There have been many tributes to the Constitution but the highest tribute of all is the willingness of a person to take the time to study it.
The Constitution is an exciting charter for human freedom which establishes nearly 300 vested rights as they apply to various segments of the American society. Many people do not know the nature of these rights or how to protect them. This is why many of those rights have been eroded or lost.
This book is designed to revive a better understanding of America’s great Charter of Liberty by using one of the oldest teaching methods ever invented – asking questions. It was used so extensively by the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, that it is often referred to as the “Socratic method of teaching” — teaching by asking questions.
The First Catechism on the Constitution
Learning how to live in a free country where the people conduct their affairs by following certain rules of self-government is a new invention. At least, the United States was the first nation to successfully put it into operation on a large scale in modern times.
Nevertheless, it is only effective if the people understand its principles and diligently follow its procedures. Obviously, that is impossible unless the people have been trained in those principles and the proper procedures explained. For that purpose, a famous little book was published clear back in 1828 by Arthur J. Stansbury, called the Elementary Catechism of the Constitution of the United States. The original publisher was Hilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins, of Boston.
Arthur J. Stansbury was born in New York City in 1781 (in the midst of the Revolutionary War), and died around 1845. He graduated from Columbia in 1799. For 20 years he was the official reporter of the debates in Congress and his reports were published in a 14-volume set entitled Register of Debates, (Washington, 1825-1837).
Because of his anxiety to help the next generation appreciate the importance of America’s “great new experiment in self-government,” he wrote the Elementary Catechism on the Constitution of the United States. It was designed specifically for the schools but was also read widely by many adults who felt the need to know more about the mechanics of our system of self-government as designed for a free American Society. He also prepared a number of illustrated books especially written for the training of children in good manners and character building.
Two Frenchmen Make an Interesting Discovery
During 1830-31, a twenty-five-year-old French scholar, Alexis de Tocqueville, arrived in the Unites States accompanied by Gustave de Beaumont, a grandson of the famous Marquis de Lafayette who served under George Washington. The two travelers came to find out how the new American invention of a “democratic republic” functioned. As of that moment, the French experiments with so-called “democracy” had not only failed but a recent revolution had put a king, Louis-Philippe, back on the French throne.
After returning to France, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous and unique treatise on the American system which is considered one of the most comprehensive analysis of the Founder’s formula for freedom, prosperity and peace ever compiled. In this two-volume work, de Tocqueville had a very significant comment to make about the way Americans were trained to understand the essential elements of their social and political culture. He wrote:
In New England every citizen receives the elementary notions of human knowledge; he is taught, moreover, the doctrines and the evidences of his religion, the history of his country, and the leading features of the Constitution. In the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, it is extremely rare to find a man imperfectly acquainted with all these things, and a person wholly ignorant of them is a sort of phenomenon. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols. 1840, New York: Vintage Books, 1945, 1:326-7)
Coming from France where very few of the common people could read or write, de Tocqueville was fascinated with the high literacy rate of Americans.
He was also amazed about how much Americans knew concerning their own system of self-government. He wrote:
It cannot be doubted that in the United States the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic… He will inform you what his rights are and by what means he exercises them; he will be able to point the customs which obtain in the political world. You will find that he is well acquainted with the rules of the administration, and that he is familiar with the mechanism of the laws… The American learns how to know the laws by participating in the act of legislation; and he takes a lesson in the forms of government from governing. The great work of society is ever going on before his eyes and, as it were, under his hands. In the Unites States politics are the end and aim of education… (Ibid. pp. 329-30)
Can Americans Do As Well Today?
It is our hope that a keener appreciation of the Founding Father’s genius in creating the first free people in modern times will be more deeply understood and perhaps even more highly esteemed as a result of searching out the answers to the questions set forth in this catechism.
W. Cleon Skousen