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Moral Courage in Public Service: Lessons from the Life of Susan B. Anthony

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Terry Newell
December 4, 2017

On June 17, 1873, the trial of Susan B. Anthony for voting in the 1872 election began in Canandaigua, New York. The jury was all male, though that would not matter. After a day-long process, in which she was never allowed to testify, Supreme Court Judge Ward Hunt, riding circuit, dismissed the jury before it could deliberate. He declared her guilty using a statement he had written before the trial began. The next day he sentenced her to jail, which would begin after she paid a $100 fine. Finally allowed to speak, Anthony refused to pay. She defiantly told the judge: “You have trampled underfoot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.”

Anthony was a private citizen, yet her story offers powerful lessons for public servants.  Those lessons come not only from her example in honoring the Constitution but also from how public servants failed to help her achieve justice. Born in 1820, she dedicated her life to social causes – temperance, anti-slavery and finally women’s suffrage. For over half a century, she traveled the nation arguing, pleading and politically organizing. She kept a seating chart of Members of Congress in her desk, launched a national newspaper, helped found a national woman’s suffrage organization and mentored thousands of women into political activism, a process she called “subsoil plowing.” She got little help from public officials, who seemed content to interpret “We, the people” as protecting the rights of men, not women.

In 1920, one hundred years after her birth, and fourteen years after her death, women voted legally for the first time in a national election. While a triumph of the political process in the end, it was justice denied for too long.

What is the Role of a Public Servant in the Struggle for Justice?

“Justice is the end of government,” James Madison said. It is the first task in the Constitution’s Preamble, and is the duty of everyone in government. It requires that public servants:

  • Understand and empathize with those we serve. This can only be achieved by study, listening and using one’s heart. We do not have to agree with everyone we serve, but we need to hear their stories and claims for justice.
  • Ensure public processes are representative. We need to give everyone a voice and constrain the power of wealth and privilege from drowning out the voice of those who struggle to be heard.
  • Actively engage citizens. Our jobs might be easier if the public would just be quiet and stay out of the way, but our work would not be better. We need to teach and help Americans to practice active, responsible citizenship.
  • Promote a diversity of views. We can’t build a strong nation without honoring its many parts. Diverse values and ideas must be surfaced to build trust — which is essential to fashion workable policies and programs.
  • Manage inclusive processes. Public servants face a dangerous yet seductive choice. They can convince themselves that their expertise ensures the right answer and that the uninformed or misguided public cannot possibly do better. That hubris disenfranchises citizens. Expertise matters, but public servants have no lock on knowledge or wisdom.

What Has This Got to Do with Moral Courage?

Ensuring government works is not for the faint of heart. It requires persistence and humility.  It means paying more attention to doing the right thing than doing things right.  It requires the ability to speak up for those without a voice and to speak against those, inside government, who would deny the value of that voice. This demands moral courage.  Women should not have had to wait 130 years to get the franchise. For too long, public servants ignored the words of the Preamble and chose conforming to cultural norms over conforming to moral values. It took social activists with moral courage to remind a nation of its founding promise, as it had with the earlier effort to abolish slavery.

You won’t find moral courage — including the character and ability to establish justice – on lists of competencies for public servants or on job vacancy announcements. You won’t see it referred to in performance appraisals. Yet without it, the public service is a vastly diminished institution, and America suffers as a result. In the end, moral courage is a powerful tool. It also encourages others to follow its lead. It was a male public servant, state Representative Harry Burn of Tennessee, who cast the vote that ultimately ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. In an important way, his moral courage against intense opposition in the state legislature is the stuff of which justice is made.

Author: Terry Newell is President of his firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former Dean of Faculty of the Federal Executive Institute.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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