Keeping Alive the Little Spark
Picture this: the first president of the United States at the age of 14, hunched over his school book by candlelight — practicing his penmanship, stroke by stroke. In 1748, George Washington copied by hand the contents of a small book: 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.
These guideposts, developed by French Jesuits more than a century and a half earlier, range from the simple topics of good hygiene and table manners, to the more complicated things, like how and why we need to be respectful when we talk to each other. The rules have in common a focus on other people and the courtesies we’re called to follow for the good of all of us. Number 110, the last on the list, seems to summarize all the others: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”
Owing Good Judgment
At the same time Washington was copying the rules, an equally principled contemporary was thinking, too, about conscience. Edmund Burke, often called “the father of conservatism,” moved from Dublin to London in 1750 to become a lawyer. He ended up a keen debater and an influential legislator in the British Parliament.
Burke believed that the duty of office holders in a republic is to first vote their conscience, even if it goes against the will of their constituents. “When the leaders choose to make themselves at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service,” he said. “They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people. . .Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
“When the leaders choose to make themselves at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service.”
- Edmund Burke, 18th Century British statesman, known as “the father of conservatism”
In short, we elect our representatives with the intent they won’t be swayed by popular opinion. We entrust them to fully understand the issues we face and to use their judgment in doing the right thing.
Defending the Basic Principles
Today, the words of Edmond Burke — coupled with the rules of George Washington — are worth reflecting on. They are particularly helpful as we ponder the question of conscience in the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney from her job as the GOP’s no. 3 House leader.
Cheney is a conservative Republican. She voted with former President Trump 93 percent of the time. But after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, she drew a line beyond which she would not go. In voting for Trump’s impeachment, she voted her conscience — her conviction to stand up for what she believes is right and not whichever way the party wind blows.
“History is watching,” Cheney wrote in The Washington Post shortly before being removed from her leadership position. “We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”
Turning the Tide
History has shown us that, for the most part, the world isn’t changed by those who go with the tide. It’s changed by the ones who swim against it in pursuit of the greater good.
Leaders are responsible — to us — for making decisions, even highly unpopular ones, that reflect their personal sense of right and wrong. Whatever our political affiliations, affirming the courage of our elected officials to follow their principled convictions — even when it means crossing party lines — lifts us all to higher ground.
Our nation needs free thinkers with sound judgment who can stand up to falsehoods, infuse tough calls with fresh ideas, and continue to turn the tide. As we pursue the goal of #5050x2028 — roughly half men and half women in all elected offices nationwide — we must encourage these free thinkers, women and men, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, to run for office. We must applaud them for keeping alive their individual sparks of celestial fire — and the integrity of our collective conscience.
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