“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1789.
But if Jefferson were to read the results of the latest survey from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, he might seriously doubt modern America’s capacity for self-governance. It shows that most Americans would fail even a basic citizenship test.
Today, 60% of college graduates cannot name a single step necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment; half don’t know how long the terms are for representatives or senators. Two out of five don’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.
The First Amendment prohibits an “establishment of religion” and guarantees the “free exercise of religion,” yet a majority of Americans believe that the Constitution established a Christian nation. One in 10 think Congress could actually “outlaw atheism because the United States is one country under God.”
It gets worse. Ten percent of the college graduates surveyed thought that Judge Judy is currently serving on the Supreme Court.
Indeed, pop culture references are better known than basics of American civics and history — even when those “pop” references are decades old. More Americans can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government, and three times as many can identify the city with the ZIP code 90210 than the city where our Constitution was written.
Even the most rudimentary knowledge of that founding document eludes far too many Americans. Barely half (53%), for example, know that the first 10 amendments are called the Bill of Rights. A third cannot name a single right protected by the First Amendment. And what many do “know” is wrong. For example, more than 1 in 10 Americans say that the Bill of Rights protects the right to own a pet.
Only 35% know that the first three words of the Constitution are: “We the People.” By way of comparison, two-thirds think that it was America’s founders, not Karl Marx, who penned the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and actually put them in the Constitution.
What’s truly frightening is how this stunning unfamiliarity with the Constitution has bred contempt. If put to a vote today, only half of those surveyed said they would vote to adopt the Constitution. Even fewer believe that Congress should follow the Constitution. So much for the rule of law.
And speaking of law, misunderstandings regarding the judicial branch are particularly acute. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual surveys, for example, show that one in four Americans thinks a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling is sent to Congress. One in four also think that “it might be better to do away with the court altogether.”
George Washington said the “education of our youth in the science of government” is vital because they are “the future guardians of the liberties of the country.” Yet the National Center for State Courts found that only 1 in 5 U.S. adults can correctly name all three branches, and 2 in 5 couldn’t name a single one.
Samuel Adams wrote that the nation’s freedom would be secure so long as “virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people.” Yet our national stock of both seems to be dwindling. Far too many Americans think Judge Judy is a Supreme Court justice, Karl Marx is a founding author, and your great aunt Lucy has a specifically defined constitutional right to keep those 26 cats. It’s laughable until you realize that the civic illiteracy extends to the point that many are apparently perfectly fine with either ignoring the Constitution or throwing it out altogether.
Jefferson said that a nation cannot expect to be “both ignorant and free.” For the sake of our nation and our own personal freedom, it is essential that we get back to teaching the basics of American civics. We are failing the founders.
• Thomas L. Jipping is the deputy director of The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. Peyton Smith works in the think tank’s Young Leadership Program.