In the last decade, political partisanship and disunity in the United States have paralyzed the nation. I lived through the tumultuous 1960s and 70s when many observers thought we might not celebrate our 200th birthday (1976) as one nation of 50 states. The Lyndon Johnson-Robert McNamara miscues in the Vietnam War divided the nation more than any one event since the Civil War, and the slogan “better red than dead” was popular in some circles. It became painfully obvious that the Greatest Generation learned, but failed to teach, life lessons to their offspring. To put it plainly, too many in my generation were spoiled; we didn’t have to struggle, and we came to believe that somehow we are simply entitled to the freedoms passed down from previous generations. The vast majority of us see no need to take our turn at the tiller; our responsibility is to have fun and let the loose ends drag.
I started teaching in public education in 1971 and taught World and U.S. History in a similar fashion to how I was taught at the University of Georgia. In U.S. history, the class began with the Age of European discovery and proceeded to the present. The writing and implementation of the United States Constitution was one chapter of our overall history, but it’s obviously much more. It was the first democratic form of government in modern history, and it became famous worldwide as the Great Experiment. Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government had been established when he exited the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in July 1787, and he replied, “A republic if you can keep it.” Franklin was a central figure in writing and ratifying the new Constitution, and he understood what would follow. Men and nations would attempt to snuff out our government militarily and power hungry politicians would scheme to circumvent this vital document.
Rusty Bowers, the Speaker of the Arizona Legislature, said recently that he believed the United States Constitution was divinely inspired, and his conscience would not let him violate his oath to protect and defend it. But others do not hold it in such high esteem. To some it is nothing more than an inconvenient obstacle blocking their ambitions. That attitude is as dangerous to the future of democracy as nuclear warfare.
I know people who claim to be strict constructionists, and yet they can explain only some of the 1st, 2nd, and the 5th amendments. How is it possible to be a strict constructionist without knowing what is in that document and the history of how it came about?
If I had the opportunity to begin my teaching career again, I would certainly teach U.S. history differently. I’d bypass the Age of Discovery since the old “Columbus discovered America” story is no longer factual. Initially, I’d have students learn the first ten amendments by studying the varied abuses the colonists suffered under British rule to explain the need for each amendment and the individual rights guaranteed. For example, Amendment 1 guarantees freedom of speech and opinion and the right to assemble peaceably to protest. The Boston Massacre is one of many examples of how British King George III tried to suppress the freedom of expression in the colonies, but even colonial leaders often placed arbitrary limits on free speech. Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, was jailed without formal charges for writing a critical newspaper article about Boston religious leader Cotton Mather.
Next we’d study Articles 1 through 7 and carefully examine how the executive, legislative and judicial branches mesh and have specific powers and specific limitations directly related to colonial experiences with the British government’s unlimited power over the colonies.
Then we’d review the background issues and need for Amendments 11 through 26, which were written and ratified to deal with specific political issues that arose during the 19th and 20th Centuries in a changing United States. Understanding the history and development of the Constitution is the essential foundation for understanding American history.
Finally, I’d have students analyze the rise and fall of the Third Reich in Germany, the rise of communism in Russia and China, and focus on the rights denied citizens of those nations that are guaranteed in the United States by our Constitution.
Teaching United States and constitutional history has fallen out of favor in high schools and post-secondary education in the 21st Century. If we don’t understand what we have and how it developed, the chances of losing it become exponentially greater. Sadly, most of us won’t realize what we’ve lost until we no longer have it.