Rights and Duties of American Citizens by S. E. Forman

1903

Read the bill of rights in the constitution of your State and you will find there, set down in plain black and white, the rights which you are to enjoy as an American citizen. This constitution tells you that you have the right to your life, to your liberty, and to the property that you may honestly acquire; that your body, your health and your reputation shall be protected from injury; that you may move freely from place to place unmolested; that you shall not be imprisoned or otherwise punished without a fair trial by an impartial jury; that you may worship God according to the promptings of your own conscience; that you may freely write and speak on any subject providing you do not abuse the privilege; that you may peaceably assemble and petition government for the redress of grievances. These are civil rights. They, together with many others equally dear, are guaranteed by the State and national constitutions, and they belong to all American citizens.

These civil rights, like the air and the sunshine, come to us in these days as a matter of course, but they did not come to our ancestors as a matter of course. To our ancestors rights came as the result of hard-fought battles. The reading of the bill of rights would cause your heart to throb with gratitude did you but know the suffering and sacrifice each right has cost.

Now just as our rights have not been gained without a struggle, so they will not be maintained without a struggle. We may not have to fight with cannon and sword as did our forefathers in the Revolution, but we may be sure that if our liberty is to be preserved there will be fighting of some kind to do. Such precious things as human rights cannot be had for nothing.

One of the hardest battles will be to fulfil the duties which accompany our rights, for every right is accompanied by a duty. If I can hold a man to his contract I ought (I owe it) to pay my debts; if I may worship as I please, I ought to refrain from persecuting another on account of his religion; if my property is held sacred, I ought to regard the property of another man as sacred; if the government deals fairly with me and does not oppress me, I ought to deal fairly With it and refuse to cheat it; if I am allowed freedom of speech, I ought not to abuse the privilege; if I have a right to a trial by jury, I ought to respond when I am summoned to serve as a juror; if I have a right to my good name and reputation, I ought not to slander my neighbor; if government shields me from injury, I ought to be ready to take up arms in its defense.

Foremost among the rights of American citizenship is that of going to the polls and casting a ballot. This right of voting is not a civil right; it is a political right which grew out of man's long struggle for his civil rights. While battling with kings and nobles for liberty the people learned to distrust a privileged ruling class. They saw that if their civil rights were to be respected, government must pass into their own hands or into the hands of their chosen agents. Hence they demanded political rights, the right of holding office and of voting at elections.

The suffrage, or the right of voting, is sometimes regarded as a natural right, one that belongs to a person simply because he is a person.

People will say that a man has as much right to vote as he has to acquire property or to defend himself from attack. But this is not a correct view. The right to vote is a franchise or privilege which the law gives to such citizens as are thought worthy of possessing it. It is easy to see that everybody cannot be permitted to vote. There must be certain qualifications, certain marks of fitness, required of a citizen before he can be entrusted with the right of suffrage. These qualifications differ in the different States. In most States every male citizen over twenty-one years of age may vote. In four States, women as well as men exercise the right of suffrage.

But the right of voting, like every other right, has its corresponding duty. No day brings more responsibilities than Election Day. The American voter should regard himself as an officer of government. He is one of the members of the electorate, that vast governing body which consists of all the voters and which possesses supreme political power, controlling all the governments, federal and State and local. This electorate has in its keeping the welfare and the happiness of the American people. When, therefore, the voter takes his place in this governing body, that is, when he enters the polling-booth and presumes to participate in the business of government, he assumes serious responsibilities. In the polling-booth he is a public officer charged with certain duties, and if he fails to discharge these duties properly he may work great injury. What are the duties of a voter in a self-governing country? If an intelligent man will ask himself the question and refer it to his conscience as well as deliberate upon it in his mind, he will conclude that he ought to do the following things:

  1. To vote whenever it is his privilege.
  2. To try to understand the questions upon which he votes.
  3. To learn something about the character and fitness of the men for whom he votes.
  4. To vote only for honest men for office.
  5. To support only honest measures.
  6. To give no bribe, direct or indirect, and to receive no bribe, direct or indirect.
  7. To place country above party.
  8. To recognize the result of the election as the will of the people and therefore as the law.
  9. To continue to vote for a righteous although defeated cause as long as there is a reasonable hope of victory.

"The proudest now is but my peer,
    The highest not more high;
To-day of all the weary year,
    A king of men am I.

"To-day alike are great and small,
    The nameless and the known;
My palace is the people's hall,
    The ballot-box my throne!"
WHITTIER.
 

Election Day

The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

This day is now a holiday so that every man may have an opportunity to cast his vote. Unlike most other holidays, it does not commemorate an event, but it is a day which has a tremendous meaning if rightly looked upon and rightly used. Its true spirit and significance are well set forth in the following pages. By act of Congress the date for the choosing of Presidential electors is set for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in the years when Presidents are elected, and the different States have now nearly all chosen the same day for the election of State officers.