July 3, 2002

July 3, 2002 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED070302b: A Republic If You Can Keep It

As Benjamin Franklin departed the Constitutional Convention, he was asked if the framers had created a monarchy or a republic. "A republic," he famously replied, and then added, "if you can keep it."

The remarkable generation that founded this nation led an improbable yet successful revolution against the strongest military power of the time. They declared their independence based on self-evident truths, asserting a new basis of political rule in the sovereignty of the people and launching an experiment in self-government. Through a carefully written constitution that limits power and secures rights while allowing for change through its own amendment, they created an enduring framework of republican government that bestows upon their posterity the same blessings of liberty.

But what the American Founders did not do-could not do-was guarantee the success of their creation. Franklin and the other Founders knew that their experiment depended on future generations, which meant the education of future citizens. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization," Thomas Jefferson once warned, "it expects what never was-and never will be."

How are we doing?

The Department of Education recently released the U.S. history test results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, which is regularly given to fourth, eighth and twelvth graders. The results show that few students in those grades are proficient in U.S. history. Among eighth graders, seventeen percent were proficient or advanced, and 48% were considered to be at the basic level. And of the high school seniors just 11 percent were proficient or advanced. Over half failed to demonstrate even a basic knowledge of American history.

A study last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that students at the top colleges and universities in America-students many of whom already failed to learn U.S. history in high school-are able to graduate without having taken a single course in American history. That study also found that while almost every student polled could indentify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dog and cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead, only a third could identify George Washington as the successful general at Yorktown, and less than one student in four could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution.

Is it any surprise that a third study, a poll conducted by Bill Bennett's Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, has now found that over two-thirds of college students do not believe that American values are any better than those of other nations, that more than half believe that United States policies are "at least somewhat responsible" for the September 11 terrorist attacks and that a third would evade the draft if called upon to serve their country?

This disturbing state of affairs demands a widespread renewal of civic literacy about the United States in general and the principles of the American Founding in particular. This literacy is not only about knowing the facts and figures, the whens and wheres, of American history-important as that is. It is about appreciating the extraordinary institutions at the root of our political system and understanding the first principles of liberty, the intentions of American constitutionalism, and the sturdy virtues required for self-government.

The American Founders argued that knowledge, and in particular civic knowledge, was absolutely crucial to the workings and future of republican government. The primary lesson of civic education was that legitimate government is grounded in the protection of equal natural rights and the consent of the governed. The threat to those rights-from government, among other things, or majority tyranny-was the second and most vital lesson. A knowledge and appreciation of how out institutions of government work-enumerated powers, checks and balances, federalism-was crucial, but they stressed even more the limits of "parchment barriers" and the need for a vigilant, educated citizenry.

Education also had a certain character forming effect. Knowledge is the "the surest basis of public happiness," George Washington argued in his First Annual Message to Congress, because it taught citizens to know and defend the rights government was formed to protect, to distinguish between oppression and lawful authority, and "to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness-cherishing the first, avoiding the last." With this type of knowledge, the citizenry would have the political and moral education necessary for republican government. In order to perpetuate free government, Washington concluded, proper education always must be encouraged and nourished.

The spiritedness that resulted from such an education would strengthen patriotism. "Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love," James Wilson pointed out in 1790, "unless they first become the objects of our knowledge."

The horrible attacks of September 11 have focused our national consciousness on the things that matter most-our families, our faiths, and our freedoms. Americans must relearn those things that during peace and prosperity had been forgotten, including the fact that the world can be a dangerous place, and that America is not exempt from the danger. Those events provide another opportunity as well: that the patriotism of the moment might become an informed and long-lasting commitment to America's principles and purposes at home and around the world. But this will only be possible with a great national commitment-a crusade, if you will-to make sure that future generations are knowledgeable about the history and meaning of the United States. The Bush administration is considering such an initiative, and would do well to focus on the importance of reviving serious civic knowledge as a guide to citizens and statemen for today's confused politics.

This Fourth of July, as we look ahead, we should also look back-not to some mythical moment in America's past-but to the true roots of our national greatness. America needs to transform its resolve into a new era of responsibility in which we, as a nation and as a people, recover our purpose and our spirit. But to do this, we must also consciously revive and relearn-in ourselves and in our children-the moral truths and enduring principles of this great experiment in liberty and self-government.

Matthew Spalding is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, and the editor of The Founders' Almanac: A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding.

About the Author

Originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review