“I beg you, at the same time, to do me the justice to be assured that this resolution has not been taken without a strict regard to all the considerations appertaining to the relation which binds a dutiful citizen to his country; and that in withdrawing the tender of service, which silence in my situation might imply, I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness, but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.”
The Dutiful Citizen
1. That which a person owes to another; that which a person is bound, by any natural, moral or legal obligation, to pay, do or perform. Obedience to princes, magistrates and the laws is the duty of every citizen and subject; obedience, respect and kindness to parents are duties of children; fidelity to friends is a duty; reverence, obedience and prayer to God are indispensable duties; the government and religious instruction of children are duties of parents which they cannot neglect without guilt.
The concept of duty is largely lost on today’s generation. In a world of “do what feels good” and “be your own person” and “don’t listen to anyone else” the idea of owing anyone some kind of obligation is repulsive to many.
Washington felt a duty to this brand new country that he had helped form. He felt a moral obligation to America. That he would feel this way is pretty incredible looking at it now. From our perspective, America owed it all to Washington, not the other way around. But Washington did not see it that way.
Why would Washington feel that he had a duty to his country?
Washington said that a dutiful citizen is bound to his country. Obviously he did not mean that he was bound to his government. Washington was a rebel who threw off an oppressive government. Yet there is still a duty that ought to connect a person to their country. What is the distinction here?
At this point, I would like to quote Bono. Now there is something I never thought I would say. But he makes a good point here, “There’s the country of America, which you have to defend, but there’s also the idea of America. America is more than just a country, it’s an idea. An idea that’s supposed to be contagious.”
Like most of the Founding Fathers, Washington was not loyal to one particular country as much as he was loyal to an idea. This idea was embodied in the country that became America. It is embodied in the independent mindset of the early American settlers. It is embodied in the stars and stripes.
It would take an entire book to lay out all the things that this idea encompassed. But if you had to boil it down to just one thing, it would be liberty under law. Liberty under the law had Washington’s loyalty. To his dying breath, his heart and soul was dedicated to this idea. It is no coincidence that this idea was the foundation of the new country he helped found.
Duty comes from 2 places – loyalty and/or a need to repay. Washington states that he has a zeal for America’s future interest, and that he is grateful for the past kindness that America has shown him. He was loyal to the idea that is America and a desire to see that idea succeed. He also felt he had a need to repay his country for what it had given him.
Again, it may seem amazing that he would feel this way considering all he had done to form this nation in the first place. But Washington knew that a country like America, the first of its kind, was doing something special – it was preserving liberty. And in the mind of the Father of our Country, that was a service worth repaying.
One of my favorite stories of Washington came toward the end of the war. It was March 10, 1783, a meeting of the officers was planned at Newburgh, New York. A petition, most likely written by John Armstrong, Jr., was going to be discussed. The petition basically called on the officers to revolt if Congress did not meet its obligation to them in back pay and pensions. The petition threatened abandonment if the war continued, and if the war ended, threats of marching on Congress to demand their pay through force.
Washington understood better than most the plight of his army. They had suffered mightily. But he disapproved of their methods. So as General, he banned the March 10 meeting and instead called for a meeting on March 15. Everyone assembled and were surprised to see Washington join them after he came in quietly through a side door.
Washington then gave an address that has come to be known as the Newburgh Address. In it he sympathized with the officers but called on their honor and dignity to address the situation in a different way. He promised to do all he could to secure their pay and find a just end to the situation.
When he was done, the General pulled out a letter from Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia and tried to read it. He began haltingly, stopped, and put on a pair of spectacles. His men had never seen the General wear glasses. Washington cleared his throat and said apologetically, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”
The Newburgh Conspiracy (as the planned mutiny was called) never came to pass. Many an officer was brought to tears seeing their General and realizing how much he had sacrificed. Washington’s appeal to their honor won the day. But maybe it was more than that. Washington’s example of a dutiful citizen showed the men what true honor looked like.
Washington did all he could, using all his influence, and eventually fulfilled his promise to the soldiers when Congress granted 5 years of pay for their service to the Continental Army.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail.”
One of my favorite quotes is from John Quincy Adams, “Duty is ours. Results are God’s.”
Do you feel a duty to your country? Are you mindful of the benefits it (by God) has provided you? Are you loyal to the idea of America? Are you zealous for its future interest and grateful for its past kindness to you?
If you do not feel a duty to your country, I would like to remind you that this country, America, was founded to protect your liberty. When you are wondering who to thank for the freedom you enjoy everyday, thank God, our troops, and a country founded on liberty under law.
This realization should make you a dutiful citizen. Thomas Paine said, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
Sam Adams said, “The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution, are worth defending against all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks.”
This duty, to secure liberty for others is vital to the survival of America as a country and as an idea.
George Washington knew how vital this concept of duty was. He said, “Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”