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Not knowing much about history can hurt
Scripps Howard News Service


July 14, 2010

A Marist College poll indicates more than a quarter of Americans don't know our country gained its independence from Great Britain. Do you suppose, then, that these people are as worrisomely disconnected from our noble, still crucial national heritage as that other group that abuses it regularly, namely many top officials?

We don't need a poll to know about the officials. They give themselves away daily, not as adults who couldn't pass a grade school test on our beginnings, maybe, but as leaders who suffer from many of the deficiencies you'd expect from such ignorance.

Those who can't pass the test are in danger of being lousy citizens, of course. It's important to know how our ancestors defined tyranny, for instance, because that can have meaning for our discernment of it today. It matters whether or not someone bumps into the founders' premise that a government's just powers can derive only from the consent of the governed because the concept has meaning in the here and now.

If some don't know whom we fought in the Revolutionary War, how likely is it that they have heard the proposition that we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? You wonder if they know anything about the drafting of the Constitution or the adoption of the Bill of Rights, if they have a firm, ready concept of the rule of law or respect for the idea of constitutional order. What do they suppose are the responsibilities of representatives in our republic? Do they know what a republic is?

Of course, you can bathe in knowledge and still emerge dirtied by attitudes averse to the founders' best beliefs. No doubt members of the Supreme Court are well versed in our history, but 44 percent of them recently voiced something close to total disregard for the Second Amendment's clear statement about the right to bear arms. (Grammatical ignorance is not today's topic, but the business about a militia is not in a restrictive clause.)

You can grant that diverse interpretations are often legitimate and that we should shirk from constitutional absolutism, but time and again some members of the court -- primarily if not only those on the left -- seem to believe that the plain meaning of the Constitution's words has no or little bearing on what they should decide.

Justice David Souter recently attempted to explain all of this away as an attempt by judges to make sense of the Constitution's competing values, using their own experience as the means. Grant some good faith here, but watch out, for what you quickly get through this analysis is a document that should be treated essentially as a symbol of abstract, varied ideals limiting judges to nothing more than their own moral druthers.

Next, let's visit Congress, where members seldom grant any of the Constitution's limits on federal power. They take away the rights of free speech in campaign laws, use the power of the purse to dictate what states, universities and other entities must do, regulate beyond justification, define criminality so loosely that no one can know what the crimes are exactly and on and on. Meanwhile, too many ignore their real responsibilities, such as controlling programs so as not to bring economic ruin on us all.

And the executive branch? Though unconstitutional acts stretch back to the second president, the infamies really took off this past century. This century has seen no surcease. The current president behaved like another King George when he trampled on the rights of Chrysler creditors during the dubious takeover of the auto company last year, and the health-care remake he championed is an abomination on several fronts, not the least of them being its intent to instruct citizens they must purchase private insurance.

There is a need, it would seem, to get everyone educated not only about our heritage, but also about the virtues of so much of it and its importance to our lives today. If that's not possible, maybe we can get some voting-booth fixes out of the majority of citizens who do hold certain truths to be as self-evident now as they were when we gained independence from Japan. Excuse me, that's what some in error thought. I mean Great Britain.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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