Editor’s Note: Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This piece from November 1940 depicts young Wisconsonites whose interest in politics increased under the shadow of World War II.
Soon After Jimmie Jackson’s 20th birthday, three young neighbors drove up to his door in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, to invite him to a meeting on a nearby farm. “We’re organizing against Hitler,” they explained.
Jimmie went to the meeting. So did a dozen other young men and women who would cast their first votes at the next election. The three who invited Jimmie conducted the meeting. They were 21, already had voted once. A middle-aged man and woman, schoolteachers, sat in the rear of the room but offered advice only when asked.
To Jimmie’s surprise, no one mentioned Hitler. Instead, the leaders talked excitedly about the coming county elections. Jimmie learned that a spirited three-cornered fight was in progress for the office of supervisor. Fourteen men, some obviously unfit, were running for sheriff. He heard a heated argument over the location of a proposed bridge. He also found that his own first vote would help decide an old controversy over the taxes on his father’s farm.
“We’ll dig deeper into this tax question next meeting,” one of the leaders said. “Meanwhile, why don’t we sound out these supervisor candidates on how they stand?”
Not till the meeting was over did Jimmie get up nerve to ask: “But what about Hitler?”
“Just this—Hitler got his start by organizing young fellows like us into gangs. He pumped ’em full of his ideas. Stalin and Mussolini have their gangs, too. Call ’em ‘youth fronts.’ We are organizing our own front—for democracy. We’ve got to know what democracy’s about before we can vote intelligently. So we’re starting with things close to us. After we understand them, it’ll be time to dig into national affairs.”
That same week 37 other groups of young voters held meetings for future citizens, one in each of this Wisconsin county’s precincts. Always these meetings were held in homes or schoolrooms. These cagey youngsters decline all offers of free halls—they want to be beholden to nobody, especially to no organization of their elders. Jimmie attended meetings all winter, learned a great deal about his county government. Then one May afternoon—while bands played and civic organizations, war veterans and labor unions paraded—he and 700 other young men and women were sworn in as citizens by the chief justice of the state supreme court.
This method of assuring an alert, understanding electorate is becoming widely known as the Manitowoc Plan. It began as an experiment three years ago, was so successful that the Wisconsin legislature last year directed school superintendents in all counties to help start programs. Already 19 counties have complied. Nearly 100 counties in 24 other states have followed Manitowoc’s example. Congress endorsed the idea last spring by setting aside the third Sunday in May as Citizenship Day, and urging all civil and educational authorities to “institute full instruction of future citizens in their responsibilities and opportunities.”
The Manitowoc Plan was born when Dr. R. J. Colbert of the University of Wisconsin first suggested it to an adult class in municipal government at the Manitowoc vocational school. Under Dr. Colbert’s guidance the school trained scores of teachers and civic leaders to act as volunteer instructors of first voters.
As textbook, university experts prepared a 26-page mimeographed Guide to Young Voters, containing facts any citizen should know to cast an intelligent vote on local issues and candidates.
Hugh S. Bonar, superintendent of the Manitowoc city schools, believes adoption of the plan by all our 3100 counties would safeguard America not only from fascism and communism but also from other unsound schemes promoted by selfish or misguided factions.
“More than half the 2,500,000 young Americans eligible to cast first votes each year are without permanent jobs,” he explains. “Three quarters of them, disheartened because democracy appears unable to give them economic security, are ripe for any crackpot scheme that promises more money for less work. Most of them don’t even take the trouble to vote. Knowing this, the foes of democracy are working skillfully and determinedly on this age-group to get recruits.”
Manitowoc County challenges these forces by vitalizing youth’s interest and makes its participation in government personally important. On Citizenship Sunday, the churches conduct special services, and the sermons deal with the democratic ideal; in the afternoon a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant clergyman participate in the swearing-in ceremony, as proof of our freedom of worship and absence of intolerance. The parade which precedes the induction ceremony, in which all new voters march, township by township, has as its theme some phase of freedom under the Constitution. Merchants contributed floats to the first parade, but the next spring the youngsters built the floats themselves at a cost of not over $15 each.
The new citizens immediately plan how to help next year’s class. Committees of volunteers, without pay, spent their leisure hours for seven weeks last spring combing the birth records at the courthouse, going from door to door inviting new voters to meetings.
In many parts of the county 20- and 21-year-olds have formed permanent organizations to continue their self-instruction. The Young Citizens’ League of Manitowoc meets twice a month to discuss the facts its members unearth. Recently members asked the candidates for county office, “What qualifications fit you better for the office than your opponents?” Many a candidate was furious at “those young upstarts,” but when he discovered that the county newspapers had agreed to publish the results of the survey, he reached for his pencil.
The youngsters never make recommendations. Their only interest is to present such facts as will help the average voter cast an intelligent, thoughtful vote.
By experience, Jimmie Jackson and his hardworking partners in the Manitowoc Plan have learned the value of their ballots, and they intend to keep those ballots free. By studying, by teaching, and by doing, they are making democracy an exciting adventure, are keeping it alert and powerful in their community. When the plan has spread to all American counties, our country, they believe, will be safe from dictators.