Why do Americans get the Constitution so wrong?
There’s no excuse for misquoting and misunderstanding the US Constitution. But public figures ranging from Nancy Pelosi to Rush Limbaugh do it all the time.
Today, more than the Fourth of July, honors America’s independence.Skip to next paragraph
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On this day, 223 years ago, the U.S. Constitution was born, giving Americans the freedoms that they hold dear, the freedoms that men and women have died to defend.
And yet, despite its brevity (slightly more than 7,500 words, compared to the roughly 77,000 words of the first Harry Potter book) very few Americans know about the document that is the cornerstone of their way of life.
According to a recent survey by the National Constitution Center of 600 students, 58 percent know that Bill Gates is the father of Microsoft, but only 2 percent know that James Madison is the father of the Constitution. About 64 percent of respondents know that “The Club” protects against car theft, but just 25 percent understand that the Fifth Amendment protects important legal rights. A whopping 59 percent can name the Three Stooges, while 41 percent can name the three branches of government.
[Editor's note: The original version of this piece misstated a 5th Amendment right.]
Other studies have also shown that most Americans know very little about the Constitution. In a public opinion poll conducted for the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, nearly half the respondents believed that the Constitution contains Karl Marx’s phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
I witnessed this lack of understanding recently when I was standing in line at a movie house behind a woman who objected to the theater’s policy of searching purses and backpacks. She indignantly told a theater employee that her purse could not be inspected, citing the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal searches.
She did not know that, in general, the Fourth Amendment does not apply to private businesses – only to governments. The movie theater has a right to require a bag search; she has the right to take her business elsewhere.
Her mistake is forgivable when you consider that even President Obama cannot get it right. During his first State of the Union address, Mr. Obama said, “...we find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we’re all created equal.”
Those words are good ones, and they are in the Declaration of Independence.
Misquoted by politicians
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a press release last year, saying, “On the shared responsibility requirement in the House health insurance reform bill, which operates like auto insurance in most states, individuals must either purchase coverage (and non-exempt employers must purchase coverage for their workers) – or pay a modest penalty for not doing so. The bill uses the tax code to provide a strong incentive for Americans to have insurance coverage and not pass their emergency health costs onto other Americans – but it allows them a way to pay their way out of that obligation. There is no constitutional problem with these provisions.”