“My folks always taught me that it's important to keep the ladder down and that to whom much is given, much is expected. That's why I have pursued a career in public service. I can't think of a better way to give back what this nation gave to us than to try to make sure that opportunity exists for everyone.” ~ Tom Perez, senior advisor to President Biden
When discussing politicians - or even politics in general - the conversational tone rarely turns on the concept of public service. We hear plenty about greed, corruption, and self-enriching career politicians, but very little is said about the ones who entered into public life for altruistic reasons.
We’re talking about public servants, those selfless individuals who put the common good above party affiliations or personal gain.
Our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, clarified his stance on the basic principle of public service when he said: “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.”
In 21st-century speech, that means a politician is supposed to work for the good of the country and all of the people who live here.
But, is public service the same in practice as when our country was founded? Is the concept of serving the public good still alive and breathing in America?
Read on to find out.
The term “public servant” carries a weight of responsibility and dedication that extends beyond the mere execution of official duties. A public servant is an individual who is elected to office and/or employed by the government, whether at the local, state, or federal level.
At its core, the term "public servant" denotes an individual whose primary motivation and role are to serve the interests, needs, and well-being of the public. In the broadest sense, this includes government officials, elected representatives, civil servants, and anyone holding a position of authority or responsibility in public institutions. They’re tasked with drafting, administrating, and upholding the laws and policies designed to serve and protect the public's interest.
However, this definition merely scratches the surface.
In the United States, the historic role of a public servant was envisioned by the founding fathers as a commitment to the greater good that transcends any personal gain or glory. That has been the intention behind public service from the earliest days of American governance to the various modern civil servants who toil anonymously for the betterment of society, and it remains intrinsically linked to our ideals of democracy, equity, and justice.
Historically, the concept of a public servant in the United States has been closely tied to the ideals of democracy and republicanism. From the founding fathers to contemporary leaders, the narrative of serving the public has been a cornerstone in American politics.
However, the role of politician was never really intended to be the career path to a life of luxury. Many people choose to serve others in various ways throughout their lifetimes, seeking little more than the reward of giving back to their community.
That ethos of public service was championed by figures like George Washington, who set a precedent for leadership rooted in public interest, and Abraham Lincoln, whose dedication to preserving the nation during its most tumultuous period exemplified selfless service.
The distinction between a true public servant and a politician driven by personal gain is stark. A true public servant is characterized by altruism, a deep sense of duty to the public, and a commitment to integrity and transparency. Their decisions and actions are guided by the welfare of the community and the nation, often at the expense of personal gain or comfort.
On the other side of the equation, we find a politician driven by personal gain who often prioritizes personal or party interests over public welfare. Their decisions may be influenced by the desire for power, monetary gain, or prestige, rather than the needs and aspirations of the people they’re meant to serve.
The latter can be found at all levels of government, especially in officials who ostensibly serve the public while quietly becoming millionaires through a variety of corrupt means.
However, the true public servant is not an extinct species. They quietly go about the public’s business without a lot of fanfare. Examples from the past abound.
True public servants are characterized by their unwavering commitment to the common good, transparency in their actions, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the public. Throughout American history, there have been numerous examples of leaders who embodied the essence of true public service.
Here are a few of the most notable:
Abraham Lincoln: As our 16th president, there is perhaps no figure who better represents the ideal of a public servant than Lincoln. His presidency, marked by the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, was a testament to his unwavering commitment to national unity and equality.
Eleanor Roosevelt: As a First Lady and a humanitarian, Roosevelt redefined the role of a public servant. Her advocacy for civil rights, women's rights, and social welfare reforms marked her as a leader who was genuinely devoted to the public good. After the death of her husband, 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was named as a delegate to the newly created United Nations, where she served on the Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian committee. She also chaired the International Commission on Human Rights and was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the International Bill of Human Rights.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: As a president and a war hero, Eisenhower's dedication to public service was evident in his moderate political views, his commitment to peace and stability during the Cold War, promoting social equality and fairness, and his warning against the military-industrial complex.
Jimmy Carter: A naval officer, governor, president, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Carter exudes what it means to be a public servant. While other politicians cashed-in after leaving office, our 39th president continues to quietly serve others well into his late 90s. At 99 years-old, he is the longest-lived former president and among the most active. Through his work with the Carter Center and by the side of his late wife, Rosalynn, his post-presidency activities include:
Acting as an election observer in more than 100 international elections
Building homes as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer
Establishing village-based health centers in thousands of African communities
Teaching Sunday School in his spare time
These are just a few of the most notable politicians who prioritized what it means to be a public servant, but there are thousands more who toil at public service jobs and elected offices whose names few will ever know.
As the 2024 elections approach, it's crucial to remember the noble calling of public service. The path of a public servant is not easy, but it is one of the most rewarding and impactful ways to contribute to society.
In this era, which is characterized by political polarization and public distrust in institutions, the role of a public servant as a steward of public trust and an advocate for the common good becomes even more critical. It calls for individuals who can rise above partisan politics and personal ambitions to prioritize the welfare of their constituents.
Your community needs leaders who are motivated by a sincere wish to serve, and who can bring integrity, compassion, and dedication to public office. Remember, every great public servant started as someone who simply wanted to make a difference. Your journey could be the next inspiring story of true public service in American history.
As we look towards the future, the need for true public servants has never been greater. The challenges facing our nation and our communities – be they economic, social, or environmental – require leaders who are not only capable and knowledgeable but also deeply committed to the public good.
If you are someone who is driven by a desire to make a positive impact, to uphold the ideals of democracy and justice, and to serve your community selflessly, consider running for office. Whether on your local school board, city council, or in a higher political office, your contribution can make a significant difference.
Be the change you wish to see in your community by taking your first step towards becoming a true servant of the people.