In authoring the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, our founding fathers promised future generations a society based on limited government and individual liberty. Since ratification of these amendments – which we collectively call the Bill of Rights – in 1791, we have enjoyed basic freedoms by virtue of being American citizens.
But how can we, as American citizens, be expected to preserve those freedoms if we can’t articulate what they are?
A 2017 survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that an alarming number of Americans are oblivious to some of the most basic facts about our founding documents. More than a third of respondents were unable to identify a single right protected by the First Amendment – and an equal number couldn’t name a single branch of the federal government.
This is not to say that ordinary Americans are incapable of understanding our history or uninterested in learning. The work of George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin has shown that constitutional ignorance is oftentimes a rational product of voters prioritizing their time in accordance with their own familial and professional commitments. Somin also points out that even those who are knowledgeable about politics tend to sort their knowledge in a “politically biased way.”
Though this ignorance may be “rational,” it’s a danger to our federalist system. Ignorance of our Constitution’s design renders our constitutional order vulnerable to the whim of majorities and short-sighted politicians.
The Tenth Amendment, for example, reserves the powers not delegated to the federal government to the states and their citizens. But presidential candidates routinely run on platforms centered on promises that, while popular, would require the federal government to exceed its delegated powers. If the public had a firm knowledge of the history and significance of the Tenth Amendment, they may hesitate to sacrifice our constitutional protections for perceived, short-term gains.
In an era in which too many Americans take their own rights for granted, the importance of spreading constitutional literacy cannot be understated. For every American that increases that literacy, the protection of all Americans’ rights is strengthened.