Survey after survey has revealed over decades that most Americans don’t know a great deal about how their government works or about its foundational document, the Constitution. One recent survey found that some three-quarters of Americans can’t name all three branches of government, and nearly a third can’t name any of them.
But in an era when the president of the United States, Donald Trump, is challenging constitutional norms in unprecedented ways and the Republican-led federal government in Washington is having difficulty advancing a legislative agenda to improve the lives of Americans, there is a new surge of interest in learning about the Constitution.
That interest is evident at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the only nonprofit institution established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a nonpartisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.”
The center, located steps from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, was officially born when President Ronald Reagan signed the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988, and it opened on July 4, 2003, as an interactive museum, national town hall and civic education headquarters. In 2006, it helped launch Constitution High School, a history- and civics-themed magnet school in the Philadelphia School District.
Jeffrey Rosen, president of the Constitution Center, said in an interview that interest in the Constitution has been skyrocketing in the last year. Visits to the museum have jumped, as well as Web traffic to the Interactive Constitution, a free resource that provides every single clause and amendment to the Constitution, along with interpretations by constitutional scholars from across the political and philosophical spectrum. More than 100,000 people every month are listening to “We the People” podcasts. And because attendance is up at traveling debates on key issues staged around the country, more are being scheduled, he said.
“Our work is more relevant than ever,” he said. “There is a tangible hunger in the country for nonpartisan information about the Constitution.”
The museum hosts exhibitions, public discussions and debates; awards the annual Liberty Medal to “men and women of courage and conviction,” including past recipients Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Bono, Muhammad Ali, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and Sandra Day O’Connor; and creates online material for civic engagement and education throughout the year, including on Constitution Day. (Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona will be awarded the 2017 Liberty Medal on Oct. 16.)
Constitution Day was created by Congress in 2004 in an attempt to increase Americans’ understanding of their own government. Each year, Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, when all schools that receive federal funding are supposed to offer some type of “educational program” on the Constitution, though the law doesn’t define what that should be. Sept. 17 was chosen because it was the last session of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, during which the final version of the newly written Constitution was signed by 39 delegates. When Sept. 17 does not fall on a school day, the lessons are given on another day close to that date.
Among the materials available for educators and anybody else interested in learning about the Constitution are “Constitution Daily,” a blog on the Constitution, and “Constitution Hall Pass,” a free video lesson and live chat series that explores America’s civic holidays and history and now reaches millions of students. And there are a host of other free resources for educators here.
Rosen said that there is clearly growing interest “in the country about what our enduring constitutional structures are, what the future might bring and how to resurrect the framers’ values today.”
The center plans to explore the question of how the president, Congress, the courts and media can better serve their functions in an American democracy when social media has accelerated the speed of public discourse and, Rosen said, “has undermined some of the checks on popular passion and speedy judgment” that James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution for his key role in writing and promoting it, “thought was necessary for the rule of law and the Constitution to survive.”
Rosen noted that the “growing transparency of deliberations of Congress” has made compromise more difficult for legislators. Major compromises reached by the nation’s Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention were possible only because deliberations were held in secret, Rosen said, and it is vital for the country to debate structural changes in modern times that have affected public deliberation of vital issues.
“Madison saw a tension between populism and constitutionalism,” he said. “He and the framers did not create a direct democracy. They wanted constitutional filters to ensure thoughtful deliberation rather than quick votes, initiatives or snap judgments. Madison would not have approved of tweeting representatives because he didn’t think the people and representatives should directly communicate. He wanted to slow down public discourse so that thoughtful discussion and reasonable compromise could emerge.”
You can also learn more here about the Constitution from a Washington Post series here.