Bill of Rights Memories
Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No. 4
By Allen Weinstein
In my 18 years as president of the Center for Democracy and my over-quarter-century spent teaching in colleges and universities, I was asked frequently by people in other countries, but much less frequently by Americans, about the content and meaning of the Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
To activists in countries undergoing difficult and often violent transitions from dictatorship to democratization, the idea of constitutional guarantees of individual rights such as those provided by the U.S. Bill of Rights was extraordinarily novel and exciting. Many Americans, on the other hand, simply assume without further reflection the long-standing existence of these rights.
Not so the first president of post-Communist Hungary, writer Arpad Goncz, who accepted an invitation in 1990 from the Center for Democracy's president and from Professor A.E. Dick Howard, then serving as chairman of Virginia's Commission on the Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, to speak to a audience of dignitaries in the Rotunda of the National Archives—against the backdrop of our three great Charters of Freedom—launching ceremonies commemorating the Bill of Rights' bicentennial. Goncz spoke eloquently of his years as a prisoner of the Communist dictatorship, of his dream of replacing repression with democratic governance, and of the enthusiasm he felt toward the U.S. Bill of Rights' guarantees having been incorporated into the Constitution itself.
Not so some citizens of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia—according to a widespread but possibly apocryphal story heard decades ago by this historian. It concerned an experiment conducted in shopping malls on weekends by students carrying petitions on which they had written in longhand the provisions of the first 10 amendments. Not only did most of those approached decline to sign but their negative response was punctuated with expressions of concern for the supposed "radicalism" of the petition's demands. True story or fable? Either way, it gains some credibility if only because of the apparently widespread ignorance of Americans concerning that crucial founding document.
Item: A 1998 national survey of teenagers conducted by the National Constitution Center found that 59 percent of those interviewed could identify the Three Stooges while only 45 percent could provide the name of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and even fewer (41 percent) knew the three branches of the U.S. Government! Less than 2 percent could correctly identify James Madison as the "father" of the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.
A similar lack of knowledge has been a constant concern of teachers and writers of history long before this current generation emerged on the scene. However, recent polls have produced especially bleak portrayals of today's generation of young Americans in special need of a basic infusion of historical facts and understanding concerning the history and principles of our Constitution. In another poll taken by the National Constitution Center in November 2001, for example, two-thirds of those responding could not identify the Constitution as the framework for American government, while less than one-fourth could identify correctly the provisions of the Declaration of Independence and those of the U.S. Constitution; others were unclear as to the Bill of Rights' place within the Constitution. America's educators—including those of us at the National Archives—have our work cut out for us in seeking to reduce the obvious existing epidemic of civic illiteracy now rampant in the United States. On a daily basis, throughout every facility of the National Archives and Records Administration, the work continues.
On a more encouraging note, as we approach December 15, "Bill of Rights Day," commemorated annually at the National Archives by hosting the swearing-in of a group of new Americans (many of whom are knowledgeable about the Bill of Rights and its contents), consider these comments of Professor Robert M. O'Neil, director of the University of Virginia's Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. In the November 4, 2005, edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor O'Neil, after reviewing three recent books on the pivotal First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, cornerstone of the Bill of Rights, writes:
[T]he books explore common themes, and all seek to help the general reader better appreciate the subtleties and complexities of America's unique approach to issues of free speech. Indeed, that very uniqueness is one of the unifying themes. All three authors recognize that, whatever its limitations, U.S. law is more protective of free expression in most respects than that of any other nation. [Italics added]
Happy Bill of Rights Day, reader! Why not consider celebrating this day by conducting your own petition drive. Write all or some of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution in simplest form on a sheet of paper and solicit signatures from friends, family, or people in your neighborhood. Any signers?
Allen Weinstein, is Archivist of the United States.