Hall of the Charters of Freedom

The Hall of the Charters of Freedom at the U.S. National Archives building in Washington, D.C., preserves the original U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.

This weekend, amidst a time of great turmoil and uncertainty in our nation, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It’s so important for our students to understand the significance of this action and the ensuing creation of the U.S. Constitution.

When I was student, my history teachers spent much time on America’s founding years through the early 1900s. Often, recent history was rushed through or not even covered.

When I was a history teacher in Culpeper County Public Schools, we were able to reach more recent history, but not in great detail. Today, teachers have pacing guides to ensure they cover recent history, often by skimming over the early years of our nation’s history.

Understanding the building blocks of our nation’s government is critical. Many states don’t require students to take a government class to graduate. It’s no wonder that many don’t understand why we are where we are or how our system works.

School systems are blamed for students’ ignorance, but state governments set curriculum requirements, often with little input from educators. With the increased emphasis on standardized testing and the requirement to strictly adhere to the curriculum, teachers find it difficult to squeeze in any additional information, even though they understand the need for it. A basic, unbiased curriculum of U.S. government should be required in all school systems.

Some see recent history as more important to our lives. But to understand recent events, one must look to our past.

For example, I recently had a discussion with a young person about John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. A Virginian, Marshall had little to no formal education, yet he rose to be the longest-serving Supreme Court chief justice in our history. Like all our founding fathers, he was human. He had faults. He made mistakes.

The Fauquier County native’s interpretation of the Constitution has significant impacted how our country has evolved. There are those who believe he overstepped the intended authority of the court. Be that as it may, the decisions of the court under his leadership affect our lives to this very day.

He established the power of judicial review, which gives the U.S. Supreme Court the power to decide if a law is constitutional. This and other actions the court took under his leadership created the Supreme Court as the strong third branch of the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court has used this power to decide countless cases in our lifetimes.

We can find fault with all our leaders throughout history. They made decisions and took actions that contradict what we, as a people, have grown to believe and respect. Our nation has taken twists and turns, been liberal and conservative. We have discriminated against many different groups of citizens as individuals and as a nation. We have turned on one another time and time again.

But the foundation established by our founding fathers, with all their personal shortcomings, has carried us through. They may not have practiced what they preached, but they realized they had to compromise to move forward. They included provisions that allowed for changes in our plan of government. They knew that in order for our nation to stand, its people had to stand together.

Our nation has changed, but we still cherish the basic ideals on which the United States of America was founded. Our history is filled with times of prosperity, injustice and confusion. We must look back as we look forward.

Our guidance through time has come from founding principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. Happy Birthday, America!

Elizabeth Hutchins is a former Culpeper County School Board member and educator.

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