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Rewriting history from the perspective of high school grads

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March 11, 2014 | 03:18 PM
Several years ago the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a survey of recent high school graduates. It was intended to uncover what these young people had learned about American history during their public school years.

The students were asked a series of questions, including this one: “From what nation did the colonies proclaim their independence?” Fully one-fifth, or 20 percent, said they believed it was France.

When they were asked to identify their country’s national anthem, over half thought it was the “Star Spangled Banner.” Of those, however, nearly 25 percent said they did not think they could recite the words to it.

When I was teaching history, I had my students read and become familiar with the Declaration of Independence. It was my experience that junior high students had great difficulty with 18th century prose, so I rewrote the document at their reading level, in colloquial English. At the end of the Declaration, the signers proclaim that they will commit the following in their fight to create a nation free from the dictates of Great Britain: “Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

When asked what they were willing to give up to preserve the American way of life, nearly all my students agreed that they would devote their honor to the cause. About their fortunes, there was far less certainty. Most indicated that they would be willing to make a contribution, but they didn’t really think they’d give up everything. As to whether they would be dedicated enough to risk their lives? Well, not so much.

Jay Leno used to have a regularly-appearing segment on the Tonight Show called “Jay Walking.“ He would go out on the street and pick people at random to talk to, then ask them a question. Frequently this was about U.S. history. One evening, he stopped a lady and after chatting for a moment, asked her, “Can you name the location of the Gettysburg Address?”

Looking down at her feet and thinking hard, she raised her gaze and said this: “How do you expect me to find an address without a street number?” Raucous laughter from the audience. It is good that we can find humor even in the saddest of times.

After the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives they undertook to demonstrate their unswerving commitment to do only what the Constitution specifically allowed. In other words, they rejected sweeping interpretations that might deepen and expand the reach and intrusion of government into the lives of Americans. To demonstrate their devotion to this idea, each Republican member of the house rose to read a portion of the document into the Congressional Record. Apparently most had slept through their high school civics class.

In Article I of the Constitution the powers of the legislative branch are clearly enumerated. And after all have been set out, they are followed by this statement: “Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper to promote the general welfare.” This is commonly known as the “Necessary and Proper Cause.” The founders put this into the Constitution knowing full well that they could not possibly anticipate every circumstance the legislature might encounter in the years ahead. So, to ensure it would be able to act in nearly any circumstance, they created a general clause to cover everything not provided for in the list of specified powers.

In other words, the Republicans were affirming the right of the House to pass on the widest possible range of public policies and issues. This encompasses, of course, “sweeping interpretations” and “expanded posers” of the federal government.

Wayne LaPierre is adept at fear-mongering. And successful, particularly amongst those who are ill-informed about the history of America. If you listen closely to the rants and raves of Mr. LaPierre —and don’t know any better — you might think that unless every citizen in the country was armed to the teeth, the government in Washington would trample on the Second Amendment and either interfere with their real or imagined right to bear arms — or heaven forbid — take them away altogether.

Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the attempt by Aaron Burr to bribe a serving general in the United States Army to join him in a scheme to cross into territory west of the Mississippi and attempt to set up his own “empire” — while he was serving as vice president, no less — offer examples of armed insurgents testing and threatening the authority of the federal government; not the other way around.

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Most notable of these incidents, of course, was the insurrection of the so-called Confederacy, resulting in the Civil War.

None of these events were instigated by the government of the United States. They were all undertaken by irate musket-wielding extremists who were convinced — in their own minds — that the only way they could settle their grievances with the central government was to exercise their “right to bear arms.” We have much less to fear from the power of the Executive Branch than we do from misguided gunmen.

Incidentally, the oft-mentioned “right” to bear arms was never written into the United States Constitution, and can nowhere be found there. It was added later, only after a deal was struck with New Hampshire to amend that document, which then led to the ninth vote needed for its ratification.

Our national amnesia is a devastating malady that requires the strongest remediation available. After all, as a very wise person once observed: “No people can possibly know where they are going unless they first understand where they have been.”

As a nation we spend too much energy and time with the sciences and mathematics, which only deal with what we could do and not nearly enough with the social sciences that beg the far more penetrating and critical question of what should we do.

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