Sing God Bless America at a Fourth of July hotdog eating contest? Serve in the armed services or as a first responder? Uphold the First Amendment by protesting an unjust law?
It's not so easy to define the most American act; our idea of it might not be shared by all citizens. Pacifists may not embrace military acts, but that does not make them less American. Protesters may reject patriotism, embracing dissent over displays of American spirit. Everyone might question the wisdom of hotdog eating contests.
The point is that the act that exemplifies what it means to be an American should be an unifying, inclusive act that combines American history, patriotism, symbolism, self-sacrifice, the common good, dissent, and something that "we the people" all have the capacity to do.
I have one answer -- an act that does all those things, but also goes back to the first ships that landed in Jamestown and Plymouth, can trace its lineage through the Declaration of Independence, to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, embraces the Reconstruction Amendments, the Women's Suffrage Movement, and the Civil Rights Era.
It defines citizenship.
The answer is jury service. Serving as a juror not only embodies political, civic, and community participation, but is a unifying act of American pride.
Begin with history. Not many activities can trace their lineage back to the first colonists like the requirement of trial by jury in criminal cases. Jury duty is more American than apple pie, having been brought to American soil before our apple trees
, and having deeper roots in our culture than sweet pastry.
Because of that history, juries became part of the constitutional identity of America. The right to trial by jury in criminal cases is the only constitutional right that appears both in the text of the Constitution (Article III
) and the Bill of Rights (Sixth Amendmen
t). In addition, the Seventh Amendment's right to a civil jury and the Fifth Amendment's
protection of grand juries, provide ample evidence that being a juror was central to the early American identity.
For this very reason, when women and African-Americans demanded equal treatment under law, the legal strategy focused on jury service. When the National League of Women's Voters drafted a "Women's Bill of Rights" in the 1920s, jury service was a top priority.
When the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund began litigating for racial justice under law in the South, the first of many victories began by attacking jury discrimination. The focus on juries
was not simply about equal rights, but an equal claim to American identity.
The culture of America, of course, is not rooted in federal constitutional rights, but finds strength in local power. Juries are probably the most local, democratic, and pure form of community control ever devised in law. The civil jury was designed to check the power of an encroaching federal government and growing financial interests. Local communities were empowered to decide their own cases concerning their own community members. The "community conscience" of a jury decision represents not simply a "just" verdict, but also a local verdict.
Americans honor tradition. Whether it is pledging allegiance every morning, singing "The Star Spangled Banner" every ball game, or hanging an American flag on the Fourth of July, the pleasure comes from connecting to something greater than ourselves. Serving on a jury predates any of these archetypical patriotic acts.
Go to any trial courtroom, be it a preserved replica in Colonial Williamsburg or the most modern federal courthouse and you will see the same seats built into the structure of the courtroom, and, thus, the court system. Every year since the founding, those seats have been filled by people asked to swear the same type of oath, listen to the same types of evidence, and make the same hard decisions -- together.
The ritual of jury duty has repeated daily in courtrooms across America, linking citizens in big cities and small towns, conservative and progressives, and everyone in between.
So here is my challenge -- an open invitation to a national discussion -- name the other activities that combine American history, identity, tradition, culture, power, and constitutional values in a similar inclusive and unifying way as jury service? What else deserves to be thought of as the most American act that can be done by all citizens? Voting? Military service? Free speech? Free exercise of religion?
All honorable, all American, and the Fourth of July is the time to debate the meaning of these most American acts.