Enduring Citizenship

A Look at the Mission

By Angus McClellan '05

On September 1, 1775, on behalf of the founders of Hampden-Sydney, Samuel Stanhope Smith placed an announcement in the Virginia Gazette regarding an "Academy near the Courthouse of [Prince Edward] County." It read in part:

"The public may rest assured that the whole shall be conducted on the most [broad-minded] plan. ... Our character and interest, therefore, being both at stake, furnish a strong security for our avoiding all party instigations; and our care to form good men, and good citizens, on the common and universal principles of morality, distinguished from the narrow tenets which form the complexion of any sect; and for our assiduity in the whole circle of education."

The announcement put forth no political declarations, no endorsements of religious sects, no ideological prescriptions. Rather it presented a particular educational and moral outline. Buildings could rise and fall, as they have. Students, professors, and administrators would come and go, and still the College's fundamental plan would endure. From the founding, Hampden-Sydney has adhered steadfastly to this set of principles, which have helped her to withstand the vicissitudes of history and fortune.

As a result, the College has placed great value in personal honor; freedom of conscience, including religious and political beliefs; and a robust, well-rounded education that "forms good men and good citizens." These "goods of the soul," as Aristotle might have described them, are fostered through the College's liberal arts education as well as the civic and social culture nurtured by the people on campus.

Good men and good citizens embody those founding principles, as the alumni of Hampden-Sydney surely know. Although concise in its wording, the mission and its enactment have deep effects on young men. It is, therefore, worth taking a few moments to investigate the breadth and the depth of the College's current application and understanding of this mission. This article is an inquiry into the College's views on the nature of good citizens, how Hampden-Sydney defines and molds them, and the results of these efforts. Professors, administrators, and alumni were consulted.

What is a Good Citizen?

Before examining the nature of good citizenship, it should be noted that "It is not always the same to be a good man and a good citizen," as Aristotle said. A good man is essentially one who possesses a perfect virtue, who abides by universal morality. But he is not our concern in this article. The ancient definition of a good citizen, on the other hand, was essentially one who obeys the law-whatever that law may be.

"So there is a constant tension between the two," said Provost and Dean of Faculty Dr. Dennis Stevens. "You can be a good man and a poor citizen. It depends on the regime." So not only are the definitions of a good man and good citizens sometimes different, but the definitions of good citizenship can vary as widely as the constitutions under which different people are governed.

"This may be hard for people today to understand," said Classics Professor Dr. James Arieti, "but in ancient Greece, the birthplace of our conception of citizenship, cultures were almost totally local. In the different poleis (or ‘city-states'), though they were sometimes even within view of each other, the people would speak different dialects, eat different foods, play different music, use different weights and measures, spend different currencies, and obey, or disobey, different laws. Aristotle and his students are reputed to have collected more than 150 different constitutions.


"As a result, a man considered a good citizen in one polis, doing the same thing in another polis, might be considered a criminal or otherwise a bad citizen," Dr. Arieti explained. Thousands of years later, this conflict remains.
The difference between the Spartan aim of a unified, collective effort toward common goals-of the entire community acting as a kind of "super-organism"-and the Athenian approach of maximizing the freedom of individuals still marks a foundational difference in today's basic understandings of man's proper role in society, explained Arieti. In the modern United States and at Hampden-Sydney, there are generally accepted tenets that draw from both concepts of a political community, in addition to more modern expectations of citizens.

"A citizen, as Aristotle says, is one who shares in the administration of justice-who participates in the life of his regime. A good citizen is someone who accepts the fundamental principles of a regime or society," said Dr. Stevens. "He's involved in some important way. He accepts the fundamental principles, but he can disagree with how the regime is structured or acts on a given day. A good citizen has a willingness to operate within those principles."

"Basically, a citizen is a member of a political community, whether of the United States, or Canada, or Mexico," said Professor Emeritus Dr. David Marion. "In a democratic republic, such as ours, citizens are all part of the ruling body. It is a self-governing type of political community in which citizens are part of the ruling body, but must also know how to be ruled. Citizenship thus requires much by way of both knowledge and proper conduct."

In addition to accepting the fundamental principles of their regime and obeying the law, in republics, active participation in governance is often considered a mark of a good citizen, who may at times participate in movements to alter or introduce laws and institutions. Active participation may be as simple as voting, attending town meetings, or holding public office. All citizens who vote exercise political power, and good citizens exercise that power responsibly by understanding public issues.

"A citizen must be educated in the ways of a society," said President Christopher Howard. "He doesn't have to have a doctorate in political science, but citizenship does presume a modicum of understanding of political constructs and of how civil society fits together. When you ask people to read about Western culture, they understand the principles, ideas, and ideals on which our society and civilization are built."

"If one doesn't understand how property rights are good for human beings in free societies," said Dr. Marion, "as a ruling member, he might not help protect property rights. If he doesn't understand the importance of contract rights or freedom of religion or due process of law, he may not protect those. He needs to know the role and benefits of an independent judiciary and the federal system. He needs to know which kind of economy is best for a modern rights-oriented democratic republic. A citizen-ruler needs to be informed about the principles and practices that make the community healthy."

Accepting the fundamental principles of the regime, obeying the law, participating in governance, and having the requisite education may very well epitomize the good citizen in the American Republic. Hampden-Sydney students are required to take rhetoric, foreign languages, literature, sciences and mathematics, economics and government, Western culture, international studies, religion or philosophy, and fine arts. Through these courses they come to understand the fundamental principles of the American regime; the governmental, economic, and social systems in the United States and beyond; and how to communicate, how to think critically, and how to develop one's own beliefs and values. They learn about their own human nature and that of their fellow living beings, as well as the laws governing the physical universe. In its entirety, the core curriculum aims at providing students a basic, requisite understanding of their world, their place in it, and the tools needed to be successful. 

David Marion

When they leave campus, alumni should at least know how to function effectively in society and how to participate in public affairs. But there are degrees of good citizenship, and through these discussions with Hampden-Sydney leaders it became clear that the College expects far more from both her students and her alumni.

Good Citizenship at H-SC

"Look at the mission statement," said retired Lt. Col. Rucker Snead '81, director of the Wilson Center. "It is to form good citizens-not simply to educate them. It is much broader. A lot of it is simply the environment on campus. We have the student Honor Code, and so we expect them to be honorable men. They are expected to be gentlemen."

"Hampden-Sydney and liberal arts colleges like it are the best places to understand what it is to be a good citizen," Dr. Arieti said. "They resemble ancient poleis: in them you have a local community, a common cultural life, and a distance that isolates them. At liberal arts colleges, students learn to think abstractly about the law and ethics, and they study actual historical examples. If they participate in campus life, they sample directly the experience of active citizenship."

Hampden-Sydney's culture fosters this sense of duty and responsibility. It's a reciprocal, "positive feedback" of gentlemanly behavior that influences student conduct and attitude, as former Honor Court Chairman and Ph.D. candidate Alexander Cartwright '13 once said. From the gregarious socialite to the solitary scholar, a sense of propriety and decency permeates members of the student body. Gentlemanly virtues are often contagious, and they can translate into good citizenship.

"The truly good citizen is someone who puts the community before himself," said President Howard. "He's committed to the servant-leader model. He's oriented toward the other. He recognizes that the good society, the polis, does not operate unless men and women are willing to serve and sacrifice and give back. There is selflessness, concern about the greater good, an active involvement with the world around you."

"A good citizen is someone who serves others, who gives back what has been given to him," said Trustee Chairman M. Peebles Harrison '89. "There are many people in the world who are less fortunate than we are. A good citizen humbly recognizes that he owes much of his success to others, and he feels a moral obligation to help those less fortunate."

This emphasis on giving back, of improving what we inherited, is manifested in everyday behavior on campus. "And good behavior can be shown in small actions. I love it when I see a student on campus just picking up a piece trash," President Howard continued. "They're conscious that the physical environment is not how they want it, and they do something about it. They take the time to bend down and pick up a piece of litter. People here are concerned." 

Clubs and fraternities often focus on public service and volunteerism. The Hampden-Sydney Mentor Program pairs college students with local elementary and middle school students so they can be positive role models. Circle K International raises money and helps build homes, among many other charitable endeavors. The Society of '91 works to "contribute to the common good; to be active citizens of their communities throughout their lives; and to be worthy of emulation, with lives exhibiting honesty, integrity, and principle." There are also the volunteer fire department, the Animal Rescue Crew, and others.

The College's code of ethics, her core curriculum, and her often unspoken expectations of students-her community laws and mores, one might argue-help to foster and promote our larger society's general understanding of good citizenship, even though the College and the society are different kinds of communities.


"The College is an academic community," said Dr. Marion, "within a democratic community. So it has a responsibility to prepare students to move into a democratic republic. That doesn't mean that Hampden-Sydney has to operate in the same ways as the democratic political community. But it should prepare students to do so."

The tenets of good citizenship at Hampden-Sydney, in Virginia, and in the Republic are essentially the same: accepting the principles of the regime; being informed; being engaged; and maintaining and improving the community. When students have been graduated, they take that sense of duty and responsibility with them.

Beyond the Gates

"When I meet people, quite often they'll know one or two Hampden-Sydney men," said President Howard. "They'll think favorably of those individuals. And almost always they'll say, ‘He's a good guy, and he is involved in ...' and just name it. It's always something: Boy Scouts, American Legion baseball, or organizing a summer trip for kids-there's always something interesting they're doing."

In one of the most recent examples of the continuing tradition of active participation in the governance of the Republic, Beckham A. Stanley '13 recently stepped forward to serve as the youngest councilman in the history of Bedford, Virginia. "Hampden-Sydney recognizes the civic responsibility that accompanies the privilege of a good education," said Stanley. "The College, its alumni, and its history inspire students to serve others. Its talented faculty ingrains this quality in students. My time at the College prepared me for so many careers, but I find the most satisfaction in public service."

Many other alumni donate time and money to causes and organizations that they believe will improve their communities. They volunteer at their churches, attend town council meetings, write letters to their representatives, and talk to others about important policy issues. They involve themselves in education. They stand up for what they believe. These are the kinds of men Hampden-Sydney aims to produce.

In closing his commencement speech to the Class of 2015, Congressional Representative Robert Hurt '91 summarized the College's expectations of her new graduates. Regardless of one's political affiliation, he was speaking to all alumni:

"The civic obligations required in a free society are not easy, but with good citizens who are educated and engaged, our Founders knew, and I believe, the greatest challenges facing our nation can be met. And they will be met.
"I want you to know that this great country is depending on you. Just as we depended on you in 1776 to cultivate, defend, and care for a new nation, we depend on you today to lead us into the future-leaving this country stronger for the next generation."