THE CITIZEN AND THE COMMUNITY.
From: The True Citizen How To Become One
Municipal government should be entirely divorced from party politics.
--C. H. Parkhurst
Too many of our citizens fail to realize that local government is a
worthy study.--John Fiske
Every citizen should be ready to do his full part in the service of the
community in which he lives.--E. O. Mann
Each separate township needs men who will inspire respect and command
confidence.--W. A. Mowry
Let the man who, without good excuse, fails to vote, be deprived of the
right to vote.--W. H. H. Miller
Whenever men live in a community, they are placed under certain mutual
obligations. Unless these obligations are carefully regarded the
community life will be sure to prove a failure. Man is selfish as well
as social. The weak must, therefore, be protected from the strong; and
in this important work there are common interests which require united
action. This united action may be for the common defense of the
community, or for the general welfare of all.
The unit of government is generally the town, or as it is called in many
parts of our country, the township. A town includes the people who are
permanent residents within a certain limited and prescribed territory,
usually occupying but a few square miles.
The government of a town, or township, is in the hands of the people
permanently residing within the limits of that township. These people
combine together for the protection and mutual good of all. This is the
fundamental principle of government. To carry on this government and
make the necessary provisions for the mutual good of the inhabitants of
the town, taxation is resorted to. The people, therefore, come in
contact with the government first of all at this point.
Taxes are levied by a majority vote of the citizens assembled in town
meeting, such meetings being usually held once a year, in order that the
moneys necessary to be raised, and the business to be done for the
welfare of the people, may receive regular and careful attention.
Where the population is dense and houses are placed close together, so
that within a small area there is a large body of inhabitants,
thegovernment is generally under the form of a city.
Our republican government, which, after making all due allowances, seems
to work remarkably well in rural districts, in the state, and in the
nation, has certainly been far less successful as applied to cities.
Accordingly our cities have come to furnish topics for reflection to
which writers and orators fond of boasting the unapproachable excellence
of American institutions do not like to allude.
Fifty years ago we were accustomed to speak of civil government in the
United States as if it had dropped from heaven, or had been specially
created by some kind of miracle upon American soil; and we were apt to
think that in mere republican forms there was some kind of mystic virtue
which made them a cure for all political evils. Our later experience
with cities has rudely disturbed this too confident frame of mind. It
has furnished facts which do not seem to fit our theory, so that now,
our writers and speakers are inclined to regard our misgoverned cities
It will best serve our purpose here, to outline the relation of the
citizen to the township rather than to the city, because its management
is less complex and, in most cases, is more complete and perfect.
Money is ordinarily raised by taxation for the following purposes,
namely: the support of the public schools; making and repairing
highways; the care of the poor; maintaining the fire department; paying
the salaries of the town officers; paying for the detection and
punishment of offenders against the law; maintaining burial grounds;
planting shade trees; providing for disabled soldiers and sailors and
their families; and, in general, for all other necessary expenses.
To carry on the work of a town, several officers are usually appointed.
A town clerk keeps accurate records of all business transacted; records
all births, marriages and deaths; makes the necessary returns to the
county and the state, and serves as the agent of the town in its
relation to the country at large. Officers usually known as selectmen or
supervisors, attend to the general business of the town. The town
treasurer receives and pays out all moneys raised for the carrying on of
the town's affairs. A school committee, or board of education, is also
needed to superintend all matters relating to our public schools. A
surveyor of highways must be provided, in order that the streets and
highways belonging to the town may be kept in proper condition; and an
assessor and collector of taxes, to attend to the raising of supplies. A
board of overseers of the poor is also needed, their duties being to
provide for the support of paupers and the relief of the needy poor.
We do not profess to have fully covered the ground in this brief
statement; but only to show that life, even in the smallest communities,
must necessarily make heavy drafts upon the time and attention of a
large number of individual citizens. But we desire to emphasize the
fact, that each of these several offices furnishes opportunity for the
employment either of a competent or an incompetent official, according
to the care with which the selection is made. It therefore becomes the
duty of every citizen to give personal attention to such matters, for if
these places are filled by corrupt or even careless men, the interests
of the community will be seriously imperiled, while if they are filled
by honest and patriotic men, the success of the town and its affairs is
Our one supreme object should be to raise the tone of our citizenship.
The town or city will not become permanently better except as we who
live in it become better. There are large sections in all our towns that
yield to the guidance of corrupt and designing men for the reason that
they are unreached by influences of a finer and more generous kind.
Plans must be formulated by which we can come into touch with these
lower quarters, and raise them quickly and surely to a higher level.
We all need to become better acquainted with the machinery of our local
governments and with certain principles and statutes by which the motion
of that machinery requires to be regulated. We cannot properly regulate
the doings of our public servants except as we are familiar with the
laws to which they are subject.
This question of obedience to law, can only be efficiently controlled by
the continued watchfulness of the law-abiding portion of the community;
and the situation in this respect is far more grave than most people
A recent writer speaking of the lack of a proper enforcement of the law
says: "I was in a considerable Western city, with a population of
seventy thousand, some years ago, when the leading newspaper of the
place, commenting on one of the train robberies that had been frequent
in the state, observed that so long as the brigands had confined
themselves to robbing the railway companies and the express companies
of property for whose loss the companies must answer, no one had greatly
cared, seeing that these companies themselves robbed the public; but now
that private citizens seemed in danger of losing their personal baggage
and money, the prosperity of the city might be compromised, and
something ought to be done,"--a sentiment delivered with all gravity,
as the rest of the article showed.
This makes plausible the story of the Texas judge who is said to have
allowed murderers to escape on points of law, till he found the value of
real estate declining; then he carefully saw to it that the next few
offenders were hanged.
We must not take too narrow a view of public life. All civilized
governments consider themselves bound to perform other duties of an
entirely different character from those which pertain to peace and
justice. When our fathers framed the constitution of the United States,
they gave in the preamble to that instrument an admirable definition of
the province of government. This preamble reads as follows:
"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect
union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the
common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of
liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this
constitution for the United States of America."
The motto of every good citizen should be, "the best means to promote
the greatest good to the greatest number." The ends to be sought are the
most healthy development, the highest and largest happiness to the whole
people; for only in this manner can we accomplish our full duty.
Next: THE CITIZEN AND THE NATION.
Previous: THE CITIZEN AND THE HOME.