A group of my friends took a poll in July, 1976, just before our nation’s bicentennial celebration. We were part of the Peoples Bicentennial Commission, a populist group that wanted an alternative to the happy-face nostalgia planned for the upcoming national commemoration.
In various shopping center parking lots, we read a paragraph to each person who stopped and asked them if they recognized it. Here’s what we read:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Only five percent — 10 of 200– people could name the document being read to them.
You recognize it, right? Sure you do. It’s from the Declaration of Independence.
In a similar (non-scientific) experiment, Hartford newspapers used to ask “people on the street” why our country celebrates the Fourth of July. Most didn’t know; only some would hazard a guess.
Did we ask the question to show how ignorant Americans are? How bad their schooling is? No, we didn’t draw those conclusions, and I dont have a neat op-ed prescription to fix the historical gaps in public knowledge. But I do have a few observations.
In 1776, even those who could not read the Declaration understood the concept of Empire. They knew first-hand the enormous power that England (call them the Royal 1 percent) had over their lives, even an ocean away. They also knew the power and influence of the East India Tea Company– the largest corporation in the world at that time– and how the British government favored and protected it, to the detriment of ordinary citizens.
Two centuries later, a national Hart and Associates poll found that 58 percent of those questioned felt that big corporations tended to “dominate and determine the actions our public officials in Washington.” A 2013 Gallup poll showed that an even greater percentage now distrust the powerful corporations that are happy to have working people bear the brunt of tax obligations (We’re talking to you, General Electric).
When we took our modest Hartford poll in 1976, 80 percent agreed that when government could not protect their lives, liberty or happiness, “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.” Most even signed the document we had read to them.
We are a long way from starting another revolution to take power away from today’s 1 percent and the government they have largely bought, and return it to the vast majority of working people. But when folks start reading up on their own revolutionary history, the Koch brothers should follow the example of Connecticut’s Tories and move to Canada.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project.