Every Citizen, Both Young, And Old
Mortimer J. Adler
[Introduction to the above book, reprinted with
permission by the author]
The aim of this book is to set forth what every citizen, both young
and old, should know about the ideas and ideals of the Constitution.
By "every citizen" I mean not only the persons who are of
an age to exercise the franchise that enables them to participate
actively in political life. I include also those individuals who will
become our future citizens--the young, who, when they come of age,
will take on the responsibilities that the high office of citizenship
puts on their shoulders.
Most Americans, I fear, do not know or appreciate the fact that
citizenship is the primary political office under a constitutional
government. In a republic, the citizens are the ruling class. They are
the permanent and principal rulers. All other offices that are set up
by the constitution are secondary.
The first and indispensable qualification for holding political
office in any of the branches of government is to be a citizen.
Officeholders, moreover, whether elected or selected, are citizens in
office for a period of time, but all citizens are citizens for life.
Officeholders, from the President down, are transient and instrumental
rulers, unlike citizens in general who are permanent and principal
The distinction between the permanent status of citizenship and the
transient or temporary character of government officials is obvious.
But it may not be so obvious why I refer to citizens as the principal
and call government officials instrumental rulers. To understand this
point it is necessary to realize that the government of the United
States is not in Washington, not in the White House, not in the
Capitol, which houses the Congress, nor in any or all the public
office buildings in the District of Columbia.
The government of the United States resides in us--we, the people.
What resides in Washington is the administration of our government. We
recognize this, at least verbally, when we say, after a Presidential
election, that we have changed one administration for another. That
change leaves the government of the United States unchanged, because
its principal rulers are also its permanent rulers, whereas its
instrumental rulers, its administrative officials--are transient and
Administrative officials, from the President down, are the
instruments by which we, the people, govern ourselves. They serve us
in our capacity as self-governing citizens of the Republic. Lincoln
never tired of saying that he conceived his role to be that of a
servant of the people who elected him. The word "servant" in
this connection does not carry any invidious connotations of
inferiority or menial status. Rather, it signifies the performance of
an important function, one carrying great responsibility, a
responsibility officials are called upon to discharge while they are
serving a term in public office.
I am sorry to say that most Americans think of themselves as the
subjects of government and regard the administrators in public office
as their rulers, instead of thinking of themselves as the ruling class
and public officials as their servants -- the instrumentalities for
carrying out their will.
It is of the utmost importance to persuade the citizens of the United
States, both young and old, that they have misconceived their role in
the political life of this country. If they can be persuaded to
overcome this misconception, and come to view themselves in the right
light, they will understand that their high responsibility as citizens
carries with it the obligation to understand the ideas and ideals of
our constitutional government.
In earlier times, when much smaller societies than ours were ruled by
princes, books were written to instruct princes in the art of
governance. The education of the prince, both moral and intellectual,
was of supreme importance if one had any expectation of obtaining good
government from their benevolently despotic rule.
Now, when the people have replaced the prince, when they are the
self-governing rulers of the Republic, how can we expect good
government from them, or from the administrative officials whom they
directly or indirectly choose to serve them, unless we think it
supremely important that they, the citizens both young and old, be
educated for the discharge of their responsibilities.
Preparation for the duties of citizenship is one of three objectives
of any sound system of public schooling in our society. Preparation
for earning a living is another, and the third is preparation for
discharging everyone's moral obligation to lead a good life and make
as much of one's self as possible. Our present system of compulsory
basic schooling, kindergarten through the twelfth grade, does not
serve any of these objectives well.
The reasons why this is so and what must be done to remedy these
grave deficiencies have been set forth in a series of books that have
initiated much-needed reforms in our school system. Here I will borrow
from them only what is germane to the explanation of what must be
accomplished educationally to make the future citizens of the United
States better citizens than their elders.
I am going to state the educational objective in its minimal terms.
The least to be expected of our future citizens (as well as all the
rest of us) is that they will have to read the three documents that
are our political testament--the Declaration of Independence, the
Constitution of the United States, and Lincoln's Gettysburg
Address--and that their reading of these three documents will have
eventuated in their understanding the ideas and ideals of our
Republic. While much more might be added, the primary concern here is
the understanding of the ideas and ideals of the Constitution.
In the last four or five years, I have engaged in the Paideia project
to reform basic schooling in the United States. In the course of doing
so I have had the occasion to conduct many seminars with high school
students in which the reading assigned for discussion was the
Declaration of Independence. Taking part in the seminar resulted in
their reading that document for the first time.
The discussions that followed revealed how little they understood the
meaning of the Declarable principal terms before the discussion began,
and how much more remained to be done after the seminar was over to
bring them to a level of understanding that, in my judgment, is the
minimal requisite for intelligent citizenship in this country. The
same can also be said with regard to the Constitution and the
I am sure that the sampling of high school students I met in these
seminars is representative of the general state of mind, and that a
similar sampling of our college graduates would not change the
Over the last fifty-five years, I have also conducted executive
seminars under the auspices of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic
Studies, in which the participants are graduates of our best colleges
and universities and have reached positions of eminence in our
society--the top echelons in industry, commercial establishments,
journalism, the so-called learned professions, and government. Their
understanding of the basic ideas in the Declaration and in the
Preamble to the Constitution is not discernibly better than what I
found among high school students.
On one very special occasion, I conducted a discussion of the
Declaration with leading members of President John F. Kennedy's
Cabinet and his political entourage. To my surprise and chagrin, the
result was the same.
The inevitable conclusion that I draw from all of these experiences
is that there is work for this book to do. I am fully aware that I
cannot hope it will succeed in achieving what its subtle title
declares it seeks to do--to help every citizen, both young and old,
understand the ideas and ideals of the Constitution. "Every"
is a very large word, indeed. Reaching the minds of every American
citizen lies beyond anyone's reasonable hope, but writing a book that
is intended for every citizen is not an unreasonable undertaking.
Governed by that aim, the style and manner in which this book is
written must be fashioned accordingly. Its message must be
accessible--readable and intelligible--to high school students. If
that can be achieved, it should also be accessible to everyone else.
Considering the extent of actual and functional illiteracy in this
country, even that may be too much to hope for at the present time.
Still, one must believe that something like the Paideia reform of
basic schooling will succeed in the years that lie ahead and that, at
some future time, an understanding of the fundamental principles that
underlie the political life of this Republic will be the possession of
every citizen of the United States.