Government & Politics

Constitution Day: Losing Touch With Our National Roots

Cultivated ignorance and malevolent destruction endanger Liberty.

Michael Swartz · Sep. 16, 2016

Saturday marks the 229th anniversary of the completion of our Constitution, which was submitted to the Congress of the Confederation for its approval on Sept. 17, 1787. Over the following months it was ratified by the several states, reaching the required nine when New Hampshire approved it on June 21, 1788. (All 13 colonies ratified it by the middle of 1790; Rhode Island was the last holdout.) Do Americans really know about our rich heritage?

One would think that a nation which cherishes its history and freedom as America does would have a populace that could rattle off these facts in the same manner as they can name the starters on their fantasy football team — but we don’t. Instead, a recent study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an advocate for improving college education, found that just 18% of liberal arts colleges and universities require even one survey course on American history or government for graduation. (It’s no wonder the study was titled “A Crisis in Civic Education.”) Nor is that course necessarily one that teaches about the founding documents; often it covers various niche topics that reflect the popularity of the subject (such as a history of witchcraft in America) rather than an examination of more weighty topics like the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

The news is just as bad at the high school level, as only a handful of states require any testing in civics before students graduate. In more and more schools, time that was once spent covering the basics of our system of government is lost in teaching to standardized tests that may or may not cover these important subjects. Those students who scream in protest, “I know my rights!” likely have no clue that those rights weren’t originally enumerated in the Constitution but were added as amendments soon afterward — and, even then, not without controversy over whether these rights would be limited by virtue of being enumerated.

It seems quaint in this day and age, but there once was robust debate about whether the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government at the expense of the states. (The Anti-Federalists’ warnings were prophetic.) Now the argument is over which political party’s version of Big Government is preferable. Contention over — and advocacy of — limitations to government based on constitutional principles has become a theoretical exercise at best, perhaps in part because few understand the ideas and arguments that were made during the drafting of our government’s founding document.

Our situation is made clear when no less than Rush Limbaugh effectively concedes that the argument over Big Government vs. limited government is over.

In response to a caller to his show Wednesday who praised Donald Trump’s Big Government child care plan, Limbaugh noted: “I think [voters are] going to respond so positively to this, and it’s going to disappoint a lot of people. ‘Oh, my God, do people not even understand the whole concept of Big Government destroying the country?’ They don’t, folks. They don’t look at it the way you and I do in that regard.” Years of enforced neglect of civics education has placed us in this situation where the prospect of a measure of financial security is the tradeoff for Liberty — because maintaining Liberty is just too hard and requires sacrifice and diligence. So when neither major-party candidate campaigns on following the Constitution (or gets basic facts about it wrong) it’s no surprise that so few notice.

Cultivated ignorance isn’t the only problem — malevolent destruction is rampant. Even federal judges now have no compunction in arguing that the Constitution is obsolete and “does not speak to today.” And Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2012 said, “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution, if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

Indeed, the never-ending journey to Liberty is difficult, made more so by the frequent and quickening steps we take in the other direction. It’s heartening to know, however, that it only took what Samuel Adams called an “irate, tireless minority” to lead a revolution against a tyrannical leader and then realize that a new system of government was in order to maintain that Liberty purchased with blood and sacrifice.

We in our humble shop aren’t just sitting on the sidelines lamenting the good old days, either — we carry our Founders’ torch. Through our Essential Liberty Project, we’ve distributed more than one million Constitution guides, frequently to schools so that we pass the flame of Liberty to the next generation. We have an extensive collection of historic documents online, including the Federalist Papers in their entirety.

And since 1996, we’ve been bringing a constitutional perspective to our unique coverage of news, policy and opinion. Our profoundest thanks to all of you who have made that possible.

Throughout American history we have had times of religious revival, and in those instances we also seem to gain an appreciation of the natural law our founding documents are based on — including the self-evident truth that certain rights are endowed by our Creator. As Patriots continue to strive for a more perfect Union and secure the blessings of Liberty, we pray that the next revival comes not just in a religious sense, but with a renewed thirst for Liberty that can only be quenched by closely hewing to our founding documents.

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