Study: Americans Lacking in Knowledge of the Constitution

By: John Rodgers Email
By: John Rodgers Email

September 16, 2010

The Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier Thursday released the results of its national survey, The State of the Constitution: What Americans Know. The results come on the eve of Constitution Day, the 223rd anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

The survey gaged Americans’ understanding of basic constitutional principles. The telephone survey of a random sample of adults age 18 and older who reside in the United States was conducted between July 20 and July 28. The Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion conducted the live interviews and samples. The final number of completed surveys in the national sample was 988.

Do People Read the Constitution?

While the vast majority of Americans (86%) believe that the Constitution is important to their daily lives, less than one third have taken the time to read all (28%) or even most (14%) of the 4,400 words of the U.S. Constitution — the equivalent of a 17-page novel, and the shortest constitution of any major government. Moreover, two-thirds say they last read the Constitution in high school or college. Only 16% of young people (ages 18–24) report understanding “a lot” about the Constitution, despite having most recently completed their formal education.

Natural Rights

One of the founders’ most fundamental beliefs was in “natural rights,” yet only around two-thirds (68%) of the people believe that their rights, such as free speech and freedom of religion, are “natural rights.” Sixteen percent believe these rights are granted by the government.

Governmental Authority

One of the key innovations of the Constitution is rooted in the opening phrase, “We the people,” which establishes that the power vested in our government comes from the people themselves. The founders would be distressed to know that half of the people today think that the source of governmental authority comes from elected officials, and only 48% think it comes from the people.

Limited Government

Given the founders’ great concern that the national government not become too powerful, it is discouraging that while 88% think limited government is very important, only 35% of Americans believe the Constitution specifically limits government power. Democrats (46%) are much more likely than Republicans (30%) to believe that governments’ power is limited by the Constitution.

Common Good

When asked if the government is empowered to act for the common good as specified in the Constitution, less than half the respondents think this is true, with a sharp divide between political parties: More than half of Republicans do not believe this is a basic constitutional tenant; nearly two-thirds of Democrats believe it is.

Does the Constitution Still Work?

Given the low levels of understanding among young people, it is perhaps not surprising that when asked if the Constitution still works today, a large proportion of young people (38%) believe that it is time for a new Constitution.

Those over age 35 overwhelmingly believe (more than 90%) that the Constitution still works. Like young Americans, African Americans believe at much higher rates than whites that it is time for a new Constitution (36% versus 10%, respectively), although the two groups are comparable on most measures of knowledge of the Constitution.

African Americans also believe in the power of protest at twice the rate of whites — more than twice as many African Americans (42%) as whites (19%) believe that their First Amendment right to participate in a protest or demonstration is an important characteristic of good citizenship.

“In summary, our survey found that people believe in important constitutional principles — like separation of church and state, separation of powers, the rule of law — but their understanding of the Constitution at a deeper level, and their willingness to engage in learning about the document that defines us as a nation, as a people, is lacking,” said Sean O’Brien, executive director of the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier.

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