Our Community’s Success Depends On Whether Residents Can Be Persuaded To Behave Like Citizens

This courhouse in 'chillicothe served as Ohio's state capital in 1803.

This courthouse in Chillicothe served as Ohio's state capital in 1803.

At a flea market this weekend I found and I bought an interesting book by Andrew R. L. Clayton: OHIO: The History Of A People. The book was published in 2003 by The Ohio State University Press in celebration of Ohio’s 200th birthday. At eight bucks, it was a deal.

The words in its prologue, describing attitudes of early Ohioans toward the concept of citizenship, caught my attention. Clayton writes words that apply to every community. “The political experiment that was Ohio,” he writes, “would work only if its residents could be persuaded to behave like citizens. Unlike subjects who lived at the mercy of their superiors — be they kings, queens, emperors, or aristocrats — citizens actively participated in their government.”

Wow. The concept that a citizen has important responsibilities, in 1803, defined a very high standard for citizenship. It’s a concept that seems far removed from our attitudes today. It seems a hard conclusion to make, but, it seems obvious, here in 2009, our democracy now is failing mostly because too many of us are simply refusing to act as responsible citizens. (Read my advice to Esrati and Leitzell.)

Clayton writes, “In the minds of its founders, Ohio’s success depended above all else on the participation of its citizens, not just through suffrage, juries, or military service, but in the public realm as a whole. Citizens had responsibilities as well as rights, obligations as well as freedom. Ohioans had to talk to each other. They had to gather information from newspapers, books, and pamphlets, elevate their sensibilities through exposure to events and peoples throughout the world, and participate in a larger community of free, independent men. Public culture was all about public conversation.”

Clayton sees Ohio’s founders and early settlers as individuals committed to active citizenship, who saw it as their responsibility as citizens to be well informed about public matters and to enter into meaningful “public conversation.” That was in 1803.

In 2009, this 1803 concept of citizenship remains a valuable idea. According to the standard for citizenship set by Ohio’s early citizens, I’m wondering, what percentage of registered voters in the Miami Valley could be considered good citizens?It must be a pitifully small number. Grassroots Dayton, I’m hoping, can begin to make a difference.

I intend in future posts to share more of this interesting book about Ohio. Here is a short bio about the author: “Andrew Cayton is Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A native of Cincinnati, he received a B.A. with high honors from the University of Virginia and an M.A. and Ph.D. in American History from Brown University. He has been a Visiting Professor of History at The Ohio State University as well as the John Adams (Fulbright) Professor of American Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.”

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