100 years in the making, National Museum of African American History and Culture Opens on the National Mall

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens today on the National Mall. It opens 100 years after the museum was first proposed and 13 years after it was authorized by Congress.

The museum’s website describes the NMAAHC as

[T]he only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. It was established by Act of Congress in 2003, following decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans. To date, the museum has collected more than 36,000 artifacts. Nearly 100,000 individuals have become charter members of the museum.

The website goes on to spell out the four pillars on which the new museum is premised -It provides an opportunity for those who are interested in African American culture to explore and revel in this history through interactive exhibitions;

  1. It helps all Americans see how their stories, their histories, and their cultures are shaped and informed by global influences;

  2. It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture; and

  3. It serves as a place of collaboration that reaches beyond Washington to engage new audiences and to collaborate with the myriad of museums and educational institutions that have explored and preserved this important history well before this museum was created.

Congressman John Lewis, who was a driving force behind the museum, said “There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said ‘you can’t do it’ but we did it. . . This place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.”

The museum opened with a series of celebrations and speeches (many still ongoing) from Chief Justice John Roberts (who serves as the chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution), President Barack Obama, former president George W. Bush (who signed the 2003 bill authorizing the museum), Oprah Winfrey, and many others.

Lonnie Bunch, the director of the NMAAHC, said of the museum that it will “not just tell of a people’s journey, but a nation’s story.” He went on to say, “There is nothing more powerful than a people, than a nation steeped in history. . . And nothing more noble than honoring all of our ancestors by remembering.”

President Obama, the nation’s first black president, said, “This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the president but also the slave, the industrialist but also the porter, the keeper of the status quo but also the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo.” He went on to say, in imagining taking his grandchildren to the museum, that “[t]ogether we’ll learn about ourselves, as Americans.”

The museum now owns close to 37,000 artifacts. You can explore their collection online here.

Here are some interesting artifacts in the museum’s collection:

(1) Digital collection of manuscripts and images related to the Freedmen’s Bureau;

(2) Rosa Parks’ dress

(3) The pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965

(4) Program from the March on Washington (1963)

(5) Jim Crow-era Southern Railway car

(6) Nat Turner’s Bible

(7) Emmett Till’s casket

 

The 227th Anniversary of the Judiciary Act of 1789

Today marks the 227th anniversary of the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Judiciary Act of 1789, officially titled “An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” was passed by Congress and signed by President George Washington on September 24, 1789.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution had only sketched out the nature of the federal judiciary in very general terms. This Act provided for its detailed organization.

 The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

Acting on this authority, Congress created a three-part judiciary. The Supreme Court consisted of a Chief Justice and five associate justices (an even number for anyone who is counting). The same day that the Judiciary Act was passed and signed, President Washington nominated John Jay to preside as chief justice, and John Rutledge, James Wilson, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and William Cushing to be associate justices. Two days later, on September 26, all six appointments were confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The middle tier of the judiciary was made up of federal circuit courts and served as the principal trial courts in the federal system. They also exercised limited appellate jurisdiction.

A federal judge was designated to preside over a United States district court in each state and in Kentucky and Maine, which were then part of other states. These courts heard admiralty and maritime cases, as well as other minor disputes.

During the debates over whether or not to ratify the Constitution, a number of citizens raised concerns about the federal judiciary encroaching on state courts and restricting civil liberties. The Judiciary Act of 1789 addressed these concerns by allowing state courts to exercise concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts in a number of matters. For example, Section 11 reads,

That the circuit courts shall have original cognizance, concurrent with the courts of the several States, of all suits of a civil nature at common law or in equity, where the matter in dispute exceeds, exclusive of costs, the sum or value of five hundred dollars, and the United States are plaintiffs, or petitioners; or an alien is a party, or the suit is between a citizen of the State where the suit is brought, and a citizen of another State. (emphasis added)

The debate over the Judiciary Act occurred at the same time that the Congress was considering amendments to the Constitution (these amendments would become the Bill of Rights). The Bill of Rights, ultimately, offered further assurance that the federal courts would respect both the states and traditional liberties of citizens such as the right to trial by jury.

 

PBS NewsHour and Microsoft Launch Website That Allows You to Watch Every Televised Presidential Debate

PBS NewsHour and Microsoft have partnered to put online every presidential debate since the first (and, perhaps, most famous) televised debate in U.S. history between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The debates, as well as some interesting and useful interactive and educational content are available at http://www.WatchTheDebates.org.

This is a great resource for history and social studies teachers, and all citizens who are interested in catching up on the history of televised presidential debates before Monday’s match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Definitely recommend checking out the website.

Constitution Swag: Why I Love It and Where to Get it!

 

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I get a lot of compliments on my Constitution swag. I have a Constitution necklace, bracelet, scarf, shoes with both the Constitution and Declaration hand-painted on them, multiple totes, and a variety of Constitution t-shirts.

Why do I love to wear what I teach? It gets attention.

When I wear my “I ❤ The Constitution” t-shirt to the grocery store or out to lunch or dinner, I’m always surprised by the number of people who come up to me to say “Me too!” or “That’s awesome!”. Never one to waste an opportunity to promote constitutional literacy, I usually share my card and invite these folks to visit http://www.ConSource.org (my non-profit’s website) to learn more about the Constitution and our nation’s history.

Here are some of my favorite places to buy Constitution Swag online:

(1) Etsy

(2) The Constitution Store (yes, this exists and is run by the US Capitol Historical Society)

(3) The National Archives Store Online

I also recommend checking out the gift shops at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA, and the Newseum in Washington, DC. I usually pick up fun Constitution-themed gear and gifts whenever I visit either museum.

 

 

A Simulated Article V Convention is happening in Williamsburg, Va, This Week. What is An Article V Convention?

This week in Williamsburg, Va, Citizens for Self-Government is hosting a simulated Convention of the States to propose amendments to the Constitution under Article V of the Constitution. Their mission is –

[T]o urge and empower state legislators to call a convention of states. The delegates at such a convention would have the power to propose amendments to the Constitution that would curb the abuses of the federal government. Article V of the Constitution gives them this power; the COS Project will give them an avenue through which they can use it.

Article V of the Constitution includes a provision that “on application of two-thirds of the several States,” Congress “shall call a convention for proposing Amendments.”

Supporters of Article V conventions have mounted vigorous (and yet unsuccessful) campaigns in the past (reaching a peak of interest in the 1960s through the early 1980s) on a range of issues including: restrictions on abortion, apportionment of state legislatures, and a federal balanced budget. None of these campaigns attained the necessary applications from two-thirds of the states. Indeed, we have never adopted a Constitutional amendment using an Article V convention. All 27 of the Constitution’s amendments adopted since 1787 came from Congress and not from applications of the states (Article V provides that whenever two-thirds of both Houses of Congress “shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to [the] Constitution.”)

In recent years, in response to congressional deadlock, there has been a renewed interest in Article V conventions from groups across the political spectrum. Groups on the right like Citizens for Self-Government are interested in the balanced budget requirement and restrictions on federal governmental authority. On the left, there is an interest in calling an Article V convention to repeal the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen United.

So why haven’t Article V conventions worked in the past?

The main reason is the Constitution’s requirement that a super-majority of two-thirds of the state legislatures must apply for an Article V Convention.

But there’s a reason for this stringent requirement, as James Madison discussed in The Federalist No. 43.

“It guards equally against that extreme facility which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty which might perpetuate its discovered faults.”

What happens after Amendments are proposed?

Article V reads in relevant part that “Amendments . . . in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress.”

What this mean is that amendments proposed by either Congress or an Article V Convention must be ratified by the legislatures or special conventions in three-fourths of the states (38 total today). Furthermore, Congress has the authority to choose the method of ratification in the states. The options are ratification by state conventions called specifically for considering ratification of amendments, or ratification by the legislatures of the states. In either case, the three-fourths requirement applies.

Congress has only specified ratification by convention for the 21st amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment (prohibition).

Why Might Calls for an Article V Convention Be a Good Thing?

One would think that the three-fourths requirement for ratification would quiet fears of a runaway convention, but many people still raise this as a major concern. It’s a concern that, admittedly, I share with many others.

But there might be some good to come out of the current interest in Article V conventions, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful –

It could generate genuine public and, perhaps, even congressional interest in the constitutional issues being discussed. Even a failed effort might motivate many Americans to think about the Constitution.

Plus, Article V simulations, like the one underway in Williamsburg, Va., this week, are an excellent opportunity to teach our nation’s citizens about the Constitution and constitutional change.

The Cure for a “Gravely Ill Constitution” is More Civics Education

Garrett Epps  wrote a piece in The Atlantic on Tuesday titled “Trumpism is the Symptom of a Gravely Ill Constitution.”

In this piece Epps argues that

Trumpism is the symptom, not the cause, of the malaise. I think we have for some time been living in the post-Constitution era. America’s fundamental law remains and will remain important as a source of litigation. But the nation seems to have turned away from a search of values in the Constitution, regarding it instead as a set of annoying rules.

He goes on to argue that Donald Trump and his supporters are “openly contemptuous of the nation’s founding document, of its Bill of Rights, and of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection.”

Epps’ piece reminds of a warning issued by James Monroe, our nation’s fifth president, in his first Inaugural Address –

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.

A variety of surveys and studies in recent years confirm that Americans lack a basic understanding of the United States Constitution and system of government. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found in their annual Constitution Day survey that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government, the poorest showing on that question in a half-dozen years. They also found that nearly a third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government. Last year, the APPC survey found that about one in 10 Americans (12 percent) says the Bill of Rights includes the right to own a pet. (For the record – it does not!)

A study by the Center for Civic Education and Professor Diana Owen of Georgetown University found that 86% of respondents are aware that they are not well-informed regarding our nation’s foundational documents.

As Monroe said in his first inaugural address and many of our Founding Fathers confirmed in much of their writings, the cure for an “ill Constitution” is education!

In 1785, John Jay wrote,  “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic[.]” Years earlier, John Adams in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law remarked that “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.” In his second annual message to Congress, then-President James Madison stated “It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

In one of his most famous quotes, Thomas Jefferson stated: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

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.”

Regardless of whether you agree with Epps’ argument about Trumpism or instead believe that its Clintonism that represents the symptom of an ill Constitution, the stats and rhetoric in 2016 are clear, we need to reinvigorate our nation’s commitment to civics education. Education is and has always been the cure for what ails our Republic.

The 35th Anniversary of Sandra Day O’Connor’s U.S. Supreme Court Confirmation

On September 21, 1981, the Senate voted 99-0 to confirm Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman on the United States Supreme Court. President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor in August 1981 as the fulfillment of his 1980 campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the nation’s highest court.

During her 25 years on the Court, she played a crucial role in decisions on abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, among many others. O’Connor’s status as the first woman on the court, combined with “a gregarious public presence unusual for the government’s most monastic branch, made her unquestionably the best-known justice in modern times, greeted by strangers in airports and on the streets and always named on pollsters’ lists of America’s most powerful and most respected women.”

She also received a lot of attention as the Court’s “swing vote” (a place now occupied by Justice Anthony Kennedy).

“O’Connor arrived on an ideologically divided high court during a period of unprecedented challenge to established law on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, church-state relations and criminal justice.

She put her stamp on each of these fields, not by adopting an agenda, but by avoiding one. With colleagues often locked into predictable conservative or liberal position, this made her a consistent swing vote, a strategic role she deployed to moderate the extremes, in case after controversial case.”

When she submitted her resignation to President George W. Bush in 2005, the president spoke to O’Connor by telephone from the Oval Office in what was described as an “emotional call.” Bush reportedly told O’Connor “You are one of the great Americans. . . . I wish I was there to hug you.”

After retiring to take care of her now late husband, Justice O’Connor turned her time and attention to civics education. O’Connor is undoubtedly the nation’s highest profile champion of civics education. In 2009, Justice O’Connor founded iCivics in an effort to restore civic education in our nation’s schools. iCivics has gone on to become one of the leading organizations in the effort to educate young people about our nation’s system of government.

O’Connor famously said that: “It is imperative if we are going to survive as a nation that our schools teach civics. Knowledge and understanding about our system of government is not something that’s handed down in the gene pool. You have to learn it.”

On the 35th anniversary of Justice O’Connor’s confirmation as the first woman on the United States Supreme Court, I hope we will celebrate not only her contributions to the nation’s highest court, but also her continued contributions to civic knowledge and engagement. I hope that other justices on the Court follow in her footsteps – Justice Sotomayor already has by agreeing to serve on iCivics’ governing board.

 

2016 Presidential Debate Primer: The Candidates and the Constitution

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in their first presidential debate next Monday, September 26, 2016. I put together a useful primer in The Washington Times on what the candidates are saying about the Constitution this election cycle.

In my primer, I cover the candidates’ views on the United States Supreme Court, executive power, the Second Amendment, the press and religion clauses of the First Amendment, and the 14th Amendment.

Check it out here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/sep/12/the-constitution-on-the-campaign-trail-in-2016/

A Brief History of Constitution Week: September 17 to September 23

Since 1956, we’ve celebrated the Constitution not only on September 17 (the date the document was signed by the Constitutional Convention delegates), but also for a full week thereafter.
Congress, by joint resolution of February 29, 1952 (36 U.S.C. 106), designated September 17 as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” and by joint resolution of August 2, 1956 (36 U.S.C. 108), requested that the President proclaim the week beginning September 17 and ending September 23 of each year as “Constitution Week.”
upon all our citizens to renew and reaffirm on that day their faith in the principles and ideals embodied in the Constitution – the foundation of our strength and the symbol of freedom and justice for all.

On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Federal Convention in Philadelphia met for the last time and approved these familiar words now enshrined not only in our Nation’s basic Instrument of Government but also in the hearts of our citizenry. Led by the President of the Convention, George Washington, the great majority of the delegates signed the newly drafted Constitution, and on the following day their Secretary set off for New York by stage coach to deliver the engrossed document to the United States in Congress there assembled. Within a week the proposed Constitution had been printed and circulated in both Pennsylvania and New York, and the great principles by which our country still is governed had been dispatched or carried home by delegates from other States as well. On September 28, 1787, the Congress resolved to transmit the draft text officially to the States of the Confederation for action.

It is fitting that we, whose entire lives have been protected by the fruits of the Convention’s deliberations, should pause in our several occupations to study the course of events by which our Constitution came into being, the great debate which ensued before our Federal Government became established, and the internal stresses and the assaults from without which we as a Nation have met successfully, with God’s help, within the framework established by our forbears one hundred and sixty-eight years ago.

“NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim September 17, 2016, as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, and September 17 through September 23, 2016, as Constitution Week. I encourage Federal, State, and local officials, as well as leaders of civic, social, and educational organizations, to conduct ceremonies and programs that bring together community members to reflect on the importance of active citizenship, recognize the enduring strength of our Constitution, and reaffirm our commitment to the rights and obligations of citizenship in this great Nation.”
Congress, through a provision tucked into the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005, mandated that all schools receiving federal funding hold educational programs on the U.S. Constitution on September 17th of every year, unless the 17th falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, then Constitution Day will be held during the preceding or following week.

SEC. 111. (a) The head of each Federal agency or department shall-

(1) provide each new employee of the agency or department with educational and training materials concerning the United States Constitution as part of the orientation materials provided to the new employee; and

(2) provide educational and training materials concerning the United States Constitution to each employee of the agency or department on September 17 of each year.

(b) Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution.

Looking for great FREE Constitution Week resources? Check out the Civics Renewal Network’s list of Constitution Day resources. My non-profit, The Constitutional Sources Project (www.ConSource.org) is proud to be a partner in the Civics Renewal Network.

Constitution Day Surveys Confirm Decline in Civic Knowledge and Constitutional Literacy

Two surveys released in honor of Constitution Day 2016 – one from the Center for Civic Education and the other from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania – confirm that Americans lack a basic understanding of the United States Constitution and our system of government.

On September 14, 2016, the Center for Civic Education and Professor Diana Owen of Georgetown University released the result of their Constitution Day survey, which showed that while Americans do not know much about the United States Constitution, they do, at the very least, support its basic ideas.

The full survey results can be found here.

Some key findings from the survey include –

  1. Only 14% of Americans think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. 86% of respondents are aware that they are not well-informed regarding our nation’s foundational documents.
  2. The survey revealed that the greater the knowledge of the Constitution, the greater the acceptance of its basic ideas. For example, 84% of those who know a lot about the Constitution think that all citizens should have equal political rights compared to 67% of those with little knowledge.
  3. A large majority of Americans (80% +) support elements of the Constitution and its amendments that protect the rights to freedom of belief and expression; the protections of due process of law for the rights to life, liberty, and property; the equality protection of the law; and political equality.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found in their annual Constitution Day survey that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government, the poorest showing on that question in a half-dozen years. They also found that nearly a third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government. Last year, the APPC survey found that about one in 10 Americans (12 percent) says the Bill of Rights includes the right to own a pet. (For the record – it does not!)

Other key findings include –

Of war, taxes and religion

In a series of multiple-choice questions, Americans were divided over what the U.S. Constitution says about which branch of government has the power to declare war, but clearer on what it says about taxes and religion:

  • Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) incorrectly said that the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war. Over half (54 percent) knew that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.
  • A vast majority (83 percent) correctly said that the Constitution gives Congress the power to raise taxes.
  • A majority (77 percent) know that the Constitution says that Congress cannot establish an official religion – though almost 1 in 10 agreed with the statement that the Constitution says, “Congress can outlaw atheism because the United States is one country under God.”

The Supreme Court and a free press 

Americans were divided about what happens if the Supreme Court ties 4-4 on a case, which is more likely to happen under the current eight-member court with one seat unfilled. A third of people (33 percent) correctly said the decision of the lower court stands, a third (32 percent) said the case is sent to the “Federal Court of Appeals” for resolution, and 21 percent said the justices must vote until the tie is broken.

The First Amendment prohibits the making of any law “infringing on the freedom of the press.” But 40 percent of those questioned favored the idea that Congress could forbid the news media from “reporting on any issue of national security without first getting government approval.” More than half (55 percent) opposed such restraints.

If you’re disturbed by these statistics, I encourage you to join the organizations working every day to address the troubling decline in civic knowledge and constitutional literacy.