Where Hath Duty Gone?

A few nights ago, I began reading the major speeches of President John F. Kennedy. I have not been a Democrat since I was a freshman in college, and so the respect I harbored towards President Kennedy before reading was, at the very least, superficial. However, I was surprisingly moved by a number of his speeches, specifically his inaugural address. Although now cliché, Kennedy’s most famous inaugural statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country” interested me deeply. It brought to my mind a similar quotation from Cicero, “Not for us alone are we born; our country, our friends have a share in us.”[i] These excerpts from President Kennedy and Cicero capture the essence of what we have largely lost but sorely require – a sense of duty.[ii] Yet in modern America, we have grown obsessed with rights at the expense of the sacrifices that make them possible.

As of recent, scholars have begun blaming the liberalism of the Founding for creating the atomized environment we inhabit.[iii] This argument is only half true. Individualistic liberalism existed within the most radical of the Founders, such as Jefferson and Madison. But the spirit of the Founding extends to more than just these two men. Most of the Founders thought morality and piety were every bit as important as rights and institutions in encouraging human flourishing. John Dickinson’s first act as Governor of Pennsylvania was to issue a proclamation encouraging pious virtue, and in the Constitution of Massachusetts John Adams argued that without reverence for a higher being, humans could not gain wisdom.[iv] The reality is that most Founders understood that to be a successful democracy, virtue was necessary.

This would manifest as a sense of duty; the idea that we are bound by obligations beyond our own desires, subservient first to God’s will.[v] This principle was not merely a feature of man but supplied the foundation for all just behavior. As John Quincy Adams put it, “in every situation in which mortal man can be placed there is a line of a conduct before him, which is his duty to pursue.”[vi] Unlike the modern caricature, the Founding generation understood duty may often conflict with our own personal inclinations.

However, it must be acknowledged that there exists a lack of a mechanism in our written Constitution that effectively preserves duty. A strong sense of duty was so ubiquitous in the early days of the American Republic, however, that the Founding generation can almost be forgiven for this oversight. They would have never have dreamed that we would live as we do now – in an age where a great many spend their entire lives avoiding as much obligation as possible. What was taken for granted was the extent to which religion and education, divorced from each other, could sustain the dutiful culture they understood as a prerequisite.

This indeed begs the question, what inherent to democracy or the arrangement of the nation would make the decline of duty a reality? What aforementioned counterweight did the Founding generation miss? The French thinker Alexis De Tocqueville provides the most compelling answer to these questions.[vii] In Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that the chief problem with democracy is the way it encourages individualism. Democracy tells every man he can rule unaided, and as a consequence citizens begin to turn away from the institutions that provide guidance. Religion, tradition, and philosophy are disregarded in this way in favor of individual supremacy. Democracy (to amend Huey Long’s famous catchphrase) promises every man that he may be a king and that he needs no help to rule.

It is strong social institutions, like those we once had, that provide the only means through which a democratic populace can learn any sense of duty. Democracy without such things encourages a close-minded individualism that recognizes no obligation to any person but ourselves. How often do we now hear that the most important thing about life is “to love yourself?” This shockingly individualistic statement captures the zeitgeist of a selfish age.[viii]

Yet, not all is lost. In The Social Contract, Rousseau declares that “mankind is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”[ix] Since that statement, the West has worked its hardest to shatter every chain visible. Unfortunately, we have largely been successful at this, but we are beginning to realize the disastrous results of this endeavor. Some are awakening to the reality that not all chains are bad. That the strictures which tradition, religion, and duty place on us are good things. They make us happier, and ironically, they make us freer. The time is ripe for conservatives to seize on this dawning sentiment, and with it revive a sense of truth and duty.


[i] Cicero, On Duties.

[ii] It must be said – that whatever else we may think of President Kennedy, he did work harder than most modern statesmen to revive a sense of duty. 

[iii] For the very best example of such scholarship see Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed?

[iv] This tradition of emphasizing morality was continued by the Whig party (as represented by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay) and later by moderate republicans (best represented by Abraham Lincoln).

[v] Whatever we may think of deist founders such as Jefferson, or even probably atheists such as Ben Franklin they lived their lives in accord with duty and expected others to do so as well.

[vi] The Diary of John Quincy Adams, January 1st, 1828.

[vii] In general it seems that Tocqueville understood America better than most Americans have in their entire lifetime.

[viii] It leaves out a place for a great many other things, but since the duty is the topic of the essay I shall stick to that.

[ix] Jean Jaque Rousseau, The Social Contract.