Americans Must Improve Their Understanding of the Constitution

Constituting America is working to increase young people's knowledge of one of our country's most important documents.

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U.S. constitution

September is the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, a transcendent achievement in the history of man.

Prior to the Constitution, and the revolution that inspired it, the widely held belief was that power came from God and was given to kings, who in turn would use that power to rule over the people in His name.

The Constitution changed all that. It was a new covenant, established on the principle that power flowed from God to the people who then loaned it to the state in order to better administrate the affairs of man and to produce what has become known as "ordered liberty." It was not, by any means, a perfect document. The Founding Fathers themselves recognized this, including within it several mechanisms to amend it as needed. Nevertheless it is, as Winston Churchill and others have observed over time, the least worst form of government ever devised.

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For all that, the level of constitutional literacy in America is nothing short of appalling, especially among the nation's young people. Rights, as defined by the Constitution, are taught without respect to their accompanying responsibilities. Too many people do not understand the different branches of government, their purpose, or that the tensions between them were built into the system deliberately by the founders to better secure the rights of the people.

Enter Juliette Turner, the national youth director of Constituting America, an organization founded by her mother, actress, political activist, and radio talk show host Janine Turner, and Cathy Gillespie, a former senior congressional aide (and, in the interests of full disclosure, on whose advisory board I serve). Together, the three of them are trying to make the Constitution "cool," especially for young people.

To that end the younger Ms. Turner has written Our Constitution Rocks, a primer about the nation's most important document. A remarkable achievement in any case it is all the more remarkable because its author is only 14 years old.

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Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used to say that in every generation the country has to deal with two different kinds of immigrants, both of whom need to learn what it means to be an American: One are those who were born and raised in other countries; the other is children, who must be raised up in the way they should go. To do that they must understand the country's founding principles, enshrined in the Constitution, and how they apply today. Ms. Turner's book is a more than useful illustration of that idea in action.

It's a book that belongs in every home and every school. It explains the different parts of the Constitution in easy-to-understand language, with special emphasis on why its different parts are relevant today in the lives of each and every American. It's a vital civics lesson that is much needed in these desperate times, as the nation struggles to understand the relationship between the people and the government. It's also a topic on which the two men who want to be the nation's next president have widely differing views.

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