Sav­ing the Bill of Rights through ed­u­ca­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Lewis F. Larsen Lewis F. Larsen is pres­i­dent of the James Madi­son Me­mo­rial Fel­low­ship Foun­da­tion in Alexan­dria, Vir­ginia. (www.james­madi­son.gov)

Ihave been won­der­ing what James Madi­son, the name­sake of the James Madi­son Me­mo­rial Fel­low­ship Foun­da­tion, would think about the 2016 pres­i­den­tial con­test. Madi­son, com­monly ac­knowl­edged as the Fa­ther of the Bill of Rights, did not shy away from po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy, but even he may have been cha­grined at the tone and tenor of our re­cent elec­tion.

The con­tentious elec­tion sea­son left many Amer­i­cans stunned, both by its re­sults and by its af­ter­math. The me­dia, ex­er­cis­ing its First Amend­ment rights, told us for months that the elec­tion out­come was cer­tain — and the fi­nal vote sur­prised us all. In the days lead­ing up to and fol­low­ing the elec­tion, in­di­vid­u­als across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum felt threat­ened as they ex­pressed their po­lit­i­cal opin­ions. There was an­gry name-call­ing. Some friend­ships were bro­ken. At­tempts to dis­rupt po­lit­i­cal events and peace­ful protests oc­curred through­out the coun­try.

Free­dom of speech, free­dom to as­sem­ble peace­ably, and free­dom of re­li­gious thought and prac­tice have all been chal­lenged on our na­tion’s streets, cam­puses, po­lit­i­cal ral­lies, and through some so­cial me­dia posts.

The na­tion seems ut­terly di­vided. How do we heal a pub­lic that has been wounded by an­gry and ver­bal in­sults? How do our cities heal when their down­towns have been over­run by peo­ple voic­ing their anger through vi­o­lent protests? How do we go for­ward as a na­tion if the pro­tec­tions of our Bill of Rights are con­tin­u­ally ig­nored, chal­lenged and mis­un­der­stood?

As calmer heads pre­vail in the days to come, we will cer­tainly wit­ness the law­ful and peace­ful tran­si­tion of power, but prob­a­bly not with­out protest — both law­ful and other­wise. The chal­lenges to the Bill of Rights, the most sig­nif­i­cant pro­tec­tion for in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens against gov­ern­ment ex­cess, will likely con­tinue.

James Madi­son him­self ini­tially re­jected the call to add a bill of rights to the Con­sti­tu­tion. Only when chal­lenged by James Mon­roe in the heat of a con­gres­sional cam­paign about his views on re­li­gious lib­erty did Madi­son as­sert his com­mit­ment to a bill of rights. On win­ning his con­gres­sional seat, Madi­son went to work prov­ing Mon­roe wrong by draft­ing and se­cur­ing the suc­cess­ful pas­sage of the Bill of Rights in Congress.

Com­mit­ted to the val­ues of lim­ited gov­ern­ment and in­di­vid­ual lib­erty, Madi­son ul­ti­mately ad­vo­cated for a bill of rights to “for­tify the rights of the peo­ple against the en­croach­ments of gov­ern­ment.”

There is some­thing pro­foundly pow­er­ful when cit­i­zens un­der­stand their civic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and ex­er­cise their rights as they ful­fill those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. As Madi­son said, “Knowl­edge will for­ever govern ig­no­rance; and a peo­ple who mean to be their own gov­er­nors must arm them­selves with the power which knowl­edge gives.” Only cit­i­zens with knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of our na­tion’s con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples can pre­serve our lib­erty.

Es­tab­lished by Congress in 1986, the James Madi­son Me­mo­rial Fel­low­ship Foun­da­tion was cre­ated to strengthen the teach­ing of the his­tory and the prin­ci­ples of the Con­sti­tu­tion in Amer­ica’s sec­ondary schools.

To­day, nearly 1,500 James Madi­son Fel­lows, in­clud­ing U.S. Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion John B. King, Jr. (a New Jersey Fel­low from the Class of 1995) and Na­tional Coun­cil for the So­cial Stud­ies Pres­i­dent Peggy Jack­son (a New Mex­ico Fel­low from the Class of 2002), are help­ing stu­dents and col­leagues bet­ter un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate the pro­tec­tions of the Bill of Rights.

Foun­da­tion Trustees Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Repub­li­can, and Sen. Ben­jamin L. Cardin, Mary­land Demo­crat, are staunch ad­vo­cates of im­proved and ex­panded civic ed­u­ca­tion. As Mr. Cornyn notes, “There is a fun­da­men­tal need to teach young peo­ple, who will be to­mor­row’s cit­i­zens, knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of lim­ited gov­ern­ment and con­sti­tu­tional lib­erty on which in­di­vid­ual free­dom and pub­lic good de­pend.”

But James Madi­son Fel­lows can­not alone pro­vide the req­ui­site knowl­edge and skills for our cit­i­zenry. The cure for this so­cial ill must be a re­newed na­tional em­pha­sis on civic ed­u­ca­tion in our lo­cal school districts, en­cour­aged by state and na­tional gov­ern­ments. A hand­ful of non­prof­its, sup­ported by just a few phil­an­thropic sources, em­pha­size im­proved civic ed­u­ca­tion as their pri­mary mis­sion, but much more is re­quired if we are go­ing to re­verse the de­cline in civic knowl­edge.

In 1822, James Madi­son won­dered, “What spec­ta­cle can be more ed­i­fy­ing or more sea­son­able, than that of Lib­erty and Learn­ing, each lean­ing on the other for their mu­tual and surest sup­port?”

If our gen­er­a­tion needs the Bill of Rights to pro­tect our lib­er­ties, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will need the Bill of Rights even more. Only a re­newed de­ter­mi­na­tion to ed­u­cate our cit­i­zens about the Bill of Rights can pro­vide the much­needed sup­port for our free­doms.

“Knowl­edge will for­ever govern ig­no­rance; and a peo­ple who mean to be their own gov­er­nors must arm them­selves with the power which knowl­edge gives.” Only cit­i­zens with knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of our na­tion’s con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples can pre­serve our lib­erty.

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