Just a Bunch of Words?
If you have paid attention to the news the last week or so you know that the U.S. Constitution has become quite the issue. As usual, misinformation has been in abundant supply.
You remember your ninth-grade civics class. Right? We defeated the British and then wrote the Articles of Confederation as a Constitution to guide our new government. That did not go well so 55 dudes met in Philadelphia in May of 1787 to make the Articles better but instead wrote an entirely new Constitution because most agreed that the Articles could not be salvaged (it’s a long story). The Founders spent the entire summer writing a mere 4,543 words that addressed the branches of government, the supremacy of the national government, and so much more.
The Founders were pretty dang smart and well-read fellows (unfortunately they were all men). The ideas embodied in the Constitution were borrowed from major Enlightenment Era influencers such as Locke, Hobbes, Rousseu, Montesquieu, Pufendorf (I just love that name), and others. The Founders did a pretty good job because the U.S. Constitution is the oldest in the world (San Marino’s claim to the contrary is fake news).
Not only did our Constitution establish the notion that written Constitutions were essential, at least 160 nations have borrowed from those 4,543 words and/or the 27 Amendments when they wrote their own constitutions.
The U.S. Constitution is America’s most important document, and one of the most important political documents in history. It guides and restricts governmental action, it enumerates our most cherished individual rights, and it provides the basic rules by which government and society operate.
All this to say that the U.S. Constitution is a pretty big deal. Of course, the document was written in 1787, so the language must be applied to contemporary circumstances (you can imagine how “search and seizure” means something quite different in 2022 than it did in the 1790’s), and the Supreme Court decides whether the other branches’ interpretations are appropriate. I often disagree with the Court’s decisions, but I accept them as legitimate because that is our system.
A couple of years ago an Annenberg poll found that well over half of Americans had not read the Constitution. I guess that’s not really surprising since another poll found that less than 30% of Christians had read the entire Bible and more than 80% of American Christians only read it on Sunday when in Church. Yet people constantly refer to the Constitution, the Bible, or other authoritative documents to justify their arguments and beliefs.
Another, more recent, Annenberg poll found that fewer than half of Americans could name all three branches of government and 25% could not name one single branch (executive, legislative, judicial). Further, only 24% could identify Freedom of Religion as a right in the 1st Amendment, 1/3 believed the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to own a home (it does not), 1/10 believed the Constitution guarantees the right to own a pet (nope!), and 1/3 believed it was OK for a president to ignore a Supreme Court ruling (it is not). Again, this is not surprising because 1/4 of Americans believe God plays a role in the outcome of the Super Bowl, about 40% believe humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and about 20% believe fortune tellers can predict the future.
Is it any wonder Americans so easily accept misinformation regarding the Constitution (and other stuff) via some Facebook meme, political commentators (most of whom have likely not read it either), or dear old Uncle Ned?
Since, as stated above, the Founders were pretty smart they included Article V of the U.S. Constitution providing an amending process so the document may be updated to fit newly arising circumstances. The 27 Amendments end slavery (13), give women the right to vote (19), give 18 year old citizens the right to vote (26), provide the right to an attorney in criminal cases (6), allow the government to tax incomes (16) (dang it!), and so much more.
However, there are no stipulations for the termination of any Constitutional provisions because of imagined “massive fraud”, as recently claimed by former President Trump. The Constitution may be amended and interpreted, as stated above, but no Constitutional provisions may otherwise be “terminated”. Any American who has actually READ the document knows better.
I think I’ve read the Constitution at least 250 times and I believe ALL Americans should read it at least once. I also believe we should teach it in public schools from grades one through twelve.
You might be interested to know that anyone taking the American citizenship test must study about 100 questions, including these:
A: Principles of American Democracy
1. What is the supreme law of the land? ▪ the Constitution
2. What does the Constitution do? ▪ sets up the government ▪ defines the government ▪ protects basic rights of Americans
3. The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words? ▪ We the People
4. What is an amendment? ▪ a change (to the Constitution) ▪ an addition (to the Constitution)
5. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? ▪ the Bill of Rights
6. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?* ▪ speech ▪ religion ▪ assembly ▪ press ▪ petition the government
7. How many amendments does the Constitution have? ▪ twenty-seven (27)
Almost all of the 100 questions require a basic understanding of the three branches of government, the relationship between Washington and states, the responsibilities of citizenship, and other essential information about our political system. If you are so inclined, I encourage you to read through the information aspiring citizens must know and test your knowledge of American government (I’ll not be posting a quiz because I am tired of grading!).
Perhaps we should also require a “voting test” requiring natural-born citizens to know at least as much about the Constitution and American government as those becoming naturalized. Based on the polls mentioned above as well as countless others, a large number of natural born Americans know much less than those becoming naturalized, and that at least partially explains uninformed voting.