Why We Need a National Constitutional Literacy Campaign

There is an often-told story that at the end of the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a woman who asked him what sort of government the delegates had created. Franklin famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

In 2003, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor remarked, “Knowledge about the ideas embodied in the Constitution and the ways in which it shapes our lives is not passed down from generation to generation through the gene pool; it must be learned anew by each generation. It is not enough simply to read or memorize the Constitution. Rather, we should try to understand the ideas that gave it life and that give it strength still today. Alexander Hamilton, one of the Framers, wrote in the first of The Federalist Papers in support of ratification of the Constitution that it was ‘reserved to the people of this country . . . to decide . . . whether [we] are . . . capable . . . of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether [we] are forever destined to depend for [our] political constitutions on accident and force.” Our citizens did reflect and make that choice, but we look around the world today and see that a great many other people have been dependent instead on “accident and force.’”

Democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also dependent on the active and informed involvement of citizens, who take pride in their nation’s history and system of government.

Recent reports, however, reflect a troubling decline in basic constitutional literacy and civic knowledge. In 2014, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania released a study that found that Americans know surprisingly little about their government. The survey found:

  • While little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.
  • Just over a quarter of Americans (27 percent) know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
  • One in five Americans (21 percent) incorrectly thinks that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.

Furthermore, in both 2006 and 2010, about two-thirds of students tested below proficient on the civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

These statistics underscore the need for life-long civic education. Constitutional literacy should not only be emphasized in primary and secondary school, but also throughout a citizen’s lifetime, so that they can comprehend the complex and often controversial constitutional issues that arise. That is why the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign is bringing together groups that educate citizens along the learning spectrum – from kindergarten to adulthood—about the American Constitution and our nation’s history.

To achieve our goals, we have assembled a broad and diverse group of organizations, including non-partisan non-profits, for-profit entities, and groups from both the left and right who believe in the fundamental importance of constitutional literacy and civics education. We believe that by harnessing the power of organizations from the right, left, and center, we can reach and, ultimately, educate a much broader segment of the national population.

Current partners include:

We hope you will join us in making every day Constitution Day! To learn more about the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign, please email Julie Silverbrook at Julie.Silverbrook@consource.org.