Happy Anniversary & More on Civics Literacy

First off, happy anniversary to the U.S. Supreme Court!  On this date 221 years ago, the Court convened for the first time in New York.  It was not until 1916 that Congress set the start of the Court’s term to the now-familiar first Monday in October.

Now more on civics literacy, a discussion which I began here.  Our new House Speaker may know legislative strategy, but he is a bit rusty when it comes to civics:

Perhaps these truths are not so self-evident if an elected official cannot remember where they were declared.  It is not so surprising that Boehner would confuse our two most important founding documents.  Ordinary American fall victim to the same mistake in high numbers.  From a 1987 Hearst Corporation survey:

True or False: The following phrases are found in the U.S. Constitution:

  • “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  • “The consent of the governed.”
  • “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
  • “All men are created equal.”
  • “Of the people, by the people, for the people.”

The correct answer is that the Constitution contains none of these phrases, though of course some of these ideas flow naturally from the principles espoused in the Constitution.  According to a 1987 study by the Hearst Corporation, most Americans fell into this trap.  Nearly eight in ten Americans thought the two phrases from the Declaration of Independence were in the Constitution.

Mistaking the Declaration for the Constitution is completely understandable (unless you are the Speaker of the House).  Scott Gerber has argued that the Declaration is essential to interpreting the Constitution.  Mistaking Karl Marx for the Constitution, which 45 percent (!) of Americans did, is more problematic.

Only 41 percent of Americans could correctly identify the purpose of the Bill of Rights, though again some of the other options for answering the question seem plausible.  A quarter of Americans thought the Bill of Rights were the preamble to the original Constitution.  Considering the importance the Bill of Rights play in our national political culture, this is an understandable mistake.  In fact, some the Founders considered putting the Bill of Rights at the top of the Constitution, a proposal which James Madison rejected.  Madison hoped that by placing the Bill of Rights at the end of the Constitution, Americans would not think them the most important feature of the document.  Boy was he wrong.  Madison originally opposed a Bill of Rights because a law infringing on the freedom of speech, for example, was not one of the enumerated powers granted to Congress by the original Constitution.

On other parts of this survey, most Americans fare much better.  Nearly eight in ten understood that the president cannot unilaterally make treaties.  I expected this number to be lower given the increasing prominence of executive agreements.    Nearly three-quarters of Americans correctly stated that the president cannot declare war unilaterally.  I expected this number to be much lower, given the historic abdication of power that is the War Powers Resolution.  On the other hand, 60 percent of Americans thought the president can unilaterally appoint a Supreme Court justice.  Considering that more than eighty percent of all high court nominees in U.S. history received confirmation, the president plays a much more important role in this process than Congress, making this error more understandable.

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