TITLE: Infantry: Continental Army, 1779-1783, ...Image via WikipediaThis column was originally published July 4, 2006

This weekend we celebrate that stirring day in history, July 4, 1812, when the first president of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, emerged from the old State House in Boston, held up the new Constitution freshly penned by Thomas Jefferson of New York, and announced to the cheers of the gathered throng that “These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent of the crown of Spain!” Who would not wish to have been there, joining in the joyous tumult, as the commander of the Continental Army, Ulysses S. Grant, promptly ordered his men to board the waiting steamships and set sail for San Juan Hill?

Um, no. Actually, that’s not the way it went. But today’s question is, how many young Americans, be they eighth graders or high school seniors — even college students at our best universities — could correct as many as half a dozen errors in the paragraph above?

In May of 2002, Education Week magazine reported that of 11,300 high school seniors tested, 57 percent did not have even a “basic” knowledge of American history. Only 39 percent could adequately describe two advantages the South had over the Union Army during the Civil War (see

When Congressman Roger Wicker recently asked high school seniors in his Mississippi district to name some of the unalienable rights our forefathers died defending in the Revolution on 1776, he got … “silence,” The Associated Press reports.

“Among these are life,” Rep. Wicker said, “and …”

“Death?” one student asked.

“Do the words ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ sound only vaguely familiar?” asked former Review-Journal staffer Caren Benjamin of The AP in a report filed from Washington. “Do you think Thomas Jefferson was the ‘Father of the Constitution’? If so, you’re not alone.

“Nearly 80 percent of seniors at 55 top colleges and universities — including Harvard and Princeton — received a D or F on a 34-question, high-school level American history test that contained historical references like those.”

Ninety-nine percent of the seniors could identify profane adolescents “Beavis and Butthead” as “television cartoon characters.” But only 23 percent could identify James Madison as the principal framer of our Constitution.

Sadly, this is nothing new. Surveys of high school seniors dating all the way back to 1955 have shown sizeable portions of young American students in good standing are unable to identify the decade in which the Civil War took place. At least, back in 1955, a clear majority could name the nation against which the War of 1812 was fought, and rattle off the names of 20 American presidents. (The New York Times on Nov. 20, 1955 identified Jefferson Davis and Benjamin Franklin as “wrong answers” to that question, though of course they’re only wrong if you specify president “of the United States.”)

In 1994, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found only 11 percent of twelfth graders were “proficient’’ in American history. (Asked to name the document that contains the basic rules used to run the Government of the United States of America, only 27 percent could name the U.S. Constitution.)

Of course, we always have to check and see which answers are being judged “correct.”

Of those 11,300 high school seniors tested last year, according to Education Week, 64 percent were marked with a wrong answer because they failed to reply that the Progressive era of 1890 to 1920 was characterized by “a broad-based reform movement that tried to reduce the abuses that had come with modernization and industrialization.”

The answer may be technically correct, due to the clever use of the verb “try,” but doesn’t history more typically involve the study of real-world results, rather than starry-eyed intentions?

Far from “reforming” the move toward corporate control over the economy, the so-called “Progressive” era brought its greatest triumph, as control over the paper money of the United States was wrested away from the direct control of Congress — where the Constitution had safely ensconced it for 125 years, resulting in a zero rate of inflation — and turned over to a consortium of private, corporate bankers known as the “Federal Reserve Board,” who have managed during their stewardship to reduce the purchasing power of the dollar to one seventeenth of its level of 1912.

The “Progressive era” also brought us direct election of senators — breaking the veto power of the state legislatures over the enactments and growth of the central government — as well as alcohol Prohibition, the beginning of the Drug War with the Harrison Narcotics Act, and an income tax that helps subsidize today’s military-industrial complex. How on earth these repressive stepchildren of the hygienic movement served to “reduce the abuses that had come with modernization and industrialization,” Education Week does not explain.

But the ignorance of our youth about our heritage of freedom is still unquestionably abysmal. Do today’s high school students know the federal government is barred from subsidizing the indoctrination of the young in any religious creed, including the newfangled religion called “environmentalism” — let alone that it is the First Amendment that offers us this guarantee our tax moneys can never be used for such a purpose? Do they know there is no exemption allowing the government to punish “hate speech”?

How many of today’s youth can tell us it is the Second Amendment that guarantees to each individual the right to carry around weapons of military usefulness, without “infringement” by any taxation, permitting, or other regulatory scheme — or that neither the Fourth Amendment (guaranteeing “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects”) nor the Fifth (“nor be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law”) adds “unless the attorney general thinks you’re a drug dealer, or that you may have contributed to some suspected terrorist organization”?

How many know the Supreme Court, in Garner v. U.S., 424 U.S. 648, ruled the plaintiff had not been required to incriminate himself (which would have violated the Fifth Amendment) since he had filed his personal income tax return “voluntarily,” when he could easily have withheld the information simply by citing the Fifth?

(Don’t try it here in the West. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently ruled, in U.S. v. Carlson, 617 F.2nd 518 — without even examining whether the federals could carry out all their constitutionally mandated duties under a 40 percent revenue reduction — that as of 1980 the Fifth Amendment is now overruled by “the need for public revenue collection by a process necessarily reliant on self-reporting.”)

How many know that the Sixth Amendment guarantees us our right to trial by the kind of jury that judged John Peter Zenger — not one stacked only with those who will swear in advance to enforce the law as the judge instructs them?

Do they know that Article I, Section 9 of our Constitution specifies that “No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken,” and that the Supreme Court in the Brushaber and Baltic Mining cases said the Sixteenth Amendment did not repeal or change that restriction on direct taxation, nor “create any new taxing authority”? Can any of them explain why this might be important?

Which is declared in Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration, that “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to … Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness … it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs?”

That first one sounds like a recipe for anarchy and revolution. Might it come from the Communist Manifesto, instead?

Which of these two principles have Americans given their lives to defend? To which of these two principles have Americans sworn eternal enmity, gladly sacrificing their lives to oppose?

If our youth cannot answer these questions, then what are all today’s marching bands and waving flags and fireworks really all about?

In 1776, there was no President of the United States — though Franklin later served as president of the governing body of the independent Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The redhead who penned the Declaration hailed from Virginia. The army commander was, of course, Washington, “the indispensable man” … though arguably the most important victory of the Revolution was won in the autumn of 1777, on a farm in upstate New York, by a storekeeper from New Haven who was offered no official command, and so galloped onto the field of battle without anyone’s permission, waving his hat and shouting, “Follow me, men!”

Who was that great general, who rose again and again despite his serious wounds — even after his horse was shot from beneath him? Who was that great American hero, to whom in large measure we owe whatever remaining freedoms we have not yet allowed to slip through our fingers?

You know his name. It’s in all the history books.

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  1. Tim Says:

    I would hardly consider Gen. Benedict Arnold a simple storekeeper from New Haven.

    While he had been relieved of his duties by Gen. Horatio Gates, he was a trained military officer who had already shown courage in the face of the battle with the British. The common soldier in the Revolutionary War was no more than a farmer or laborer who was given an ill-fitting uniform and a rifle. Of course, they would follow a General in full military regalia. That was about all that was expected of them – except to shoot at the British Red Coats. Then again, Gen. Arnold became for all times the symbol of treason by allowing his personal opinion to cloud his judgement and attempt to turn over West Point to the British. Hardly the person one would consider a “hero.”

    Sometimes I wonder how you are allowed to continue to write columns for the R-J.

  2. Carl Bussjaeger Says:


    Chill. It’s called “irony.”

  3. Vin Suprynowicz Says:

    Apprenticed for seven years as an apothecary, Benedict Arnold enlisted at age 16 and served in the French & Indian wars … for 13 days. His father drank away the family money, leaving no funds for a private education. In what way was Benedict Arnold a “trained military officer”? Please name the military academies he attended.

    When the Revolution began, Arnold was indeed a storekeeper in New Haven. And of course he was a hero after capturing Ticonderoga and leading from the front at Saratoga. It was his belief that he was passed over for promotion and higher command after PROVING himself a hero that led to his disastrous decision.

    As for whether the average revolutionary soldier was “given a rifle,” supposed expert “Tim” can perhaps explain his source for this assertion, when the first rifle brigades in the U.S. Army were organized in 1792 (11 years after Yorktown), while most sources contend the basic weapon of the revolutionary foot soldier was the smoothbore musket … and that the smaller number of colonial marksmen carrying slower-firing rifles generally brought their own.

    Sometimes I wonder how urine-stained cretins who make things up as they go along can resist the well-deserved urge to put themselves out of their misery. Though it IS obvious why no one will pay them for their smug, pathetic, and inaccurate scrivenings, leaving them to squat on other people’s Web sites, soiling themselves in their own excretions.

    — V.S.

  4. stephen pelser Says:

    Hero??? you sound like the two Republican Ladies that do not know their American History..History notes that he was a traitor and who later lived in Great Britain..oh well what should one expect from a republican newspaper but rewritten history. Stephen Pelser, a New England Yankee transplant……

  5. Steve Says:

    Vin, don’t hold back, we wouldn’t want you to be easy on these dummies now!

  6. doug galecawitz Says:

    On one hand I understand that students should have a better grasp on American and world history, but really how much of this stuff did you actually know at the age of 16? i find the idea that at some golden time in the past, that all teenagers broadly had a vast and intricate intimacy with the study of history, to be implausible.

  7. Historian Says:

    Anyone doubting the march of ignorance created by so-called ‘Progressive’ education, meaning state-funded, state-run public education, ought to peruse a ‘reader’ from the 1850s. Some years (decades!) ago, I found one from 1853 among an ancestor’s belongings, and was amazed to find questions to which I did not know the answers. True, most of those were geography, never a favorite subject, but although I fancy myself as an intelligent and unusually widely read person, a person who graduated with distinction from a top university, I could not get a passing grade on a test for eighth graders from 1853.

    Nor were answers contained in the text itself; clearly the expectation was that this information was readily obtainable from the ambient culture. This disturbed me and intrigued me greatly, to the point that I looked into this phenomenon, and concluded that while this process began just after the time of the Civil War in the Northeastern US, John Dewey (may he burn in torment for all eternity) was one of the primary movers and shakers behind the destruction of the rich heritage of literacy and education provided by a wide range of mainly private entities during the 19th century. The stated motive for Dewey’s promotion of this disastrous policy shift was to reduce societal unrest caused by anarchist immigrants from Eastern Europe. Dewey said so himself, starting in about 1900, and what he advocated instead was the “Prussian model” of education, in which the primary goal was to teach conformity and obedience.

    I’ll repeat this.

    The primary goal of the present American education system is to teach conformity and obedience to authority. So when people decry the abysmal ignorance of today’s schoolchildren, I ask them why they are upset? After all, our modern schools are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Teaching our young people to be obedient and compliant.

    It’s working. Most of them cannot define tyranny, let alone recognize it in action.

  8. liberranter Says:

    Given that almost no one respects the principles on which the United States (plural) were originally established, should it honestly surprise anyone that knowledge of the nation’s history and institutions is accorded such low priority?

  9. Bruce Says:

    Anyone interested in the Educational “system” owe it to yourself to read “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto. Sometimes it sounds absolutely crazy until you check the facts and they’re bang on. You can find some of his speeches on Youtube as well.

    Congratulations Vin, another awesome article. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the opposition doesn’t care about the facts, just the best sounding argument whether the truth is there or not.

    Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if instead of pledging allegience to the flag (no disrespect intended) Americans had pledged allegience to the constitution. I mean seriously. Venerate a piece of cloth which tells you nothing about where you came from or what your rights are when you could change your focus to the constitutional documents that gave birth to one of the greatest surprises in history. Maybe the next time the pledge was spoken the word constitution was spoken by a few in place of the word flag. Maybe people would get the hint and have a look? Maybe it would be a new beginning of, dare I say, revolution.

  10. Bruce Says:

    Sorry, that was kind of sloppy. Passion makes me act that way sometimes.