COMMENTARY | A Rasmussen poll shows that Americans still love their Declaration of Independence, even some of the controversial parts. But though they would profess otherwise, most Americans really don’t care much about the Constitution.
A few years ago, I spotted a tie depicting America’s Constitutional Convention on eBay. It’ll be perfect for my annual Constitution Day presentation or speaker at my college, I thought. When it arrived in the mail, I gazed adoringly at the representation of the painting of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, among others.
When I flipped it over, the inscription incorrectly read “Signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.” Here’s the correct painting from July 4, 1776. Oops.
All Americans know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but how many even know the right month that the Constitution was signed (September), much less the year (1787)? I had a student tell me he thought Delaware was called “the First State” because it was the smallest (and this was at the University of Delaware, where I taught for a year). It was the first state to ratify the Constitution, of course.
There’s a memorial to Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. But you won’t find one to James Madison, the primary writer of the Constitution. He gets an add-on wing to the Library of Congress. Only in Montpelier, Va., can you find a monument to him.
There’s not much for John Jay, another key Constitution proponent. Alexander Hamilton gets a spot on the $10, but not because he was a Federalist Paper backer. It’s because he was the first Secretary of the Treasury, and he’s usually the first person mentioned when there’s a movement to replace a bill.
As for the Federalist Papers, the theory behind the Constitution, that’s the one students bellyache about having to read, and teachers avoid assigning, failing to understand its importance for our history. When I have my American Experience students read them, most say it is the first time they’ve seen them. It wasn’t that way when I grew up. Here they are, if you are interested. Numbers 10 and 45 are personal favorites.
Americans claim to love and hold the Constitution dearly, even read it every day. That doesn’t explain why 71 percent of people fail simple Constitutional quizzes. Even our politicians also fail such quizzes, at a 74 percent clip.
So have fun on July 4, but save a little love for the Constitution on Sept. 17, which we almost completely ignore, but always claim is being trampled.