Famous Sayings #129 — ‘Civic Duty’

November 4, 2018

Make sure you vote on Tuesday if you can and you haven’t already. Participating in your government is your civic duty.

civic duty, civil responsibility, vote, famous sayings

Since Election Day is in 2 days, I thought I’d look at a related term. (Today is also when Daylight Saving Time ends in the U.S., so turn back your clocks if you haven’t already.)

What Is a Civic Duty?

A civic duty is an obligation one has in their society. Another name for a civic duty is a civic responsibility.

Basically, a civic responsibility pertains to duties of citizens to participate in their society and democracy (if they have one). In order to fully participate in a (democratic) society and uphold it, citizens must exhibit certain attitudes, uphold certain values, and carry out specific actions. For that society to run effectively and smoothly, all citizens must do their part.


Voting is considered a civic duty/responsibility. So is volunteering or providing public services.

Voting is often referred to a civic duty because, ideally, people get to weigh in and choose who leads their government. And ideally, there is at least one good candidate running in each race. Therefore, it behooves people to remain informed and make informed decisions.

Volunteering and providing public services are considered civic duties because those are actions that benefit the general public. They go beyond just serving the individual.

As It Pertains to the United States

In the United States, civic responsibilities are tied to the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Within those Bill of Rights are the following values: freedom, justice, equality, due process, diversity, tolerance, authority, and privacy (“What Is”).

At first, civic responsibility in the United States was tied to general welfare. Certain actions, like a compulsory fire department, a national defense, the public arts, and other public services were highlighted because they served the public good. It wasn’t until the 1960s that civic participation gained popularity and mainly took the form of protest and other forms of civil disobedience. That’s when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Also, because of the advances in technology, people had more leisure time and 62.8% of eligible voters voted, which was the height American electoral participation.

The level of American civic participation sharply declined in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the decline was driven by fewer people taking part in community organizations and labor unions* (Self). (The latter was largely driven by neoliberal policy.)

When Did the Phrase ‘Civic Duty’ Originate?

As I was sifting through the numerous sources I found for this phrase, I began to think that it was impossible to pinpoint the origin of this phrase, but once source gave me an answer. Basically, the idea of civic duties existed long before the phrase surfaced.

Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

On September 17, 1952, the first Citizenship Day, President Harry S. Truman gave an address to the National Conference on Citizenship at the Hotel Statler in Washington, D.C. During his speech, President Truman first talked about the importance of welcoming new Americans then pivoted to the fight against Communism.

Truman also talked about the importance of civic participation, ruing the lack of it in the early part of the decade. Truman said that it was important that Americans participate in their democracy in order to assure that it would exist and in order to keep enjoying a free government. Truman also pointed out that Americans needed to educate themselves and make informed decisions, for the people they elected would set policy that affected their lives.

Here’s a key quote:

The success of our institutions depends on a clear understanding of what our democracy is, what its foundations are, where it is strong and where it is weak. Free government is based not only on morality, it is also based on reason.

Among the greatest dangers to free government in this country are lack of knowledge, lack of civic responsibility–ignorance and apathy and perversion of the truth. I would like to talk about a few of these internal dangers to free government.

I could have stopped here and resigned myself to the idea that Harry S. Truman first used the phrase, but I wasn’t satisfied with that.

Learning to Give

In a post for Learning to Give, Jennifer Self defined what civic responsibility was and traced back its roots to Ancient Rome. According to her research, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus in 519 B.C. Civil responsibility has existed for centuries, but it was officially sanctioned by the United States as a key part of democracy when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1787.

This was very informative, but I kept digging for sources that could pinpoint the origin of the phrase itself.


This is where I found the origin of the phrase.

In November 2011, Victoria King wrote a piece for BBC News concerning the change in policy for the United Kingdom concerning voter registration. For many years, the heads of households were responsible for registering to vote and identifying all eligible voters who resided in the household under threat of penalty. In 2011, that began to change, so individuals would be responsible for their own registration, but with no penalty.

When asked about the rule change, then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg didn’t think it was a problem. Referring to the act as a “civic duty,” Clegg said that voters would feel compelled to register. King questioned that sentiment and talked a little bit about the history of civic duties in the U.K. and the forces surrounding it.

Of note is what Oxford University historian Dr. Joanna Innes said about the phrase civic duty. According to Innes, the phrase surfaced in the 19th century, although the idea of civic duties existed centuries before.

What Do I Think of the Idea of a Civic Duty?

Of course, civic duties and responsibilities exist, and I agree that everyone who can do their part should. However, I don’t completely agree with the notion that voting is everyone’s civic duty. Let me explain.

Yes, voting is important, and it is best that we all inform ourselves about our governments and current events. Yet, voting isn’t where our civic responsibilities begin and end. That is one of the main problems I have when people tell others to “Go vote.”

Yes, we should vote in people who we believe will serve the public at large, but we shouldn’t count on politicians to help us. We also shouldn’t act like voting in large numbers is enough to overcome voter suppression. (This is what I plan to talk about tomorrow, but I have to put up the election post early on Election Day.)

Jeffrey Guhin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Los Angeles, understands this. He wrote an op-ed for slate on Election Day 2016 in which he talked about the importance of civic involvement.

Guhin’s basic point was that voting by itself was not the be-all and end-all of civic and political action; in fact, it was but a small part of both and “the bare minimum of civic obligation.” Instead, people had a greater obligation to take part in regular political discourse, get involved in organizations, and to work in groups that don’t involve the market, the bureaucracy of government, and the insular nature of family and private life.

This idea also pertains to voter suppression. Ultimately, we need to find ways to change our government that are outside the voting system. At the same time, we need to put pressure on elected officials to fix that system so we know that everyone’s vote will count.


Did you know that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Daylight Saving Time? I know I talked about it before, but DST began in the United States during World War I. It was instituted in 1918 because was a way to save energy (“When Is”). The practice was officially ended the same year, but numerous states continued the practice and it was reinstituted during World War II. You can read more about that here.

As I’ve stated before, I really don’t care for DST. I would rather we move back to the original standard time and stay there. Alas, that is not in the cards.

In California, we have a chance to vote on Daylight Saving Time — but a “YES” vote on Prop. 7 will only give the state the chance to me DST permanent in the state. That’s going to be a “NO” for me.

Works Cited

Guhin, Jeffrey. “Voting Is Just the First Step Toward Stopping Another Trump.” Slate. 8 Nov 2016. Web. <http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2016/11/civic_responsibility_is_about_a_lot_more_than_voting.html>.

King, Victoria. “Is there such a thing as civic duty? And do we feel it?” BBC. 24 Nov 2011. Web. Retrieved 4 Nov 2018. <https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-15763388>.

People Staff. “When Is Daylight Saving Time 2018? Here’s Everything You Need to Know About ‘Fall Back.’” Yahoo. 2 Nov 2018. Web. Retrieved 4 Nov 2018. <https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/daylight-saving-time-2018-apos-161448542.html?.tsrc=bell-brknews>.

“Public Papers Harry S. Truman 1945-1953.” Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Web. Retrieved 4 November 2018. <https://trumanlibrary.org/publicpapers/index.php?pid=2317&st=&st1=>.

Self, Jennifer. “Civic Responsibility.” Learning to Give. Web. Retrieved 4 Nov 2018. <https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/civic-responsibility>.

“What Is Civic Responsibility?” Reference.com. Web. Retrieved 4 November 2018. <https://www.reference.com/world-view/civic-responsibility-66a4800099c91789>.


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.