Civic Responsibility in America

by Jennifer Self / Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University (Michigan)

Civic Responsibility is defined as the "responsibility of a citizen" ( It is comprised of actions and attitudes associated with democratic governance and social participation. Civic responsibility can include participation in government, church, volunteers and memberships of voluntary associations. Actions of civic responsibility can be displayed in advocacy for various causes, such as political, economic, civil, environmental or quality of life issues.

Historic Roots

Civic Responsibility dates to ancient Rome whose citizens wanted to contribute to Roman society. Civic responsibility may have started with Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus in 519 BC.

Although Civic Responsibility has existed for centuries in society, it was officially sanctioned as a blueprint for democracy in 1787 by the ratification of the United States Constitution. The Constitution declared, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States."

In the 18 th and 19th centuries and through the 1930s, civic responsibility in America was tied to a commonwealth perspective. From voluntary fire departments to the public arts to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s and 1940s, citizens participated in projects that shaped communities and ultimately the nation. Due to civic responsibility, citizenship was understood in terms of the labors of ordinary people who created goods and undertook projects to benefit the public, as opposed to the high-minded, virtuous and leisure activities of gentlemen. This kind of civic identify helped create an important balance between pursuit of individual wealth and the creation of public things (Boyte and Kari 1999)

In the 1960s, community responsibility and civic responsibility became more popular. The Cold War and nuclear threats were common fears that coalesced citizens of the United States (Swanson, 1999). Combined with opposition to the war in Vietnam, grassroots organizations to fight environmental pollution and college campus protest demonstrations, citizens learned the value of expressing civic responsibility through civil disobedience. People relied on each other in order to correct injustice and achieve greatness in the nation.

During the 1960s, 62.8 percent of Americans voted in presidential elections. People were involved in political organizations and community action groups because modern technology allowed more free time to society (Putman 2000). Participation proved successful in the Civil Rights Movement lead by Martin Luther King and later failed in the 1980s with the Equal Rights Amendment initiative.

"The importance of civic responsibility is paramount to
the success of democracy and philanthropy."

In the 1980s and 1990s, many organizations lost membership. For example, new memberships for the organization of Business and Professional Women declined 89 percent by the end of 1997. Memberships for the Parent Teachers' Association (PTA) declined 60 percent, memberships for the League of Women Voters declined 61 percent and memberships for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) saw a 46 percent decrease in membership (Swanson 1999).

In 2001, 44 percent of American adults volunteered in organizations compared to 55 percent in 1999. Financial donations declined in 2001 with 89 percent of American households giving an average of $1,620 compared to 70 percent with an average of $1,075 in 1999 (Independent Sector 1999, Independent Sector 2001).


The importance of civic responsibility is paramount to the success of democracy and philanthropy. By engaging in civic responsibility, citizens ensure and uphold certain democratic values written in the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those values or duties include justice, freedom, equality, diversity, authority, privacy, due process, property, participation, truth, patriotism, human rights, rule of law, tolerance, mutual assistance, self restraint and self respect. Schools teach civic responsibility to students with the goal to produce responsible citizens and active participants in community and government.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Civic responsibility is tied to the philanthropic sector in many ways. By citizen and corporate participation, nonprofit organizations prosper from their giving of time and money.

Service learning directly relates to civic responsibility and ties to the philanthropic sector by students learning through the completion of projects within communities. Examples of organizations supporting service learning include Youth Service America, the Points of Light Foundation and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

Key Related Ideas

Service learning is a way in which people learn civic responsibility. Through service learning, citizens participate in projects to help or serve the needs of other people. By getting their hands dirty and actually doing work, citizens experience the value and impact of giving to people and learn to be productive members of society.

College students have the opportunity to participate in Alternative Spring Break (ASB). Trips are scheduled during university spring breaks. Students travel to various agencies throughout the country and participate in projects such as assisting at low-income day care centers, clearing park paths and serving food at homeless shelters. Some schools also require students to participate in service learning as a class or degree requirement.

Volunteering is a form of civic responsibility, which involves the giving of time or labor without the expectation of monetary compensation. Many people volunteer through local churches, animal shelters or food banks. Volunteering allows citizens the opportunity to share their skills and talents as well as the to learn new skills while helping those in need of assistance.

Civic Education is a method in which to teach civic responsibility. According to the Center of Civic Education, it is a way to promote and enlighten responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles. Civic education is a means to actively engage people in the practice of democracy in the United States and other countries (Center for Civic Education).