Can the young people you know tell the difference between James Madison and Karl Marx? Sadly, a new national poll reveals that 42 percent of Americans wrongly attribute Marx’s famous communist slogan, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” to one of the country’s Founding documents. Nearly one in five Americans believe this phrase can be found in the Bill of Rights, of all places. You can take some solace in knowing that among young adults, only six percent made this mistake, though 30 percent of them believe Marx’s statement can be found in either the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution.
The national survey, conducted by Harris Interactive* on behalf of the Bill of Rights Institute, also reveals that 60 percent of Americans can’t identify the principle that our government’s powers are derived from the people as an attribute that makes America unique.
The First Amendment fares particularly poorly; 55 percent of Americans don’t recognize that education is not a First Amendment right, while nearly 1 in 5 mistakenly excludes from the First Amendment one of the five rights it actually does guarantee.
The lonely Tenth Amendment, meanwhile, is recognized by only 20 percent of Americans as the amendment that reserves powers to the states and the people.
Should we be worried that Americans do so poorly when quizzed about the Bill of Rights? In a letter to a friend expressing his belief in a strong educational system, James Madison wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
And what might be the consequence of a citizenry disarmed of the knowledge of their own rights? We can look again to Madison for an answer, this time to his address at the 1788 Virginia Convention: “Since the general civilisation of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people, by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
When a people forget their rights, in other words, they run the risk of having those rights gradually eroded.
Today is Bill of Rights Day. What are you doing to make sure your fellow citizens understand this important document?
* This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of The Bill of Rights Institute from December 1-3, 2010 among 2,159 adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact Rachel Gillespie at 703-894-1776, ext. 25.
Posted in Civic Education