Calvin Prize Series: Abigail Ham (Runner-up)

Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth runner-up

The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation established the Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth, for writers aged 19 years and younger currently living or attending school in the state of Vermont.

The first-place prize of $1,500 and the runner-up prize of $500 are awarded for the article, essay or poem under 1,000 words that best answers the prompt of this year’s contest:

What is the correct trade-off between the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship? 2016 marked the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It also marks the 90th anniversary of Coolidge’s famous address “The Inspiration of the Declaration of Independence,” delivered in Philadelphia on July 5, 1926.

The Declaration reminds us of the privileges, but also the responsibilities, of citizenship.

A great privilege of American citizenship is the right to equality. This core principle is enshrined in the Declaration. As Coolidge noted, all citizens are equal to one another and all citizens are equal to their government. After all, the legitimacy of the government comes from the consent of the governed. With equality comes freedom — another hallmark privilege of American citizenship. In Coolidge’s time, these points were more controversial than today: women voted for the first time in presidential elections only in 1920, the year Harding and Coolidge were elected. Only in 1924, when Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, did all Native Americans gain citizenship.

Yet citizenship also requires that citizens assume great responsibilities. Often as president, Coolidge highlighted the responsibility of citizens to vote, and the importance that they be informed voters. In a 1924 radio address he said: “To live up to the full measure of citizenship in this nation requires not only action, but it requires intelligent action. It is necessary to secure information and to acquire education.” Coolidge also believed citizens had a responsibility to learn about and respect America’s institutions of government, telling Congress in 1923: “American institutions rest solely on good citizenship.” Other responsibilities of citizenship that are often cited include: respecting the rule of law, serving in the military, and paying taxes.

The essays, which will appear in The Reader in the coming weeks, were written by five exceptional Vermont students who were selected as semi-finalists and finalists for the 2016 Calvin Prize. The prize is sponsored by the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, and made possible by the generous support of National Life Group.

 

Abigail Ham
Sheffield, Vermont

“The people of our country are sovereign. They have no right to say they do not care. They must care!” Calvin Coolidge, 1924. Imagine you are standing on the edge of a cliff, continually tipping forward, then back, forward, and then back again. Then you look down and see that the cliff is not a cliff at all but a tower of men and women of the past, holding you up, supporting you. And you realize that if you fall, they will all fall with you. This is both the privilege and the responsibility of citizenship; you are the fledgling generation, your freedom was provided for hundreds of years before your birth. But it is your duty to provide that same freedom for those who will live hundreds of years from now.

Your freedom has been fought for daily, since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As Calvin Coolidge said, “We are obliged to conclude that the Declaration of Independence represented the movement of a people. It was not, of course, a movement from the top. Revolutions do not come from that direction.” It was a movement of the people, the citizens whose responsibility it became to fight for the freedom they demanded. Those signatures represent the thousands of citizens who incited and carried out the rebellion, the men at the base of that tower: John Hancock, John Adams, and all the rest, laying the foundation of freedom. “… The Continental Congress was not only composed of great men, but it represented a great people.” Not a day has gone by since then that someone did not lay aside their rights to save yours, or lay down their very life to defend the freedom tower.

When Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights, he was fighting for our generation. Without his work we would not have even the most basic privileges of citizenship: freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition. Since then, over 1,400,000 Americans have died defending your freedom in the last century and over 40,000 have gone missing. These are the giants on whose shoulders this generation stands, the giants who built this tower of freedom for us and continue to support us at its height. But the care of that tower does not come without responsibility. We must continue to fight, whether by joining the military or defending freedom right here at home by sharing ideas, supporting our troops, and, of course, voting. Calvin Coolidge said, “all the influence of public opinion, all the opportunity for self-government through the rule of the people, depends upon one single factor. That is the ballot box,” and “ …the people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.”

Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech states, “ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Like him, we must fight for our freedom, and for the freedom of every generation after us, or we will be the last to enjoy the view from the tower of freedom that is America. As Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is only ever one generation from extinction.” We are that generation, and it is up to us to build the foundation for the next generation, as John Hancock, Eldridge Gerry and Martin Luther King Jr. did for us. The fight is not yet won; there are still injustices, squandered rights, and terrorists, and our responsibility is to combat them, but we have privilege also there is still freedom.

Our generation will decide the fate of the freedom tower, as each generation has before us. Like Martin Luther King Jr., we must continually dream of furthering liberty and justice for all, and fight for our freedom. That freedom is the privilege of citizenship, but it is also the responsibility to keep that freedom intact for our children and grandchildren. “The people of our country…have no right to say they do not care. They must care! The institutions of our country rest upon faith in the people. No decision that the people have made in any great crisis has ever shown that faith in them has been misplaced.”

We must preserve that trust. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, but our own shoulders must be ready to support the next generation.