Celebrating America’s Revolution

Susan Page
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Wednesday - April 16, 2008
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“With change accelerating all around, more and more we need understanding and appreciation of those principles upon which the republic was founded. What were those ‘self-evident’ truths that so many risked their lives for? What was the source of their courage? Who were those people? I don’t think we can ever know enough about them.” - David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of John Adams

Thomas Jefferson was a Republican, John Adams a Democrat. These men, critical to the formation of our nation, were presidents No. 2 and 3. But if you thought one had a TV series called The Jeffersons and the other was a character in The Addams Family movie, it wouldn’t surprise me if you were a college senior.

According to an article, “College Seniors Lack Basic Knowledge in American History” (www.associatedcontent.com) published Jan. 8, 2007, a survey by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut revealed that “professors believe 81 percent of college students are at a D or F grade level when it comes to American history. In addition, the survey found that many college seniors had a difficult time identifying words from the Gettysburg Address or identifying main concepts from the Constitution.”


Maybe you’ve seen Tonight Show Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments in which he asks people on the street simple current events and history questions. Like, ‘Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?’ Answer: Uh, Hugh Grant. It’s both hilarious and depressing.

But executive producer Tom Hanks, along with others, is trying to bridge that depressing knowledge gap. Created by HBO and TIME Learning Ventures, the seven-part miniseries John Adams is an awesome, exquisitely crafted film that should be required viewing by all Americans - even if our Constitution allows us to be as dumb as we choose and glean all our history from watching The Simpsons.

It’s hard to diss our children when most adult Americans aren’t watching John Adams or reading history either.

We can see the dearth of historical perspective in the campaigns of our political candidates and their supporters. The hard issues of today - especially in an election year - demand a knowledge of what our founding fathers had to face and sacrifice as they hammered out what would become the most revolutionary and sustaining governmental system ever devised. When candidate Barack Obama says, “We need to change America,” we should probe further. Methods may require tweaking, but let not politicians alter the ingenious government system given to us in Philadelphia 232 years ago.

Election campaigns in the early U.S. also were heated. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, believed a strong central government with a powerful leader is what our Revolution fought to end. He thought our Constitution created a presidency that seemed to him “a bad edition of a Polish king.”

John Adams, a Federalist - today’s Democrat - felt that more federal and presidential power was needed to hold the fragile union of states together. The two argued about the U.S. involvement in the French Revolution - with Jefferson, a fervent democracy-builder, supporting the United States fighting alongside France’s revolutionaries. Where did Adams stand?

Looking at the war in Iraq, could you identify the founding fathers who would’ve likely opposed it and those who would’ve supported it? And why? Food for classroom thought.


After we declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, the Revolutionary War lasted seven more years until 1783 with 25,000 Patriots and 50,000 British dead. The Constitution wasn’t signed for another four years, in 1787. Are our expectations of Iraq, a dictatorship for more than 30 years, to have a completely workable government in five years reasonable? Perspective.

In 1785, Congress had no power over commerce and couldn’t obtain trade agreements with Britain because our states didn’t have to abide by Congress’s trade regulations. What would Jefferson or Adams say about today’s free trade agreements?

It’s incumbent on teachers from fourth grade on to teach America’s founding times to their students. Resources abound. TIME Learning Ventures (HBO.com) even offers a downloadable Teacher’s Guide based on John Adams. How Mr. Haggelstein, my high school government teacher, would’ve loved John Adams and accompanying materials in 1965!

While researching for this column I came across a blog I must share: http://publiceducationdefender.blogspot.c om/2006/10/american-history-required-knowledge.html

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