On Monday, Sept. 17, 1787, their work was done, and the delegates to the months-long Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia awaited the next step. Meeting through the hot, humid summer of 1787, they had argued and fought over a new constitution for governing the newly free 13 states; now it was up to a super-majority of those states to ratify their work and create the country’s central government.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the states had come together to draft the Articles of Confederation, creating a central government that ultimately proved too weak to govern the new nation. Individual states were refusing to financially support the central government, conducting foreign policy on their own and ignoring laws duly passed by the Confederation’s Congress. State-incurred debts from the war were a source of political contention and an economic drag on the new country. And in light of foreign threats, specifically from Great Britain, independence still was fragile.
James Madison of Virginia is considered the father of the document that emerged from that convention, a living document the genius of which is still a marvel to this day. Amended only 27 times (and one of those was the repeal of a previous amendment), the United States Constitution has served as a model for peoples and nations around the world emerging from serfdom to self-governance ever since.
But just how well do we Americans know our own history and our own founding documents? Sadly, a new poll issued by The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania on the occasion of Constitution Day 2017 reveals the answer: Not very well at all.
The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey tracks Americans’ awareness and understanding of the Constitution, and the results from the 2017 survey are discouraging, to say the least:
» Only 26 percent of the respondents can name the three branches of government.
» Thirty-seven percent can’t name a single one of the rights guaranteed to every American in the First Amendment.
» Relevant to today’s debate about immigrants, 53 percent of Americans wrongly believe that immigrants who are in this country illegally have no rights under the Constitution. It was in 1886 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Yo Wick v. Hopkins that any person in the country enjoyed the rights, liberties and protections of the Constitution.
Think about that for a moment: Sizable portions of the American people are utterly ignorant of fundamental principles of their own government, indeed of democracy itself.
When you have no idea of the three, separate and co-equal branches of government — the Legislative, Executive and Judicial — you have no understanding of the principle of checks and balances whereby federal judges can rein in a president who’s overstepped his authority or how Congress can pass legislation but the approval of the president is needed for a bill to become law. If you have no understanding whatsoever of the concept of separation of powers, it’s easy to see the president as the ultimate power in the country when, in reality, the person in that position is merely the head of one of the three branches of government.
The belief that undocumented people in this country illegally have no rights under the Constitution is especially pernicious today. When more than half of Americans believe these people have no constitutional rights, that’s the main ingredient for creating a government out of control in its regard of all people — a police state.
Most disturbing of all is the percentage of survey respondents who couldn’t identify a single right guaranteed to all Americans in the First Amendment. Freedom of speech. A free press. A ban on an established religion — meaning freedom of religion and from religion. The rights of assembly and to petition the government for a redress of wrongs and grievances. When people have no clue of their fundamental rights as citizens, liberal democracy itself is on life support. The argument could be made we are approaching that point in American history.
For us as a nation to have reached this level of civic ignorance is nothing short of a disgrace. Our schools, colleges and universities have failed to educate people about the most basic concepts undergirding our government. Institutions such as the news media have failed, too, naively believing that most people do understand the concepts of free speech or a free press when the evidence clearly is to the contrary.
On this Constitution Day 2017, we’ve got to recognize the fragility of our democratic republic and begin the hard work to undergird its foundations before it’s too late.