What Must We Teach a New Generation of Voters?

Nat Hentoff

Since leaving the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor has been devoting much of her time and passion to spurring the education of our young as to what it means to be American—even while civics classes continue to diminish with results, she says, that are “predictably dismal.” (See also my column, “Our Constitution: How Many of Us Know It?,” Jewish World Review, May 18.)

The “National Report Card,” the most recent survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, underscores O’Connor’s concern. Despite the unilaterally authoritarian regimes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, “Only one in 10 students demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches” (New York Times, May 4, 2011).

Through the years, I have found that an immediate way to engage students in learning what it takes to protect what James Madison called our property rights—that is, our constitutional liberties—against the government is to tell them stories. Like this one by Patrick Henry that led him to speak and write the words that helped precipitate the American Revolution: “I do not know what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

In March of 1775, this young Christian attorney rode on horseback into the small town of Culpepper, Virginia. In the town square, Henry was stunned to discover a minister tied to a whipping post, his bare back bloody. As Henry said in that fierce speech at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, for which he is best known: “When they stopped beating him, I turned to someone and asked what the man had done to deserve such a beating as this.”

The bloodied minister’s crime was preaching in public! At that time, a minister had to have a license to express his religious beliefs. This resister was one of twelve jailed in that town because they had insisted that they didn’t need government permission to be who they were.

To try to find out more about pre-Revolutionary times and what could have led to this government brutality in Virginia, I turned to a book that I find indispensable: The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide To The Constitution by Linda Monk (Hyperion/The Stonesong Press). It includes a photograph of the statue of a Quaker named Mary Dyer that stands near the Massachusetts statehouse with this caption: “She was hanged in Boston in 1660 for her Quaker beliefs. In her words, ‘My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the Truth.’”

I tell students that’s why the First Amendment was required as the bedrock of our fundamental freedom to protest government attacks on our individual liberties, including our religious beliefs. That’s also why, as Monk writes, Thomas Jefferson created in 1786, five years before the First Amendment was ratified, the crucial Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “All men [women were not yet included] shall be free to profess . . . their opinions in matters of religion, and same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” And that’s why this atheist—with no religion except for the Constitution—can vote and hold public office. (Since I’m also a pro-lifer, I’d have difficulty being elected by pro-choicers and believers in God.)

There are excellent materials available to help educate new, young voters. I am sometimes asked by students, parents, or teachers to recommend books that would bring the words of our founding document off the pages of history and into the very lives of students. I always start with Linda Monk’s The Words We Live By. The author, a graduate of Harvard Law School, has received the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award for another book, The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide. As Lucas Powe of the University of Texas Law School—author of, among other valuable works, The Warren Court and American Politics—says, Monk (Linda, that is, not Thelonious) “crisply defines key phrases that are used in connection with the discussion of particular causes.” Also—and this is why I sometimes pick up her book for sheer pleasure—Powe notes that in The Words We Live By “she adds both cartoons and photographs as well as quotations that enliven and deepen the discussion.”

For example, Monk quotes Olaudah Equiano. Kidnapped at the age of eleven from his West African home and sold as a slave—by neighboring tribes—Equiano tells what it was actually like being on a slave ship on the way to this New World: “I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I have never experienced in my life so that with the loathesomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me.”

There’s also much fact-based rejoining in The Words We Live By. In 1761, Monk recounts,

James Otis, a prominent Boston lawyer, resigned a post with the crown in order to oppose the “writs of assistance” before judges in their white wigs and black robes in a king’s court in Boston. These “writs”—written by British customs officers without going to any court—allowed them and British troops to burst into colonists’ homes and offices and turn everything, including these Americans, upside down to search.

In the courtroom’s audience, as James Otis argued for nearly four hours for the colonists’ personal privacy, was a young lawyer, John Adams, who later wrote in his diary, “Then and there the child Independence was born.” (Emphasis added.)

Otis lost the case, but as I tell students, a firebrand named Samuel Adams, along with groups such as the Sons of Liberty, created Committees of Correspondence to spread the incendiary revolutionary word throughout the colonies about the brutish British invasions of the lives of their fellow Americans.

Most important to me, The Words We Live By contains what every student must know in order to become an active citizen protecting the Constitution—Justice Robert Jackson’s majority opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett (1943): “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion. . . . One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

That is, they must not. Keep that in mind, no matter who wins, all the way through the run-up to the 2012 elections. Does our next president believe, as did Bush and Obama, that he or she is the final decider of our constitutional rights?

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).


Since leaving the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor has been devoting much of her time and passion to spurring the education of our young as to what it means to be American—even while civics classes continue to diminish with results, she says, that are “predictably dismal.” (See also my column, “Our Constitution: How Many of …

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