What Is It?
Most Americans know the Constitution is the foundation of American government and law. Many know that James Madison is often recognized as the “Father of the Constitution” and it was written near the end of the 18th century. When it comes to the details, however, Americans are often a bit fuzzy. Polls consistently show that many—if not most—Americans do not have a firm grasp of the Constitution and the powers of government. For example, surveys from The Annenberg Public Policy Center and The Center for the Constitution both show most Americans lack a firm understanding of the Constitution. Curious about how much you really know? You can test your own Constitutional IQ at Constitution Facts.
Where do I Learn More?
In 2004, Congress set aside September 17th as national Constitution Day, a day in which we, as a nation, can celebrate and learn more about one of our founding documents. There are plenty of resources available to help explain the Constitution and how it shapes the American government, but the trick is finding one that does not have an agenda that may bias the interpretation. In today’s political arena, groups and individuals from across the political spectrum invoke the Constitution as the foundation for their particular point of view. In such a climate, it is important to find authoritative resources that can provide a balanced look at the document, the time and place from which it arose, and its role in government and law through the decades.
So, where should you start? Of course, reading the Constitution itself is a logical starting point, but some context can be very helpful. One good resource is the National Constitution Center, a museum chartered by Congress to provide nonpartisan education about the Constitution and the U.S. Congress itself also hosts an annotated version. The National Archives, which houses the original Constitution, has a useful online exhibit dedicated to the Charters of Freedom, which includes the Constitution. Outside of the federal government, Cornell University hosts the Legal Information Institute which provides an explanation for each section. Finally, try one—or more—of the books from the reading list below. After all of this, you will be well equipped to be a responsible citizen for, in the words of James Madison:
A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. –Letter to W. T. Barry (4 August 1822)