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.

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.”

American ignorance

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.”

Well, much of that is up to debate.

Sen. Roland Burris (D) of Illinois, Obama’s appointed replacement to the U.S. Senate, said regarding the issue: “What does the Constitution say? To provide for the health, welfare and the defense of the country.”

The word “health” appears nowhere in the Constitution.

Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said the Constitution’s “good and welfare clause” gives Congress the authority to require individuals to buy health insurance as mandated in the health care bill.

There is no “good and welfare clause” in the U.S. Constitution.

Maybe he means the general welfare clause (Article 1, Section 8), which states: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States...”

Both parties guilty

Before we lay blame, it should be noted that invalidating the Constitution is a bipartisan pastime.

During his speech last year before the Conservative Political Action Conference, talk show host Rush Limbaugh said, “We believe that the preamble to the Constitution contains an inarguable truth that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.”

Again, that’s the Declaration of Independence.

On a recent episode of the Sunday talk show “The McLaughlin Group,” conservative pundit Patrick J. Buchanan, quoting the preamble, said, “for ourselves and our progeny.”

It’s “posterity.”

No good reason

There is no good reason for the Constitution to be misquoted. Its genius is its simplicity. In slightly more than 7,500 words, it lays out the framework for the greatest way of life and most just legal system in the world. And its 39 courageous signers, in their wisdom, handed the nation’s ordinary citizens tremendous power. But never absolute power.

The Constitution is smart enough to not trust the president, either Democrat or Republican. It eschews dictatorship, laying out a tripartite government. It safeguards justice. The Constitution pioneered the do-over, allowing for amendments dictated by the will of us, the people.

If not for the First Amendment, you might not be reading this essay. And every champagne toast should begin with a nod to the 21st Amendment. I’m grateful for the 19th Amendment, which came too late but arrived just in time, giving me the right to vote.

So, today, on the 223rd anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, the preamble is printed here, for those young enough to need a refresher:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Lion Calandra is a Jennings Fellow with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

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