Can we love the Constitution without knowing what it says?

Summary: As the fourth of July celebrations approach, let’s take a quick look a the health of America’s current political regime. It rests on the Constitution. It that goes, so goes our regime. Now for the bad news — and the good.

“How easily men satisfy themselves that the Constitution is exactly what they wish it to be.”
— Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1845).

The Constitution: We the People

We are comforted by our political regime rests on the Constitution, a “machine that works by itself.” We need not know much about the Constitution, or work the political machinery created by it. They are the words of James Russell Lowell (poet, diplomat, editor) in a 1888 speech to the Reform Club of New York But he said the opposite.

”After our Constitution got fairly into working order it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the Civil War itself but momentarily disturbed. …And this confidence in our luck with the absorption in material interests, generated by unparalleled opportunity, has in some respects made us neglectful of our political duties.”

Now, 129 years later, his words look prophetic. We’re politically apathetic and passive, with on 58% of eligible voters willing to even vote. Worse yet, to most Americans the Constitution is a totem about which they know little. One of the best books about this is Michael Kammen’s A Machine That Would Go of Itself — “The Constitution in American Culture.”

A Machine That Would Go of Itself
Available at Amazon.

“The Constitution occupies an anomalous role in American cultural history. For almost two centuries it has been swathed in pride yet obscured by indifference: a fulsome rhetoric of reverence more than offset by the reality of ignorance.”

A quick self-test on the Constitution

Let’s do a quick test about the health of the American regime. The correct answers are given after the questions.

  1. Describe a major feature of the Code of Hammurabi.
  2. List a simple majority of the Ten Commandments.
  3. List any three rights guaranteed under Magna Carta, the Great Charter of Freedoms – one of the foundational documents for our system of laws.

The correct answers, unless you’re are a student or teacher, are all “so what.”  These are all dead documents, with no current effect on our lives. As a check on the vitality of the Constitution, take this test of our knowledge about it.  The questions are segmented for each age group, since each generation knows less than their parents.

(A)  For the Greatest Generation, whose courage defeated fascism, whose love of freedom helped end legalized racial discrimination, and whose insatiable greed saddled their descendants with debts and liabilities impossible for them to pay.

  1. Quote the Preamble to the Constitution. Or paraphrase it for half credit.
  2. When drafted and by whom? Who ratified it? What came before it?
  3. Outline the Constitution’s major features, including powers of each branch of the Government and the checks of each branch on the other two.
  4. What is the Bill of Rights? Describe all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, and list ten rights so guaranteed.

(B)  For the Baby Boomers, who passively volunteered to be the subjects of a series of social experiments whose scope and daring would have horrified Dr. Frankenstein.

  1. Quote the opening three words of the Constitution.
  2. What was the Constitutional Convention?  Its date?  Name two members.
  3. List the major features of the Constitution, including three powers of each branch.
  4. What is the Bill of Rights? List six rights it guarantees.

(C)  For everyone born after 1964, they who inherit the mess left by the Greats and Boomers.

  1. What is the Constitution?
  2. Who wrote it, and when?
  3. What are the three branches of Government and the powers of each branch?
  4. What is the Bill of Rights? List any three rights it guarantees.
  5. What is a living Constitution?

Whatever your personal score, the sad fact is that few Americans know what the Constitution says, let alone understand the political regime it describes.

“A 1998 national survey of teenagers conducted by the National Constitution Center found that 59% of those interviewed could identify the Three Stooges while only 45% could provide the name of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and even fewer (41%) knew the three branches of the U.S. Government! Less than 2% could correctly identify James Madison as the “father” of the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.

“… 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.”

— “Bill of Rights Memories” by Allen Weinstein (Archivist of the United States) in Prologue, Winter 2005.

Once we no longer revere the Constitution, or even know what it says, it becomes a different kind of living document. Its meaning now changes to conform to the current needs of our ruling elites. We return to the state of Roman before its laws were posted on the Twelve Tables of ivory (or brass) and posted in the Forum for all to see. Or, if history repeats as farce, we will become like the beasts in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The laws are written on the side of the barn, but we don’t realize that they are changed by the pigs during the night.

Survey data points to an even darker future: Americans trust the military most. and 29% are ready for a coup. Even worse, are the thousands of comments to my hundred or so posts on this subject. I urge Americans to assume responsibility for their government, as citizens not victims, and act. I don’t say how, trusting that if we all get involved our collective wisdom will prove sufficient. The reaction is overwhelmingly hostile. Modern Americans run from responsibility for America as vampires run from sunlight.

This has happened twice. It can happen a third time.

Signing of the Constitution


I am confident that democracy will work if we work at it. The Founders’ machinery remains idle but still powerful. I am less confident that we remain willing to work at it. Our apathy combined with our ignorance creates a risk that the foundation of our government is built on sand. Such ignored risks are those to worry about, more so than the ones that dominate the headlines.

The First American Republic crashed quickly (1781-1788) The second one, based on the Constitution, has had a longer run. But institutions have  a finite ability to regenerate and offset the inexorable forces of senescence. Look at our government’s overgrown and bizarrely complex structure, with its countless and contradictory mass of laws and regulations. It resembles an overgrown garden which only fire or radical cutting can reinvigorate.

Also, we have no mechanism to fix broken US government agencies (i.e., those unable to internally reform). The State Department was wrecked in the 1950’s Who Lost China conflicts — and has slowly decayed since then.  The US Post Office is similarly dying. That slowly spreading dysfunctionality is a pattern increasingly seen at all levels of government in America.

Perhaps we must reboot our government to revitalize it. It can be done relatively easily. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 is one model (“glorious” because it was done with little violence). In 1788 America had an even less violent example. The Constitutional Convention declared itself a revolutionary body — going not only beyond its authorized scope, but also acting in explicit defiance of the Articles of Confederation — which had no provision for such a mechanism of change.

Repentance and revival are inherent aspects of humanity. We can have optimism in our children and that we are not following the path of the Roman Republic. Let’s work to restore the Second Republic. If it is too late, let’s lay the first stones for an even better Third Republic in America’s future.


For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the Constitution, about ways to reform America, and especially these…

  1. Important: Forecast: Death of the American Constitution.
  2. The Barons of England warn us not to throw away what they gained in Magna Carta.
  3. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile.
  4. A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution — by Edmond Burke.
  5. George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation.
  6. Thomas Jefferson saw our present peril. We should heed his warning.
  7. Rome speaks to us. Their example can inspire us to avoid their fate.
  8. We’re drifting towards tyranny, again. Jefferson describes our first brush with tyranny.
Executive Unbound
Available at Amazon.

To learn more about the new Republic.

The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic by Eric Posner. He advocates smiling while we slide to tyranny, and console ourselves with illusions. See this from the publisher. …

“Ever since Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. used ‘imperial presidency’ as a book title, the term has become central to the debate about the balance of power in the U.S. government. Since the presidency of George W. Bush, when advocates of executive power such as Dick Cheney gained ascendancy, the argument has blazed hotter than ever. Many argue the Constitution itself is in grave danger. What is to be done?

“The answer, according to legal scholars Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule, is nothing. In The Executive Unbound, they provide a bracing challenge to conventional wisdom, arguing that a strong presidency is inevitable in the modern world. Most scholars, they note, object to today’s level of executive power because it varies so dramatically from the vision of the framers. But there is nothing in our system of checks and balances that intrinsically generates order or promotes positive arrangements. In fact, the greater complexity of the modern world produces a concentration of power, particularly in the White House.

“The authors chart the rise of executive authority straight through to the Obama presidency. Political, cultural and social restraints, they argue, have been more effective in preventing dictatorship than any law. The executive-centered state tends to generate political checks that substitute for the legal checks of the Madisonian constitution.”


5 thoughts on “Can we love the Constitution without knowing what it says?”

  1. Thanks for the excellent post. If history is any guide, The USA is approaching binary choice: either Americans take up the hard work of self government or hand over the government to Caesar. (You covered that possibility in your post of May 20, 2012) I think that you are correct in saying that a Constitutional Convention is in order. BTW, I’m Canadian and find the prospect of disorder in the USA to be deeply disturbing

    1. Raymond,

      Thank you for the feedback! It’s always appreciated, for good or ill.

      “I think that you are correct in saying that a Constitutional Convention is in order.”

      I suggest reading the post. It is a terrible idea. Under today’s conditions almost certain to make the situation much worse.

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