I Know, I Know: It Was Great Britain!

A recent Marist poll reveals that 26% of Americans did not know the nation we declared independence from on July 4, 1776. Not to show off or anything, but since we celebrate our independence on this particular holiday, I thought I’d share the answer to the quiz for those of you who forgot or never learned it: it was Great Britain. Yeah, I knew that by memory (but naturally I did Google it before committing my answer to this post, just to be safe).

The act of declaring independence in 1776 took tremendous courage. The Founders were putting their lives and fortunes on the line–not to gain incredible power, but to tear incredible power down and bring lasting liberty to this nation. It was a liberty that would take constant vigilance. It was a liberty that would require Americans to resist the temptation to let government become a caretaker (and thereby a master instead of a servant). Today we are appallingly out of touch with the thinking and intent of those courageous leaders. Here’s one nugget to help us remember. It comes from Thomas Jefferson in his letter to Thomas Cooper, 29 November 1802:

[I]f we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.

Since there are plenty of butchered quotes from our Founding Fathers floating around, you can verify this quotation at the Jefferson Encyclopedia and see an image of the original document at the Library of Congress. The quotation comes from lines 3-5 of image of the last page of the letter.

For you lovers of Jefferson and his brilliant thinking on liberty, one example of a bad quote you may have seen is this:

My reading of history convinces me that most bad government comes from too much government.

The Jefferson Encyclopedia takes up this bogus quote and reveals that the first time it was attributed to Jefferson was 1950, but that it is not to be found in his writings. It sounds like something he might have said, sure, but he doesn’t appear to have penned this statement. Sadly, a large sporting goods company in my part of the world ran a half-page ad today in the local Post-Crescent newspaper featuring a series of statements allegedly from Thomas Jefferson, and that was the lead “quote.” The second quote was a mangled version of the statement given above about wasting the labors of the people. Oh well, that’s what we get for living in the Knowledge Era. That and 26% of Americans not even knowing from whom we declared independence.

By the way, if you look at the details of the poll, those from ages from 18 to 29–you know, those closest to the benefits of modern education and the information explosion–did the worst. 40% of them didn’t know. I find that tragic. Think how bad the numbers would have been if the poll had asked anything serious about the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

With multi-generational ignorance about the basics of our origins and the workings of liberty, I fear that far too many Americans will have no appreciation for the principles behind the Declaration and those that were meant to be enshrined in our Constitution. I fear, for example, that few will appreciate the wisdom of George Washington’s warnings in his great but rarely pondered Farewell Address. Consider these words about the danger of government encroachment by usurping power–something that is standard fare in our era, and rarely a topic of public debate:

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.
(emphasis mine)

This Fourth of July, why not resolve to better understand the principles of liberty that our Founding Fathers sought to protect? Why not seek to understand why the Lord in Doctrine & Covenants 98 would endorse the Constitutional law of the land and say that those principles belong to all mankind and that we should befriend them? The survival of our religion depends upon religious liberty and its preservation requires constant vigilance, in my opinion.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

18 thoughts on “I Know, I Know: It Was Great Britain!

  1. A problem with the call to understand the Founding Fathers and specifically to read the Farewell Address of Washington is that most Americans, and maybe even many readers here, are no longer able to read and digest the intelligent writings that they provided. The Farewell Address is written at a level corresponding to grade 14.3 – way too advanced for most of us. That's just the verbiage. The ideas are deep and require a knowledge of history and the classics, which we generally lack.

    The dumbing down of American education has created generations not just ignorant of their history, but also relatively unable to fully appreciate it, while thinking, of course, that they know everything.

  2. Sputnik is a fair issue to raise. Certainly there was a risk of misdirected educational priorities as a result, but a lot of that was in place long before that little hunk of metal sent us into a tizzy.

    For an interesting step back in time, compare a McGuffey Reader from a century ago or so with the reading material kids have today. Look at the Sixth McGuffey Reader (grade 6, I believe) – this is a PDF file of over 9 MB. What an amazing text, filled with challenging essays, poetry, and teachings, including the famous speech by Patrick Henry on liberty and the decision to stand up to the armies of Britain. So much of this content would be deemed politically incorrect today, and so much would be incomprehensible to students without the background to understand and apply it. But the spirit of liberty runs throughout it, including a respect for the Founders, reverence for Deity, a disdain for indebtedness, and the fierce independence that a free people should have.

  3. well Jeff, if you wish to compare one example to another, you're gonna have to provide both examples for your readers to judge, and not just one. Because by only providing one, you're setting up the other as a straw man. Why don't you offer a comparable example to the Sixth McGuffey Reader from our day. 🙂

  4. maybe compare it with the Norton Anthology of American Literature


    I don't know about you, but I think I prefer the far more comprehensive Norton Anthology. But then again, that includes more diverse thought including non-Christian thought. Heaven forbid that we learn of other things in this world!

  5. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, is a College text book. McGuffy's Sixth Eclectic Readers is a book for elementary school children, on Amazon it is describe as being for ages 9 to 12.

  6. Good Morning,

    Dan, having grown up in the south, and currently living in the northern midwest, I feel I must defend my southern kinsmen. From what I see in my child's education, things were much better in the south as far as the educational system goes. I will admit that my view of the public education system is jaded though, because I grew up educated in the Catholic School system, which had less to work with, but pushed the students much harder to learn and be independent.

    In my opinion, for what its worth, which may not be much, what is causing this dumbing down of our education system is teaching toward standardized tests, coupled with over paid teachers, too many administrators, and too powerful teachers unions. We throw more and more money at the education system, most of which goes to teacher's salaries, and get less and less return for our investment. With my own education, the nuns were not paid, recieved room and board, and did a far superiour job at educating the children with far less to work with. In contrast my child's school pays teachers upwards of 60K or more a year, but there are no textbooks for the children to refer back to, or even bring home to do their homework with. This is how out of balance our public education system has gotten, because we keep throwing money at the problem. We can't throw money at the problem and expect to improve the education system.

    I think the other problem we have, is that now we have teachers educating our children, who were educated under the "dumbed down" education system that we have. So our teachers don't necessarily understand the material they are teaching, any better than the children they are teaching it to.

    Additionally, we don't require much of our children in terms of writing. Think about the Farewell Address we were called upon to read in this posting. How many of our children, or for that matter their teachers could actually construct such a writing, let alone read it. Very few, if any. The reason being, we don't require our children to write anymore, because its easier to grade multiple choice tests, and the standardized tests are multiple choice tests. Its too hard on the children to have to think, or its too much homework for the kids and thier parents don't want them to have to work so hard when they get home from school. If we want our children to be well educated, we have to have high expectations for them, and help them to achieve those expectations. We have to work at it.

    Looking back on my own education, I recall writing essays in the 3rd grade. I remember diagraming sentences, so that I would understand the different parts of a sentence and be able to apply that to my writing. Writing is so important in todays society. Its what will set our children apart, yet we don't require them to do it in schools, so they don't get practise at it.

    Lastly, we regulate too many of the wrong things about education. This happens so much that our children are being denied playtime. Over the years there has been a decline in recess times in schools, to accommodate the increased course requirements. Children need to be children and need to play at times. We can still push them to learn, but they need the down time too.

    There are many other problems with the education system we have, these are but a few. Its disgraceful for our country, as wealthy as it is, to have bumpkins showing up on Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segment not even being able to say who we won our independence from. We need to be expecting better from our country.


    Catholic Defender

  7. catholic defender,

    you realize of course that Jay Leno blatantly cherrypicks who he interviews on the street for comedic effect. That said, I'd love to see more than just anecdotal evidence that teachers are the root of the decline in our education. Let me see some peer reviewed research on the matter. 🙂 because, frankly, I can think of a number of very important variables that can adversely affect one's education long before the student even gets to the classroom.


    sorry. I don't see anything possibly comparable because our educational system has changed and expanded, particularly since there are so many new things to learn. However, here is a pretty good list of suggested reading at the high school level


    I know I read a number of those books in high school and that my teachers pushed me to learn far beyond what I would have expected. But then again, I went to a public school in a diverse multi-cultural liberal neighborhood with high property taxes.

  8. Dan geography has little to do with politics, the reason that the northeast seems so "liberal" is because of the way voting districts are drawn, and with the exception of a few western and midwestern this is the same reason other states seem "conservative". That said Politics also has nothing to do with Jeff's post on the decline of education. Whereas Age demographics as Jeff used are much more revealing as to whether education has declined. What you don't seem to realize that the curriculum nationwide is relatively standardized meaning the south is getting the exact same education as the north.

    However the age groups are much more revealing as it shows a huge generation gap when it comes to what should be a very simple question. This can show a direct correlation between education methods of the past which Jeff and Cd allude to versus current methods of educating and their efficacy.

    What's interesting is liberal nor conservative never even entered the mix until you started posting, which is particularly odd for something so damning to both sides as this study is, for you to try to defend either one. What's ironic is Jeff suggesting Washington"s farewell address and your inability to look at an issue without partisanship.

  9. Good Morning,

    Dan, I pretty much assumed Leno cherry picked his interviews; the sketch wouldn't be funny if he didn't. But, its still pretty shameful that a country as rich as ours, with all the advantages we have, still has an education system that generates the folks Leno cherry picks. Really sit and think about that.

    I could not even begin to list all the problems with the public education system on this blog. That would take years, and far too much space. But, it would be naive to take a position that teachers are not part of the problem. Politicians are part of the problem, Parents are part of the problem, liberals and conservatives are part of the problem. Changes in children and the way they are raised is part of the problem too. But the old adage that there are no bad students, only bad teachers is very much true, and it nearly impossible to get rid of bad teachers in the public school system.

    Think about your own employment experience, assuming you're not a teacher. What other job can you work, where after 4 years you are virtually guaranteed that short of doing something criminal you won't be fired, no matter how bad of a job you are doing? On top of that, what other job are you virtually guaranteed a raise, every year even if you're doing a bad job? On top of that, what other job are you guaranteed two weeks off at Christmas and Easter, and the entire summer…and you get paid for it? The only one I can think of is public school teacher. Yet you talk to these folks and they feel they are underpaid, under-appreciated, and overworked.

    Most of the teachers I know, and I know a lot of teachers, complain constantly about the work conditions and poor pay. Most of them net over $60K a year…and that isn't enough. I know lawyers that make less and work harder and longer hours. There's a huge sense of entitlement among our public education teachers that never used to be there, and that is a huge part of the problem, but no one wants to address that or even acknowledge it.

    The system we've created with our public schools is one where teachers feel they are entitled to more and more money, and are entitled to keep their jobs even when they are doing a bad job. This is definitely an over correction of the problems teachers faced pre-1975, wherein they were under paid, and undersupported. As with many things, we've gone too far the other directions…largely because of politics.

    As I said though, teachers are but one part of the problem. There are many other issues that contribute to the problem.


    Catholic Defender

  10. catholic defender,

    My wife is a principal of a public school in New York City. I'm quite well aware of the travails of our educational system, and I'll be quite up front. Teachers are nowhere close to the major problem, even though it is tough to fire bad teachers.

    There are many many reasons why our students today are not learning as well as they have in the past. You mentioned several of them, but also haven't considered many other factors, such as distractive technologies and entertainment, or factors such as chemicals found in the human body that should not even be there (but was introduced through such things as lead in the window paint, or alcohol, or taking too much medicine, or any number of other reasons). Parenting, whether both parents are just not helping much, or there happens to only be one parent involved. Video games, television, film, music and general consumerism. Gangs and peer pressure. Schools and teachers and curriculum. And finally, the individuals themselves have the liberty to choose how much education they want, whether they really have any interest in learning about the Revolutionary War. The way one views that period of history is influenced by both current events and the history that came after the Revolution. A lot has happened in America's history for people to not have as much time, energy, or more importantly, focus to care what really happened over 200 years ago.

    The only reason I personally keep up on my ancient American history is to constantly ward off idiotic beliefs in our time that we could possibly bring back those times of old, or many of the aspects of those times of old. Those days are long dead. This is a different time. We ought to be quite pleased that the Constitution has survived as long as it has as close as it has to the original meaning and intent. But those times are permanently closed. Attempts at repositioning today's America to more closely match that period will bring something completely different and not even close to what the original was. Time changes things. It's one of the most utterly amazing things about the progression of humanity over time. There is never a going back. Previous periods can never be repeated. There can be similarities, but they will always appear different.

    So basically, who cares who we freed ourselves from. The British are not our enemy anymore. Having that knowledge doesn't make one bit of importance in today's world. Is it better to have an accurate recollection of history? Of course. Am I bothered that so many Americans don't remember this? Not at all. Because I bet those 30% or so are much more knowledgeable than me on a variety of other topics. I bet they could humiliate me with their intimate knowledge of this or that, of which I had no idea.

    But go ahead, punch that education straw man. Pummel those teacher straw men. It seems to make you guys on the right happy… or something…

  11. It's again Ironic Dan that you claim "times change and things change" as a defense for your belief that we could not restore this nation to its roots in the constitution. If you read George Washingtons farewell address you will indeed see how little everything has changed.

    As for your defense of the current education system I think you fail to realize how many of those things have been around since the dawn of time as distractions."Distractive technologies" check whether it was simply a stick to draw in the sand or a a pair of mechanical teeth, or last but not least a phone used to keep in constant contact with your friends, there have always been and always will be new cutting edge toys (lets face it that's all cell phones are these days)that distract students in the pursuit of education.

    "Chemicals that shouldn't be there"
    I almost laughed at this you do realize that lead paint is there from CD and Jeff's time period growing up and that all the other things you listed were just as big of a problem for the last generations educators as well right?

    So tell me when was the last time you heard of a parent actively discouraging their child from going to school to stay home and work the farm, or to get a job at the local market instead? While parenting does play a large role in the decline of education this again is nothing new. I will give you more credit for this though as it is a much larger factor today than it has been in the recent past.

    Actually all these activities are healthy if done in moderation and some them have been proven to increase intelligence and learning ability (video game while constantly being demonized by the media have constantly in doubleblind studies been shown to increase intelligence and attention span, only in non scientific poll type studies have they been found to not perform well hence what is know as sample bias). On the other hand countless studies have shoown the negative effects of Homework which has been on the rise and the amount assigned continues to grow despite that many studies have show that there are many reasons to doubt its efficacy as an educational tool. This also is related to the parenting aspect.

    "Gangs and Peer Pressure"
    This always has and always will be a distraction and have a negative impact on education.The problem is this problem hasn't risen or declined and will always exist so it is not a contributing factor in the state of the current education system vs the previous generations education system.

    "the liberty to choose how much education they want" LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL
    Really? Do you really think that? 1. Education is standardized this prevents those who are able to excel in academics from doing so and props up those who are either less intelligent or just too lazy to try by lowering the standard upon which they are judged. 2.Education is mandatory, last time I checked mandatory meant that you don't have a choice, lack of choice = less liberty. and last but not least

    As for your statements on history
    I'll simply use the age old adage that has proven itself true time, and time, and yes time again. "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." We may not be at war with Britain but the defense of the liberties we were fighting for is a war that will rage for eternity unless we "go quietly into that good night". The very same things they were fighting against are the things that we are losing the war on liberty today. Again read Washington"s farewell address to see how uncanny and unchanged the world is comparatively from then to now.

  12. yeah, I've read Washington's Farewell Address. I was impressed with his constant pleading that we stay unified and not get divided by competing parties. You, sir, fail to unite, and thus you frustrate Washington's pleading.

  13. Yes failure to unite behind a common cause is one of the major issue but, you sir are blind if you think that is the only one. Also you are condemning yourself not me. There are three people giving you reasonable arguments and comparisons, all of them staying outside the common conservative/liberal labels, all three of us condemning both sides (meaning standing outside of party lines and uniting for a common cause that is posing a threat to our liberty) trying to help you understand this issue not only do you fail to unite with your fellow man on what is quite obviously a major problem you accuse those who are going outside their party and religion to unite of not uniting because we won't tow your party line. So no I have only failed in the sense that i have not been able to get someone to recognize a problem because they are to blinded by politics.

  14. Good Morning,

    Dan, I started off by acknowledging that I have a strong bias against the public school system in this country. I was educated primarily in the Catholic School system, through 8th grade, and went to public school for my high school years. If my wife and I could afford it, our child would not be educated in the public education system period, that's how bad we believe the system is. My own bias is a shortcoming that I have, and I freely acknowledge it.

    The concern my wife and I have with the public school system is not about the violence and the gangs, or the peer pressure, or the media distractions. Those things are part of it, but primarily we just don't see where the public school system is getting the job done. Public education, and that includes the teachers and administration, is failing to get our children educated. That is a failure of the system, and it is a failure that is attributable to teachers and principles and the state legislatures that pass law without knowing what they are doing. The idea that you seem to have that its no longer important to worry about ancient history, because its history, is quite concerning because this is an attitude that is quite rampant in the public school system among teachers and students alike. History is very important, if for no other reason, so that we don't repeat it.

    I am of a generation that had lead paint in the schools. I'm actually old enough to have attend segregated schools had I gone to public schools. I won't get started on that tangent except to say that black kids at that time definitely had it much worse. There was the separate part, but no one got the message about the equal part in those schools.

    In my life, I've also had the benefit of teaching college level courses. That experience is quite eye opening. If you really want to see how badly our teachers are failing their students in the public schools, go read some papers from an entry level college english course. These children are to the point where they can not even construct a sentence in English, which is their native language.

    I realize that I have hammered quite hard on teachers here. I know that they are not the entire problem with the public school system. However, teachers do have to acknowledge that they are a significant part of the problem. This seems to be something you are unwilling to do, likely because your wife is an educator. I get that, but it still doesn't change the fact that teachers are part of the problem.


    Catholic Defender

  15. Another point I would make, is that many of our teachers as well as their students, no longer grasp how important an education is. As I stated, I did attend a public high school. In so doing, I had the opportunity to have a black principal who was himself a product of the segregated school system. Why that is significant, is that this principal, because he was educated in an all black school, and had been denied many of the advantages of the white schools, understood the value of education. In fact, he understood it so well, that he made sure that his school had access to the best academic materials.

    We had the best theatre arts programs and music programs. Our english, math, history, and science departments were all the best in the county at the time; even if it meant that the football team went without. All because the principal's experience had taught him the value of education. Something that is truly lacking from this generation of students and teachers, is an understanding of why education is important.

    Many of the current teachers in the public schools can not even conceptualize what segregation did to many generations of blacks. None of todays students could conceive of going without, at least not to the level that black students had to during segregation. Because neither the students, nor their teachers have had this experience, they can not even grasp the value of education in the public school system. This too is part of the problem.


    Catholic Defender

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