Americans don’t understand their founding documents

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With Constitution Day having just passed on September 20th, it might be useful to return to the document it’s become popular to quote in support of social and political arguments concerning the role of the federal government. No one dismisses the paramount importance of the Constitution in framing our everyday lives; but even those professing a deep and abiding respect and admiration for the document’s approximately 7,500 words can occasionally misinterpret their origins and diction — to their own embarrassment as well as the confusion of the American public.

As a nation, we face a crisis of illiteracy about our founding documents, their origins and their authors. The Constitution is only one glaring example. A recent study by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia reported that only 2 percent of a sample of six hundred students knows that James Madison was the father of the Constitution. Not only that, nearly 60 percent can identify the Three Stooges, but only 41 percent know the three branches of government.

The problem is so pronounced that in 2003, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, in an appearance before the U.S. Senate, remarked “We can’t function as a society if we don’t know who we are and where we came from.” He added that only three American colleges require a course on the Constitution to graduate: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy at Annapolis and the Air Force Academy in Colorado. This is unfortunate, and potentially dangerous.

But students are not the only ones who either misunderstand, or are ill-informed about the Constitution. Even prominent pundits, legislators and executives aren’t immune to this contagion. Below are a few notable examples:

Vice President Joe Biden, in his vice presidential debate with Gov. Sarah Palin: “Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history … The idea he doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States — that’s the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.” While it is true that everyone should understand Article I of the Constitution, that article actually refers to the Legislative Branch, while Article II refers to the Executive Branch.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2009, ascribed “Life, liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness” to the Constitution. “Freedom” does not appear anywhere in this particular quote, which is actually taken from the Declaration of Independence.

Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asserted that the “good and welfare clause” gives Congress the authority to require individuals to buy health insurance as mandated in the Health Care Bill. As it happens, there is no “good and welfare clause” in the Constitution.

President Barack Obama, who ironically was a professor of constitutional law, stated during his first State of the Union address, “…we find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we’re all created equal.” Likewise, those words are in the Declaration of Independence.

MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow, though correctly indicating that House minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) had mistakenly attributed the historic phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident” to the Preamble to the Constitution (it actually came from the Declaration of Independence), she herself was erroneous when she claimed such a Preamble didn’t exist.

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, asked during her vice presidential debate by moderator Gwen Ifill about a July 2008 comment she made about the role of the vice president, said the following: “Of course we know what a vice president does, and that’s not only preside over the Senate, and we’ll take that position very seriously … Also, I’m thankful that the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president also if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate …” Actually, the only legislative authority given by the Constitution to the vice president is to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

But regardless of how major or minor such errors may be, the lesson here is simple: we cannot continue to operate as a civically-informed society if we have no working knowledge of the guiding principles of the documents from which we derive our rights as citizens. And where ignorance exists in our population, there will always be opportunists ready to exploit it.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland”; editor of “Learn Earn and Return: My Life as a Computer Pioneer,” a memoir of Harlan Anderson, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, and contributor to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.