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Crash Course in Americanism

Students will have to read documents that form nation's foundation

December 29, 1996

Quick: Who wrote the Federalist Papers and why? What are the three coequal branches of government specified in the U.S. Constitution? What is the significance of George Washington's farewell address? How does the Gettysburg Address begin?

Parents, if cobwebs cling to your recollection of these documents, your schoolchildren soon might be refreshing your memory. Beginning Jan. 1, a new state law requires all public school students to read all of the following: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and Washington's farewell address.

State high school graduation requirements already specify that all students must take a one-semester course in American government and civics, and education officials insist that most students are exposed to these documents as part of the state's history and social science curriculum, generally during grades five, eight, 11 and 12. But at the risk of legislating redundancy, Assemblyman Keith Olberg drafted this bill because of his "strong personal belief that understanding the origins of our liberties is perhaps the most important thing we can teach our children in public schools." For this statesmanlike act, the Victorville Republican is certain to be memorialized in the doodle books of amateur portrait artists up and down the state.

While his law does seem a tad extreme (all of the Federalist Papers?), we applaud its intent. These documents have a power and clarity surprising to those who have avoided them. The government they set in motion--or in the case of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, redirected toward first principles--has endured in no small measure because of the logic, eloquence and accessibility of these historical documents. We agree with Olberg that every American should read each of them. Far too few of us have.

Oh, yes. The answers: Alexander Hamilton and James Madison authored the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 letters or essays, in 1787 and 1788. These documents explained the contents of the Constitution so ably they are credited with winning over many who had opposed its ratification. The three coequal branches of government enumerated in the Constitution are the executive, legislative and judicial. In Washington's farewell address (1796), the outgoing president warned against the dangers of sectional and party rivalries and cited the importance of avoiding "entangling alliances" with foreign governments, advice that is credited with launching an approach to foreign policy that lasted into the 20th century. The Gettysburg Address (1863), one of the most famous speeches in American history, begins, "Fourscore and seven years ago. . . ."

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