Personal responsibility is a big idea about which little is known. It has received far less study than other key conservative tenets, like economic choice. This lack of attention is striking because personal responsibility is a defining assumption in American thought. The untold story of how we came by this concept reveals the vital role that the Founders envisioned it would play in our national life.
The origin of the phrase itself has remained obscure. The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “personal shopper” and “personal assistant,” ignores “personal responsibility.” And while Oxford’s lexicographers credit the first recorded use of “responsibility” alone to Alexander Hamilton, in 1787, in Federalist 63, that’s wrong on three counts. First, Hamilton did not write Federalist 63; James Madison did. Second, Federalist 63 appeared not in 1787 but in 1788. Third, the word had already been used.
“Responsibility” became an American idea on or by June 1, 1787, as the Constitutional Convention debated the motion “that the Executive consist of a single person.” The idea evoked the hated specter of a king. South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney warned that investing power in a president could mean “a monarchy, of the worst kind, to wit an elective one.” At this fork in our national road—the transcriber noted “a considerable pause ensuing”—Benjamin Franklin spoke. “Before the question was put,” he wished more discussion on “a point of [such] great importance.” John Rutledge of South Carolina, noting “the shyness of gentlemen on this . . . subject,” then backed a unitary executive, using a novel word for the president’s ability to respond. “A single man,” he said, “would feel the greatest responsibility and administer the public affairs best.”
In the next six weeks of debate, responsibility became a capstone concept for the federal enterprise. It drove discussions of desired presidential character traits, and it spurred proposals to restrain the Senate from “medling [sic] with money bills.” The term proved so serviceable that Madison, summarizing the sessions, reflected on July 17: “The responsibility of all to the will of the community seemed to be generally admitted as the true basis of a well constructed government.”
The associated phrase “personal responsibility” appeared the next day. On July 18, opposing a motion that Congress nominate judges, Massachusetts representative Nathaniel Gorham argued that the president would be more likely to “look through all the states for proper characters.” By contrast, Gorham said, “public bodies feel no personal responsibility, and give full play to intrigue and cabal.”
The new phrase and its implications caught on quickly. In that same July 18 session, Virginia delegate Edmund Randolph urged keeping a public record of senators’ votes in order to impose “personal responsibility.” Hamilton used the term artfully, in Federalist 69, to contrast the powers of president and king. The American executive would be not “sacred and inviolable” but impeachable and removable—ruling in a “delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility.”
Of course, the Framers did not pioneer the concept of man as a personally responsible agent. That notion, arguably the greatest of all Western ideas, dates to line 32 of Homer’s Odyssey, where Zeus asks people to stop blaming their bad choices on the gods. But the Federalists turned this ancient moral idea to newly practical ends. Of their first ten phrases involving responsibility, four dealt with the executive power, three with the legislative, two with the judiciary, and one with the general basis of good government.
Thus personal responsibility is not just an originally American formulation but a uniquely political one. The Federalists leveraged the phrase as they invented a nation. Presumably, the words floated through alehouses before they flowed from any statesman’s pen. But among politically active men who wrote prolifically, the oral probably did not long precede the written use. “Responsibility” was an old concept that found its fullest expression in the new world.
The phrase “personal responsibility” was only half new, however—and therein lies a deeper lesson. Though “personal” and “personality” dated to the 1380s, “responsibility” emerged only in the 1640s, as England began its great democratic ferment. This linguistic lag marked an arrested moral development. Our civilization developed personality early and responsibility late. Only the duties of democratic governance required a word to express the abstract principle, “a state of being responsible.”