Former Indiana congressional representative Lee Hamilton warned attorneys and advocates of civic education that unless citizens uphold their responsibilities and duties, democracy will not prevail.
“Our system is not self-perpetuating,” Hamilton said. “Self-government is a monumental achievement, one of the grandest achievements in the history of mankind, but it does not perpetuate itself automatically. You cannot put it on automatic pilot. There is no invisible hand that guides and preserves our institutions and our destiny. Because it has worked in the past does not mean it will work in the future and that you and I will always have – and that our children and grandchildren will always have – a free and an independent and a prosperous country.”
The southern Indiana Democrat was a keynote speaker at the Indiana Bar Foundation’s We The People state dinner Dec. 15 at Union Station in Indianapolis. Sharing the podium with Hamilton was retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard.
Held during the two-day We The People state finals, the dinner honored the attorneys, law firms and school teachers who have taught Indiana high school and middle school students about American history and democracy through the We The People program.
Indiana Bar Foundation president Judi Calhoun, Delaware County chief deputy prosecutor, served as master of ceremonies.
Hamilton and Shepard were recognized during the evening with the William Baker Award. This honor is given annually by the bar foundation to attorneys who exhibit an outstanding dedication to civic education. The crowd gave the pair a standing ovation.
Both men said they were surprised to receive the award and they are grateful for all the work the volunteers did through the We The People activities to help the next generation understand citizenship.
The IBF also honored the Pierre F. and Enid Goodrich Foundation and the Winchester Foundation for their continued financial support of the We The People program.
Shepard focused his remarks on civility and incivility in American life. He stressed the need to carefully listen to those who agree as well as disagree with us and to use respectful language when speaking. Civil dialogue, he said, will lead to a high probability of acceptance of whatever compromise results.
The retired Chief Justice also criticized gerrymandering, in particular, for driving citizens apart by rewarding people for moving to the edge instead of to the center.
Shepard said Americans today have not had the profound experiences, like the Great Depression, World War II and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, to bind them together. That is why, he said, the work of the bar foundation and civic education is even more important.
“It is one of the few genuine ways that we can help students and younger people understand the enormous value that this incredible venture that the American experiment has been has the capacity to build an even better society in the future,” he said.
Hamilton, too, underscored the value of civic education, noting each generation must learn citizenship skills anew. The succeeding generation must pass along its knowledge of the country’s history and heritage as well as teach the values of respect, empathy, tolerance and integrity.
“The privileges and opportunities as citizens we have in a representative democracy are wide and generous,” he said. “The demands upon us are imperative. We will not have liberty and justice for all, as we so often pledge, without responsible leadership and citizenship.”
Recalling his time in Congress, Hamilton said bringing people together, building a consensus behind a solution, is the toughest job in representative democracy. He echoed Shepard by noting the need to work through differences in a respectful manner rather than just hammering the opposing side.
Citizens, he said, have the responsibility to work together for the common good. Along with upholding the civic virtue of tending to their professions and their families, he reminded the dinner guests that using their civic skills to influence their communities and their nation is an essential element of representative democracy.
Representative democracy, he continued, requires citizen to act with mutual respect and tolerance as well as empathy and humility. He also called upon citizens to not just preach civic virtues, but to practice them.
“I don’t have a sure-fired formula for our success as a country,” Hamilton concluded. “I do have a sure-fired formula for our failure and that formula is to back away, to disengage from our responsibilities as American citizens. If you and I become … a nation of spectators, we will surely fail. Democracy, said (President Thomas) Jefferson, is never a final achievement, it’s a call to an untiring effort.”