Here is the sentence in the Declaration of Independence we always remember: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
And here is the sentence we often forget: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
This, the very last sentence of the document, is what makes the better-remembered sentence possible. One speaks of our rights. The other addresses our obligations. The freedoms we cherish are self-evident but not self-executing. The Founders pledge something “to each other,” the commonly overlooked clause in the Declaration’s final pronouncement.
We find ourselves, 237 years after the Founders declared us a new nation, in a season of discontent, even surliness, about the experiment they launched. We are sharply divided over the very meaning our founding documents, and we are more likely to invoke the word “we” in the context of “us” versus “them” than in the more capacious sense that includes every single American.
There are no quick fixes to our sense of disconnection, but there may be a way to restore our sense of what we owe each other across the lines of class, race, background — and, yes, politics and ideology.
Last week, the Aspen Institute gathered a politically diverse group of Americans under the banner of the “Franklin Project,” named after Ben, to declare a commitment to offering every American between the ages of 18 and 28 a chance to give a year of service to the country. The opportunities would include service in our armed forces but also time spent in educating our fellow citizens, bringing them health care and preventive services, working with the least advantaged among us, and conserving our environment.
Service would not be compulsory, but it would be an expectation. And it just might become part of who we are.
The call for universal, voluntary service is being championed by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in league with two of the country’s foremost advocates of the cause, John Bridgeland, who served in President George W. Bush’s administration, and Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year, one of the nation’s most formidable volunteer groups. The trio testifies to the non-ideological and nonpartisan nature of this cause, as did a column last week endorsing the idea from Michael Gerson, my conservative Washington Post colleague.
“We’ve a remarkable opportunity now,” McChrystal said, “to move with the American people away from an easy citizenship that does not ask something from every American yet asks a lot from a tiny few.” We do, indeed, owe something to our country, and we owe an enormous debt to those who have done tour after tour in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McChrystal sees universal service as transformative. “It will change how we think about America and how we think about ourselves,” he says. And as a former leader of an all-volunteer Army, he scoffs at the idea that giving young Americans a stipend while they serve amounts to “paid volunteerism,” the phrase typically invoked by critics of service programs. “If you try to rely on unpaid volunteerism,” he said, “then you limit the people who can do it. ... I’d like the people from Scarsdale to be paid the same as the people from East LA.”
There are real challenges here. Creating the estimated 1 million service slots required to make the prospect of service truly universal will take money, from government and private philanthropy. Service, as McChrystal says, cannot just be a nice thing that well-off kids do when they get out of college. It has to draw in the least advantaged young Americans. In the process, it could open new avenues for social mobility, something the military has done for so many in the past.
Who knows if the universal expectation of service would change the country as much as McChrystal hopes. But we have precious few institutions reminding us to join the Founders in pledging something to each other. We could begin by debating this proposal in a way that frees us from the poisonous assumption that even an idea involving service to others must be part of some hidden political agenda. The agenda here is entirely open. It’s based on the belief that certain unalienable rights entail certain unavoidable responsibilities.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.