What Is Civic Genius?

June 26, 2023

A lot of folks in our community have been asking recently how Civic Genius got its name. As we all prepare to celebrate this Fourth of July, here’s the story of what inspires us.

It’s May 31, 1897. The United States is only a few decades past a civil war that nearly tore it apart. People have gathered at Boston Music Hall to dedicate a monument to Robert Gould Shaw, the Civil War colonel who led the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the second Black regiment to fight in the Civil War. Despite having little experience and even less respect from their fellow troops, the 54th brought their A game. In a true show of heroism, they lost half their troops and two-thirds of their officers in battle, including Shaw.

Now, the American philosopher William James steps up before the crowd to speak in honor of Colonel Shaw and his soldiers. We spend a lot of time glorifying courage in battle, says James, but far less time honoring civic courage, the kind that Shaw displayed when he stood by the 54th. Shaw wasn’t some kind of “exceptional genius” achieving some singular feat. He was simply a committed citizen acting faithfully toward the American promise that we can build our own republic “if left free to try.”

But when the fabric of that republic begins to tear, how do we save it? James continues: “The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks. Such nations have no need of wars to save them.”

These are the words that inspire us to action. It’s not the occasional extraordinary genius who will make our nation great; it’s the civic genius that materializes when Americans work together, across differences, for a strong future. That work is never done. There are always new challenges and perspectives that complicate our path, but we wrestle with them thoughtfully and passionately because our freedom requires it. Once again, William James said it best: “Democracy is still upon its trial. The civic genius of the people is its only bulwark.”

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