a silted-up harbor.

I would encourage the reader, no matter how large or small a town he happens to live in, to at least make the attempt to place one public event on his calendar in the month ahead.  Find out what events are coming up at an area society, school, civic organization, and so on, that might prove to be interesting, or deserve your support, and where you can engage with the members of your community. Our civilization cannot prosper unless our citizens make the maintenance and building up of civilization a priority.


Ladies at a Lecture, 1940

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One thought on “Take A Seat: Civic Engagement in Society

  1. This is an excellent challenge! I agree that finding these events, lectures, etc. and fighting one’s inertia can be difficult after university life, but they are surprisingly common once we commit to asking around or checking with groups.

    If they aren’t available in a particular area, one could always start or host a meeting, no? Now there’s a challenge for any overachievers out there…

    Like

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