Why vote? It’s a good question, especially at a time when the government just doesn’t seem to be working. Congress is not delivering on its promises, hide-bound by politics and division. There is a lack of any sense that things are going to get better and, in fact, every indication that they may for a time get worse.
The question brings to mind a moment in history.
At one point, in speaking to his men in the dim light, the general apologized having to put on a pair of glasses so that he could more clearly decipher his notes.
“Gentlemen,” said Gen. George Washington, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The date was March 15, 1783. The place was Newburgh, New York. The American War for Independence was over. The British Gen. Cornwallis has surrendered his sword. The fighting, which began at Lexington and Concord and had carried on for eight long, hard, discouraging years, had finally come to an end.
But all was not well. Washington, still in command of his troops in the field, had come to Newburgh to address his officers who, angry that they had not been paid and fearing they might not be paid, were plotting an insurrection against the Continental Congress, perhaps even to march on it and take what they were owed by force.
That it didn’t happen was, perhaps, the greatest of Washington’s triumphs. Through his actions that day, through his humility, he restored in his officers their faith in the new nation and its government, preventing one form of tyranny from replacing another over the lives and minds of men, the elimination of which had been the purpose of the long struggle just concluded.
As one version of the remarks he delivered that day has it, Washington told his officers that while he was certain that their grievances would be addressed he said, “Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country.”
To reinforce the point, Washington continued, “Let me let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.”
Were the Founders wiser than we? It is easy to believe that Washington was, along perhaps with Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and a few more. Or were they simply men, educated men, hard-working and in some cases propertied men of influence who had on their minds something bigger than their own prosperity. Men with a vision for a new nation, as Jefferson wrote, “conceived in liberty,” a place where fortune could smile on the industrious, clever and lucky, not just the well-born and well-connected.
Unique in its time but now the model for the world, the United States is a place where we, each of us, have our destiny in our hands. A destiny we bring to pass, not through revolution or bloodshed, but through institutions like the jury box, the town meeting and the voting booth.
In the long history of man it has not always been so. And, as Washington reminds us from the depths of the past, were it not for him it might never have been. But it is. More than simple responsibility, voting it is a sacred trust bequeathed to us all through the centuries, a proposition for which blood has been spilled many times in each of the succeeding centuries – to preserve that right for ourselves and to help extend that right to others.
Why vote? Because in America, that is the way we change things. That is the way we reform the system. That is the way we guard against the threats to our liberties and exercise our responsibilities. That is the way that we keep America free.
Candidates come and candidates go. Elections are won and lost. Sometimes we elect crooks and nobodies and, every once in while, a statesman who strides across the Congress or, from the Oval Office, across the world like a colossus, showing the world what it means to be a free people and, more importantly, why freedom matters.
And, for the same reason, it matters that you vote. It is your voice – and the only person who can silence your voice is you. So applaud, complain, march, protest, petition – these are your rights but, without your vote, they are meaningless actions, backed up by nothing.
Peter Roff is contributing editor, U.S. New & World Report, senior fellow Institute for Liberty and Let Freedom. He is a former senior political writer for United Press International.