Calvin Prize Series: Zoe Montague

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.

Zoe Montague
St. Johnsbury, Vermont

Calvin Coolidge had strong views on citizenship. In his Radio Address of 1924, he declares that the system of the American government “is a system under which there is every opportunity for self-government and every encouragement for the people to rule.” Throughout his speeches and addresses, he explores the benefits of freedom, equality, and opportunity and their respective responsibilities. I think that Coolidge’s views, though expressed 90 years ago, are still very true of our country today. Citizens still have the benefits of freedom and opportunity and the responsibilities that accompany such cornerstones of the Declaration of Independence.

The American people hold many privileges and benefits. We are free to worship, speak, write, vote, and believe what we want to; we have incredible opportunities for education and careers. Coolidge understood the principles of equality, justice, and freedom outlined in the Declaration of Independence. He knew that “the people of our country are sovereign.” I believe that Coolidge understood the difference that the American people can make—not only in the country, but also in the world. He sought to maintain the liberty of the American people by urging them to elect those candidates whom they thought would help their country most. Coolidge also showed his understanding of equality by allowing women to vote. I agree with Coolidge’s assessment of the power of the people; he truly understood the system of democracy which Thomas Jefferson drew up in the Declaration of Independence.

With the privileges of citizenship come many responsibilities. Because of the democracy that allows us freedom and opportunity, we have the duty of serving our country. Through serving in the military, voting, obeying the laws, writing, teaching, and speaking, we must support our nation. This is done both in obvious ways such as fighting for our country in the military; voting in presidential and other elections; obeying the laws that keep us safe; and paying the taxes which support our government. Other ways of serving are less evident; through the use of our own unique talents such as writing and teaching, we contribute to a more informed nation, express our own opinions and viewpoints, and argue logically for a better world. The trade-off between our privileges and our responsibilities is important; in order to deserve our benefits, we should utilize them well. Coolidge had faith in the American people’s ability to earn this trade-off: he declared that “no decision that the people have made in any great crisis has ever shown that faith in them has been misplaced.” These words can exhort us to a greater pursuit of information concerning our country and its laws and government, so that we can truly fulfill our responsibilities as citizens.

Another major duty of an American citizen today is upholding the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence 240 years. The founding fathers created a country built on equality, justice, and freedom; it is our job to keep those principles alive and continue to fight for them. Though equality has come a long way since 1776, there is still farther to go—and it is our job to do so. The iconic phrase “all men are created equal” is still as important as it was when first penned by Thomas Jefferson. Similarly, justice and freedom should not be taken for granted; they, too, should be maintained, strengthened, and protected. Coolidge highlighted the importance of the Declaration’s doctrines: “It was not because it was proposed to establish a new

nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history.” One of the duties we have towards our country is the continuation of these new principles.

Calvin Coolidge clearly supported equality and freedom and truly kept alive the ideals of the Declaration. I agree with his exhortations to the people, and his words have inspired me to learn more about the presidential election of 2016. Through our benefits and responsibilities, I truly believe, as Calvin Coolidge did, that we can make our country and our world better places. I hope to be an informed voter and a citizen who uses and appreciates the privileges and fulfills the responsibilities of our nation.