Friday, April 17, 2009


Sophomores Libby Tolman and Carolyn Keller have won recognition in a national essay contest called "Being an American" sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute. Libby won second place out of three awards given in the New England region, which put her essay in the top 27 in the country and earned her $2,500. Carolyn won honorable mention and $250. The contest drew 31,000 submissions and was open to all students in grades 9-12.

The two HHS students prepared their essays out of their own interest, not as a class assignment. The contest theme was: "Tell us, in up to 500 words, what civic value(s) you find most important, and how you can live out that civic value(s) in your own life." Libby wrote about justice, and Carolyn wrote about perseverance. To find their essays, click "read more" at the end of this post.

Libby and her Social Studies teacher, Pam Miller, who also won $2,500, went to Washington in early April to receive their awards at the Institute's banquet. The speakers were Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Juan Williams of National Public Radio. The photos show Libby Tolman with Carolyn Keller; and Libby with Darrell Green, former Washington Redskin and NFL Hall of Famer, who addressed the contest winners. C-SPAN broadcast the awards ceremony on April 18.

The contest, administered by the Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute (, is sponsored by The Templeton Foundation, The History Channel, The Heritage Foundation, State Farm Insurance and other corporations and individuals.

Justice: The Most Important Civic Value
by Libby Tolman

There are many civic values, each with its own ability to advance the American people and to improve our nation. Each has its special qualities, its brave heroes, and its significant documents. No civic value, however, is as essential to lives of America’s people and to the society of our nation as justice. Justice is the civic value that protects every American’s unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Our founding fathers recognized the importance of justice and protected it in five amendments of the Bill of Rights. The founding fathers set forth a fundamental idea of justice in the fourth amendment, where they stated that the people should be secure from unwarranted search and seizure (“Bill of Rights”). This showed that a citizen’s belongings were private and were protected from a government search and confiscation without probable cause. In the fifth amendment, our founding fathers extended this idea to people themselves by stating that a citizen may not “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law” (“Bill of Rights”). Thus, citizens themselves could not be seized without the approval of a just court. In the sixth amendment, the founding fathers took the essential step of ensuring that the just ideas they had outlined in previous amendments applied to “all criminal prosecutions” by ensuring that all American people have the right “to have the assistance of counsel” for their defense of their life and liberty (“Bill of Rights”). In the seventh and eight amendments, our founding fathers continued to ensure that our country was fair to all by ensuring trial by jury and preventing excessive fines and bails (“Bill of Rights”). Thus, our founding fathers used justice to protect the rights of American citizens.

One of the unfortunate things about justice is that it does not occur by itself; the fundamental American idea that citizens are protected from the seizure of liberty by their government no matter who they are must be advanced and developed by citizens themselves. Although the founding fathers set forth the ideas of justice in the late 1700s, in 1963 Clarence Earl Gideon still had parts of his justice taken away (Black). Gideon was a poor man charged with burglary who was unable to hire a lawyer (“A Landmark”). The court refused to assign him one, so Gideon tried to defend himself and was found guilty (“A Landmark”). Gideon sat in his jail cell and wrote a letter to the United States Supreme Court saying that his right to counsel had been violated (“A Landmark”). The Supreme Court overturned Gideon’s conviction and stated that all citizens had the right to counsel in all criminal cases where a citizen’s liberty was in danger (Black). This decision led to the creation of the public defenders system (“A Landmark”).

Gideon’s contribution was essential to American justice because, in the words of Justice Sutherland, an innocent citizen may face “the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence” in a court (Black). With this conviction could come the loss of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These qualities are what make American citizenship so special and, indeed, are for many what it means to be American. Because of Gideon’s brave contributions to the civic value of justice, Americans unable to hire a lawyer no longer have to worry about the loss of these rights.

The way I have put justice into practice is by learning about the judicial systems, documents, and decisions that affect American liberty. In school, I have learned about famous Supreme Court cases which affect my rights, like Tinker et al. v. Des Moines, Miranda vs. Arizona, and Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier. That way, I will know if my right to freedom of speech or my right to remain silent is ever violated. Hopefully, if this ever happens I will have a little bit of Gideon’s bravery and be able to use the American court system to protect my rights and advance American justice.
In conclusion, justice is the most important civic value because it protects the rights that Americans hold dear. It protects us from danger by prosecuting criminals while still allowing us to go about our lives without unnecessary government intrusion. Without justice and Clarence Earl Gideon, thousands of poor citizens might be locked in American jails today, their rights gone because they did not have lawyers and just courts.


"A Landmark in the Law." State of Connecticut Division of Public Defender Services. 30 Nov. 2008 .

"Bill of Rights." Constitution Society. 30 Nov. 2008 billofr_.htm>.

Black, Hugo L. "Gideon v. Wainwright." The Oyez Project. 30 Nov. 2008 .

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The Tenacity of Independence
by Carolyn Keller

On the eve of September 3, 1783, at the Hotel de York, the representatives of Great Britain and the United States of America signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the War of American Independence. The war had began on April 19, 1775, thus lasting over eight years. Eight years of fighting, of wins and losses, of treaties and declarations, and of heroes and cowards. To continue on for that length of time, for the hope of independence and liberty, required a civic value most people still respect today: perseverance. Perseverance is thus the most essential value to being an American.

What started this need for perseverance, this need for a harsh war, was, most simply put, the British taxing the Americans without allowing them representation in parliament. This led to the signing of another very important and liberating document: the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that the colonies were free and independent states with no allegiance to Britain. The document states all the grievances the British king had committed against the colonies and how these Acts had directly harmed the Americans. To have tolerated heavy taxes, no freedom to govern, and the threat of the British troops stationed on American soil, the citizens of America that Thomas Jefferson speaks of in the Declaration had to persevere and try to carry on. However, they finally reached their breaking points and declared independence. The American people then persevered in forming the General Congress that signed the Declaration of Independence, and in creating the document that would grant them the freedoms they had long been without. The British tried to quell this rebellion, in events such as the Boston Massacre. However, they proved inept at repressing the intellectual rebellion that started when the fifty-six delegates signed this powerful declaration. The Americans persevered and won their freedom after the war that lasted eight years, and it all started with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

One of the documents that inspired Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence was the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason. The documents share the philosophies of John Locke and the natural rights theory, as did their writers. When it came time to seek ratification for the newly written American Constitution, Mason rejected it. He said that the central government had too much power and that the people lacked rights that would protect them from harm by the government. He stayed true to his beliefs and declined to sign the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Mason displayed perseverance in his refusal to sign, in the writing of his pamphlet, Objections to this Constitution of Government, and in his convincing James Madison to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. Mason persisted until he won, and in the end, the United States was better off because of it. Mason was a true American in the way he would not take no for an answer in his determination to help his country.

Even though George Mason is long dead, and the Declaration of Independence was signed over two-hundred years ago, perseverance is still important today. To persevere is to stay true to one’s beliefs, even in the face of defeat, and to see it through to the end. We can all persevere in what we believe in by simply not giving up, not looking back, but only striving to see our goal brought to completion. One day, I hope to be accepted at Cambridge University. I know this is unlikely, as they take very few Americans. But still, I am determined to persevere and try my hardest to create an outstanding application that they cannot say no to. Whether I am chosen or not, at least I will know that I have tried my hardest, and that I have exhibited one of the best qualities a person can have.

The goal may be worth it, and it will be if you believe it is, but the journey will, no matter what, always be something valued and remembered. I encourage everyone to persevere towards making their dreams reality. Nothing can be accomplished if we do not try. There is no giving up, no backing down, if one truly perseveres. There is only the product of dreams and hopes, suddenly there, before one’s own eyes. America would be nowhere close to what it is today without that civic value we all cherish most, perseverance.