Civic Education & James Monroe’s Warning to the Nation: What ConSource is Doing to Address the Decline in Civic Knowledge

In his first inaugural address, James Monroe offered a dire warning should the nation not invest in the education of its citizens.

He said: “It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.”

This is why I’m proud to lead The Constitutional Sources Project (www.ConSource.org), a non-profit devoted to connecting tens of thousands of American citizens annually to our nation’s constitutional history.

ConSource does this in a number of important ways.

First and foremost, we have created an easily searchable, fully-indexed, and freely accessible digital library of historical documents related to the creation, ratification, and amendment of the United States Constitution. ConSource is the only freely accessible historical database that offers full access to anyone, worldwide, to a wide array of sources pertaining to American constitutional development from the colonial era through the establishment of the U.S. Constitution and its constitutional system of government. We present the best possible versions of primary source documents, coupling, whenever possible, scans of original documents with careful and accurate transcriptions.

Two new collections of particular note are our Colonial Charter and Early State Constitution collection, which is overseen by myself and Richard Bernstein, an acclaimed constitutional historian. This groundbreaking digital collection will trace the creation and drafting of colonial charters and early state constitutions in Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maine. There is currently no comprehensive collection of materials related to the development of colonial charters and early state constitutions in print or digital form, making this collection especially unique and highly valuable to those who wish to understand and explore America’s rich constitutional tradition.

Another collection in progress is our Women and the Constitution Collection, which will bring to the fore the work of our nation’s Founding Mothers and their intellectual progeny, tracing the myriad ways women have shaped American political thought and government from the first rumblings of revolution to the modern era.

But we know it is not merely enough to provide free and easy access to these materials. We have to make the materials easily searchable and usable in various forms. This is why all of the materials in our database are connected through our search tool called The Constitutional Index, which connects historical documents to relevant clauses in the United States Constitution. Our Constitutional Index is a popular tool amongst not only educators and students but also lawyers and scholars. We know that our database is often used by lawyers who seek to use constitutional history in arguing their case. In 2014, for example, the National Law Journal discussed how our digital library made “life easier for lawyers” in the landmark case of NLRB v. Noel Canning. Some of our documents were cited in the briefs for that case. Jones Day Partner Noel Francisco was interviewed for the National Law Journal piece and said, “Particularly for cases like this one, where founding-era history is important, online resources are of enormous value to lawyers and judges alike.” The ConSource database was also used in a brief filed by the Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig in the case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Using ConSource’s digital library, Lessig’s researchers searched for every use of the word “corruption” to show that the founders viewed corruption of government institutions as a major concern.

Online resources like ours are also, perhaps, of the most value to young citizens, which is why we devote a large share of our time to creating free educational resources and hosting educational and public programs.

Some of our key educational programs include

  • Our Virtual Supreme Court Competition – hosted partnership with The Harlan Institute. The competition offers teams of high school students the opportunity to research contemporary constitutional law issues, use primary source documents in constructing a legal argument, write persuasive appellate briefs, argue against other students through Google Video chats, and try to persuade a panel of esteemed attorneys during oral argument that their side is correct. This year the competition focused on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (II).
  • We also host a Constitution Crash Course – a half or full day crash course exploring the text, structure and history of the U.S. Constitution.
  • And develop free curricular resources – like our popular U.S. Constitution for Kids – that we distribute through various channels to teachers all over the country.
  • We are working to complete over the next 6 months our Choosing to Make a Nation Curriculum on the Revolution, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. This project is a resource-rich, student-centered curriculum for teaching early American history from the Revolutionary period to the first Congresses under the federal constitution of 1787. Each lesson begins with a central historical question and features sets of digitized primary source documents from the ConSource digital library designed to place students in the shoes of historical actors. The curriculum not only teaches students essential critical thinking skills, but also develops important reading strategies, such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. The goal of the project is to move students away from rote memorization of historical facts and toward analyzing and questioning the nature of complex historical issues. The Choosing to Make a Nation curriculum encourages students to become active learners, who, through a range of activities built into each lesson plan, will learn how to make informed and reasoned decisions. In short, the curriculum promotes not only civic knowledge, but also civic competence – preparing students to be informed and active participants in public life as members of local, national, and global communities.

As part of our effort to promote constitutional literacy across the learning spectrum, we also host public programs on a range of constitutional topics.

ConSource is not alone in the work that we do. And, thank goodness for that, because it is a tall order to address the decline in civic knowledge and in optimism about the future. For this reason, we are a member of a number of educational coalitions, including the Civics Renewal Network and the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign. The Civics Renewal Network is a coalition of 26 non-profit and governmental organizations, including ConSource, iCivics, the National Constitution Center, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and many others, which is seeking to raise the visibility of K-12 civics education. We are also the lead organization behind the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign. The Mission of the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign is to increase visibility and financial support for the constellation of organizations educating citizens along the learning spectrum – from kindergarten to adulthood—about the American Constitution and our nation’s history. Each year the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign publishes a Constitution Day special section in The Washington Times. This year’s special section focuses on the President and the Constitution, and includes articles from Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Mike Lee, among others.

High quality life-long civics education is essential for the continued health of the American republic. It helps ensure that Americans of all ages, in the words of Noah Webster, value “the principles of virtue and liberty,” and that we “inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country.”

I hope you will join me and ConSource as we seek to stem the tide and reverse the troubling declines in civic knowledge and civil discourse!

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