At the peak of his popularity, Jay Leno could put his “Tonight Show” audience in stitches merely by sticking a microphone in front of ordinary Americans and asking them easy questions about history, civics, the Bible, or even basic geography.
In a format used since the dawn of radio -- and in our time by Howard Stern -- Leno found that it’s not just kids who say the darndest things. During George W. Bush’s second term in office, Leno took his camera crew to Universal Studios to ask random Americans some of the 100 questions on the U.S. Citizenship Test that immigrants must pass. The footage was simultaneously hilarious and disconcerting.
LENO: “What country did we fight in the Revolutionary War?”
DEBBIE from South Francisco: “Uh, France!”
LENO: “What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?”
DEBBIE: “I don’t know.”
LENO: “What year was the Declaration of Independence adopted?”
LINDA, a schoolteacher from Fresno: (Long pause, gives no answer).
LENO: “Who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death?’”
LENO: “Bonaparte? He’s not even American!”
And so it went on these “Jaywalking” segments, year after year: the woman who guessed there were 32 stars on the American flag; the man who thinks Congress meets in the Pentagon; the college student who guessed that Jesus of Nazareth lived 250 million years ago and who, when asked what war ensued when Germany invaded Poland, replied, “the Code War.”
It was great comedy, but one with a discomfiting caveat: Would the audience members laughing so hard do any better on Leno’s test themselves?
Keeping Our Republic
In 1787, as the Philadelphia delegates to the constitutional convention finished their handiwork, Elizabeth Willing Powel, a leading lady of America’s Founding, asked Benjamin Franklin (“Dr. Franklin,” he was called out of respect) the burning question on the minds of citizens in the fledgling country: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin’s pithy response -- “A republic, madam, if you can keep it” -- has been resurrected in the past year across the political spectrum. It’s the title of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s new book. It was cited solemnly by liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her speech calling for President Trump’s impeachment. It’s little exaggeration to say that both sides in our contentious political divide consider the 2020 campaign to be a “A Republic, If You Can Keep It” election.
RealClear has launched an educational portal on American Civics -- this piece you are reading is its introductory essay -- to give a fair accounting of the Founders and the successive generations who did their part in what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the great American experiment.” These pages won’t present a sanitized version of America. Lady Liberty is sufficiently beautiful that her blemishes needn’t be powdered over. On the other hand, modern revisionists mainly present a warts-only view of the United States. “American Civics” will do neither. The reigning ethos here will be that the country has nothing to hide and much to be proud of.
The antics of “Jaywalking” notwithstanding, a 2019 survey sponsored by the American Bar Association showed that 89% of Americans recognized “We the People” to be the first three words of the Constitution. That’s nice, but it’s hardly enough. (Also, it was a multiple-choice question with the other options being “I Pledge Allegiance,” “Might Makes Right,” and “Yes We Can.” So, in other words, it was a rigged question.)
Fewer than half the respondents in the ABA survey recognized John Roberts as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly one-fourth thought it was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Annual surveys by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation have been even more disheartening. Using a scientific survey similar to Jay Leno’s approach, the foundation asked a series of multiple-choice questions to a statistically valid sample of Americans – questions that are on the actual U.S. Citizenship Test. In 2018, only 36% of poll respondents could pass it.
In that 2018 version of the Woodrow Wilson foundation test, only 13% of Americans could accurately tell you when the Constitution was ratified, 60% didn’t know who the U.S. fought in World War II, and only 24% correctly identified a single thing Ben Franklin was famous for. (Some 37% believed he invented the lightbulb.) In the 2019 version of the survey, only 43% knew that President Wilson was the U.S. commander-in-chief during World War I, which was particularly galling to the poll sponsors. Poor Ben Franklin’s numbers were even worse than the year before. In both years, the grades were markedly lower for Americans under age 65. A republic if you can keep it, indeed.
The peril of such historical ignorance should be obvious, but it’s worth spelling it out: A generation that lacks the facts of America’s founding will not know its narrative either. This is not a theoretical concern: It’s a real one – at a hinge point in our nation’s history. When the pandemic subsides, “We the People” will face the task of repairing our economy and addressing the shortcomings in our political culture that made dealing with an exotic new virus even more contentious and difficult than was necessary. We will need to rethink our relations with the other nations of the world. This will take confidence and strength -- and no small measure of grace. We will need a new “greatest generation.”
Is America Still Exceptional?
Summoning the requisite inner resources to meet existential threats has been the hallmark of America’s history. This time, however, a counter-narrative has taken root in the media, in our universities, and both our two great political parties that may make doing so more difficult. In the past, we thought of ourselves as a people who settled an undeveloped land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, rebelled against the doctrine that kings had “divine rights,” created the world’s first democracy, which we protected in a second war against the British and in two world wars. Along the way, we extended rights to all Americans, harnessed the atom, revolutionized transportation and human communication, put men on the moon, and conquered infectious diseases ranging from polio to AIDS. We can do anything we set our minds to. The world knows it and depends on it.
“The only thing we have to fear,” said one of America’s most aspirational 20th century presidents, “is fear itself.” Two others, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, were fond of invoking the imagery, borrowed from the Bible, that future Massachusetts governor John Winthrop told his fellow Puritans in 1630: “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” he said. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
Forget all that, say those pushing alternate facts and revisionist histories of the American experiment. The land we cultivated and built into great cities was stolen from peaceful people already living on these shores. You want to talk about war? What about Vietnam and Iraq? Atomic energy? It was first used as a frightful bomb, dropped on unsuspecting citizens in two Japanese cities. Two cities of nonwhites. Shining city, schmining city. More than one 2020 Democratic presidential candidate proclaimed that America “was founded on white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, our nation’s most prestigious newspaper claims that the American Revolution wasn’t prompted by high-minded principles or any “self-evident” truths about freedom. It was fought, we are told, because the colonists feared Great Britain was going to end slavery. Although this cynical assertion is easily debunked as nonsense, it’s about to enter the textbooks in America’s public schools. Students who believe that Ben Franklin invented the lightbulb and think global warming is a new phenomenon may not be in the best position to resist such propaganda.
In the aftermath of 9/11, I wrote my first book. Titled “The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War,” it explored how in times of war or crisis, U.S. presidents and other national leaders use the soaring language in the Declaration of Independence’s preamble to rally their fellow Americans.
In researching the book, I learned that one great theme courses through our history like a mighty river flowing inexorably to the sea. That theme is the extension of Thomas Jefferson’s “unalienable” rights to those who did not yet have them. To whites who didn’t own land. To former slaves, Native Americans, women, Hispanics, Asians, immigrants, Mormons, 18-year-olds, the handicapped, gays and lesbians…decade after decade. Those who concentrate on the original sin instead of the progress are not merely looking at the glass as half full; they’re missing the point of the American story and the joy of human progress.
Partly, this is because they don’t really know what came before them. Discovering the hypocrisy of the Founders on the question of slavery isn’t a shocking new revelation; it’s remedial education. It wasn’t the New York Times editors who first decided (in 2019!) that they couldn’t abide the paradox of slave-owning Virginians writing a “Declaration of Independence” or drafting a Constitution enshrining a “Bill of Rights.” That was the stated view of fiery early 19th century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. And it was Garrison, not race-baiting John Calhoun of South Carolina, who first proposed secession -- but of the Northern states. Garrison celebrated Independence Day in 1854 in Massachusetts by burning a copy of the Constitution, a document he scorned as “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell!”
Frederick Douglass initially concurred with this line of reasoning. But by 1852, two years before Garrison burned the Constitution, Douglass celebrated Independence Day by delivering a famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” in which he extolled the Founders while excoriating their sons and grandsons for not completing the American revolution. “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” he thundered. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
All that came to pass in the form of a gruesome Civil War that truly qualifies as “American carnage.” And when it did, Douglass argued for freed slaves to be armed as trained soldiers to fight for their own freedom – as the Founders might have envisioned.
“I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government,” Douglass said in an 1864 speech making the case for black troops. “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its true origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.”
The Shining City
My most recent book, “On This Date: From the Pilgrims to Today, Discovering America One Day at a Time,” is a series of essays, one for each day of the calendar year. But again, themes emerge almost organically from these individual stories. One of them is that Americans are not only natural optimists, but problem-solvers, and when America needed something -- an idea, an invention, a new way of looking at life -- often an immigrant was there to provide it. We are not merely a nation of immigrants, as the cliché goes. We are a nation created by immigrants and repeatedly saved by them.
Freedom of the press? It was forged by the willingness of a German immigrant, John Peter Zenger, to go to jail for the right to publish criticisms of the New York governor appointed by the crown. When Zenger needed a lawyer to make the case in court that no people would be free without a free press, Andrew Hamilton, a native of Scotland, was there for the defense. Americans can thank another Hamilton – Alexander, the British subject born in the West Indies to uncertain parentage – for a central banking system, the U.S. mint and, along with James Madison, the intellectual underpinnings of the Constitution.
When Franklin Roosevelt needed to know that Nazi scientists were working on an atomic bomb, Albert Einstein, who’d come here as a Jewish refugee in 1933, was tasked with informing the president. After reading Einstein’s letter, FDR launched the Manhattan Project.
After Hurricane Maria brought Puerto Rico to its knees, celebrity chef José Andrés, who arrived on these shores with only a set of knives and a dream, taught FEMA how you can feed a million people healthy and hot food without electricity. He’s doing his magic again, during the pandemic lockdown.
Like John Winthrop, José Andrés’ first glimpsed America from the sea: He was a sailor in the Spanish navy perched on a mast as his ship o’ war sailed into New York harbor. “I could spot the Statue of Liberty reaching proudly into the open, endless American sky,” he recalled. “At night, I would often wonder whether that sky was the explanation for the stars on the American flag -- put there so the world would know that this is a place of limitless possibility, where anyone from anywhere can strive for a better life.”
This imagery brings to mind Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech as president. Recalling John Winthrop’s long-ago ocean journey, Reagan told an updated story that took place in the South China Sea in the 1970s, when a leaky boat crammed with Vietnamese refugees was spotted by a U.S. Navy ship. “Hello, American sailor!” one of the refugees called out to a serviceman standing on deck. “Hello, Freedom man!”
“I've spoken of the ‘shining city’ all my political life,” Reagan continued, “but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.”
Invoking Winthrop in 1961, President Kennedy put it this way: “More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free.”
The point here is that America has always been an idea as much as a place. It still is. Nine years ago, in a visit to the Irish town where a great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side -- a man named Falmouth Kearney -- had lived, a president who most people don’t think of as Irish made this very point.
“When people like Falmouth boarded those ships,” said Barack Obama, “they often did so with no family, no friends, no money, nothing to sustain their journey but faith -- faith in the Almighty; faith in the idea of America; faith that it was a place where you could be prosperous, you could be free, you could think and talk and worship as you pleased, a place where you could make it if you tried.”
“We call it,” Obama added, “the America Dream.”
It’s not just American anymore. On the front page of this site, you will find the wisdom of Bono, a contemporary Irish sage.
“America is an idea, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s how we see you around the world, as one of the greatest ideas in human history. This idea is that you and me are created equal. These aren’t just American ideas anymore. The world has a bit of America in it, too. These truths, your truths, are self-evident in us.”
Jefferson would have been proud. So would his editor, Ben Franklin, the man who didn’t invent the lightbulb but did discover electricity, the conduit that made the electric lightbulb possible. Mark Twain, as usual, put it best: “We are called the nation of inventors,” he said in an 1890 speech. “And we are. We could still claim that title and wear its loftiest honors if we had stopped with the first thing we invented, which was human liberty.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.