Foreword to The Common Good (copyright Lee H. Hamilton 2010)
When I was still in Congress, I used to make the rounds of voting precincts in southern Indiana on Election Day. Once, I ran into an older woman I’d never met. I asked her whether she voted. She said she had, and then added: “You know, I vote for my candidate, and then I go home and pray for the winner.” I asked her what she meant. She said: “Well, I want him or her to work not just for a few, but for everyone.”
This was a powerful expression of an individual’s commitment to the common good, the apt title of this wonderful book. She was not the first American to express such a commitment. The notion is central to our history. “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men,” wrote John Adams in 1776. In his first inaugural, Thomas Jefferson called for the country “to unite in common efforts for the common good.”
There is a profound connection between that Hoosier’s comment on Election Day, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s words, and the photographs in these pages. There can be no common good without common places, where people from all walks of life can come together, engage in a dialogue of democracy, and build a society that works not just for a few but for everyone.
For the Founders, that place was the Pennsylvania State House, today’s Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, where they spent the summer designing a government that would, in Lincoln’s words, be “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
History might not record their contributions in as much detail, but for decades Hoosiers have come together to better their communities collectively in a similar manner, in their own versions of Independence Hall, which are on display in this book.
Glancing at these photos inspires a healthy dose of nostalgia and brings a smile to my face. I’ve crisscrossed the interstates, state highways, and county roads of Indiana more times than I can remember, oftentimes with buildings like these—high schools, churches, and courthouses—as my destination. I would go and meet with my boss, the Indiana taxpayer, and together we would hash out what we wanted for the country and the best way to achieve it. Not every encounter was a friendly one, and we didn’t resolve every disagreement. But we tried. These encounters were almost always civil, and rightly so.
It would be easy to view the particularly dilapidated and decrepit edifices that populate this book as a metaphor for a more widespread decline—in civility, community, and togetherness. It’s also tempting to romanticize a bygone and simpler era. But I think that would be a mistake.
When I look at these buildings, I wonder about the debates, sermons, lectures that took place inside them. Most of all, I think about the people who came together in them, and how much all Hoosiers owe to them for what they bequeathed to us. I recall the challenges communities overcame by coming together. Then I return to focusing on the challenges of today, of which there are many, at home and abroad, with a good deal more optimism.
These photos document our shared history at the local level, strengthening our connection to our heritage. For young people, they represent a strong foundation on which they can build.
This book inspires us to be grateful for those who preceded us; to look to the future; to act; to build new common spaces; to come together more; to engage in dialogue; and, starting at the local level, to continue working towards the common good.
Lee H. Hamilton