SOURCE: James Madison's Montpelier

James Madison's Montpelier

September 16, 2010 15:26 ET

Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier Releases "The State of the Constitution: What Americans Know" National Survey Results Released on the Eve of the Anniversary of the Constitution's Signing

ORANGE, VA--(Marketwire - September 16, 2010) -  The Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier today 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. A video and full results are available on the James Madison's Montpelier web site, www.montpelier.org.

"The United States was founded on the idea that a nation's people can govern themselves. This sounds simple, yet all previous attempts at self-government -- and many subsequent ones -- have ended in failure," said Michael C. Quinn, president of The Montpelier Foundation. "Today, America stands as the longest enduring democracy in the world, thanks to our remarkable Constitution, and the genius of James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, and the other founders. It's our responsibility as citizens to make sure we know and perpetuate an understanding of this sacred document."

THE STATE OF THE CONSTITUTION: WHAT AMERICANS KNOW
In 2010 the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier conducted a nationwide telephone survey of people across the United States to gauge 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, 2010. 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 with a margin of error of +/- 3.1% at the 95% level of confidence. The margin of error for sub-groups is larger due to smaller sample sizes. The public may take the survey at http://center.montpelier.org/.

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.

Federal vs. State Responsibilities: Separation of Powers; Immigration; Interstate Commerce
While 90% of respondents think separation of powers is important, a large number (70%) believe that it favors the federal government over the states, and 44% do not believe that there is a clear division of power between state and federal governments.

Only 75% know that it is the federal government's responsibility to establish immigration laws, with fewer Republicans (66%) than Democrats (79%) knowing this.

More than one-third of Americans erroneously believe that it is the state governments' responsibility to regulate interstate commerce, with younger people answering incorrectly more often than older people.

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. "At the Center for the Constitution, we believe that, although the power of the Constitution comes from the people, no person is born with an innate understanding of the idea of the Constitution. Instead, each of us must individually commit to learn its meaning, understand its significance, and commit to its continuation."

O'Brien continued, "As James Madison wrote in 1822 when asked about public education in Kentucky, '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.'"

James Madison's Montpelier
Montpelier is the lifelong home of James Madison, Father of the Constitution, architect of the Bill of Rights, and resident of the United States. Now that the home's recent $25 million architectural restoration is complete, visitors can see the progress of "A Presidential Detective Story: Rediscovering the Furnishings and Décor of James and Dolley Madison" through daily guided tours. They can also participate in hands-on activities, and archaeology; leisurely stroll the garden, forests, and walking trails; take in the galleries, and many other attractions on the estate's 2,650 acres. Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Montpelier is located in the heart of Virginia's wine country on Route 20, four miles south of Orange, Va. Montpelier is a National Trust Historic Site, administered by The Montpelier Foundation. To learn more, visit www.montpelier.org.

The Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier
The Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization dedicated to the study and teaching of founding principles and constitutional ideals to promote an understanding of the rights and responsibilities our democracy protects and requires. The Center for the Constitution is located on the grounds of Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison's restored home in Orange, Va.

NOTE TO THE MEDIA: Digital color images of Montpelier are available. Please contact Elizabeth Loring, assistant director of communications, at 540.672.2728 ext. 111 or eloring@montpelier.org