Before the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson signaled his fleet: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
He knew that the next few hours were going to be incredibly chaotic, painful, and hard. He knew that his sailors would feel fear, grief and rage. And he knew that to submit to those instincts would bring ruin.
Duty was, and is, the counterweight to self-destructive instinct.
Having a sense of what we must do empowers us to act deliberately, rather than merely react emotionally. Doing our duty, as best we can, is what gets us through difficult times.
The year 2020 in the United States has been a difficult time — morally, physically, financially. And it is not yet halfway finished. A vaccine for COVID-19 remains months away at the earliest; the injustices driving mass protests across the country will not go away overnight, and so neither will the civil unrest; and the fiercely-contested presidential election is still more than four months into the future. We should expect turmoil at least until January, and it may intensify before it subsides.
To get through it, we all must do our duty.
Duty was straightforward for Nelson’s sailors, who were shipboard and on their way to battle: they needed to man their stations and fight. It is more complicated for citizens of a republic such as ours, who hail from all backgrounds and walks of life. But it is no less valuable.
There is one duty that we all share, which is to uphold the Constitution. For members of the military, this duty is explicit in their oath: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” and “I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Yet it is not exclusive to service members. Those same words are contained in the oath that all immigrants must take to become citizens of the United States. By virtue of their own citizenship, native-born Americans ought also to consider that oath binding on themselves.
That duty requires us to uphold the entire Constitution, from the governing principles at its core to the fundamental freedoms in the Bill of Rights and the equal citizenship promised in the 14th Amendment.
It means that soldiers and police officers have a duty to ensure that “no person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” (5th Amendment), not to “deny to any person… the equal protection of the laws” (14th Amendment), and to respect “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (1st Amendment).
It also means that protesters have a duty to assemble peaceably, not to deprive any person of life or property, and to seek redress through the republican form of government established in the Constitution and guaranteed by it to every state (Article 4, Section 4). It means that employers and ordinary citizens watching events unfold on social media ought to be respectful of free speech.
The Constitution is not infallible, and in times of turmoil it may seem tempting to skirt it to satisfy some immediate desire. But, as George Washington pointed out to us in his Farewell Address, the Constitution contains a method for its own amendment, which we are duty-bound to use if we seek to change its rules. Sidestepping it, he warned, “must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use [of such means] can at any time yield.”
Upholding the Constitution is our common duty, but it is not our sole duty. We all bear moral obligations to those around us: our family, our friends, our colleagues. We must treat them the way we wish to be treated, and we must avoid infringing upon their liberties or well-being.
This is the duty that entreats us to protect those who are vulnerable to the coronavirus. It is what calls us to maintain the societal bonds of politeness and civility. It is what obligates us to see those of every racial or ethnic background as what they are: human beings, no better and no worse than any other variety of mankind.
Doing our duty is not easy. It is not simply following orders; that is easy. It is not simply acting on emotion; that is easy. Determining what our duty is and how to do it requires us to pause and think. Carrying out our duty requires continuous work. We will each come to different conclusions and have different ways of working.
Such differences are inevitable. If we ponder our obligations and work hard to fulfill them, then one way or another we will leave this year afloat and with our flag, though battle-worn, still flying proudly. If we instead take the path of least resistance — giving in to base impulses like panic, aggression or despondency — then we will sink our ship of state.
There is one last thing to think about. We all sometimes fail in our duty. As citizens, it is evident that we — and not just police officers — have failed in our constitutional duty to ensure the equal protection of the laws. We, as individuals, might have failed to protect an elderly relative from COVID-19, or we might have alienated a friend over political differences.
Failure does not release us from duty. It doesn’t mean that we get to discard our governing structures, give up on slowing the virus’ spread, or drop all pretense of dignity and respect for others. It means that we need to get back up and back to it, and apply the lessons we have learned.
Some damage cannot be undone: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, David Dorn, Dave Patrick Underwood and the more than 100,000 of our fellow Americans who have lost their lives to the coronavirus will not come back. But by doing our duty, and turning away from those who refuse to do theirs, we can prevent more deaths, right injustices, repair friendships and emerge resurgent from 2020 as a more perfect Union.
The United States of America expects that every citizen will do their duty.
John P. Caves III is a former Army officer and the author of The New Model Federalist, a series of essays on U.S. politics. While on active duty from 2013 to 2017, he traveled across the country and was stationed in Alaska and Oklahoma before returning to civilian life in his home state of Maryland. He currently does nonproliferation research at a Washington, DC-based nonprofit.