SURVEY SAYS – Which Famous American Documents Have You Read?

July 1, 2009 ( - Surely those of us still at our posts this week are aware of the upcoming holiday...

Still, and in the spirit of my column yesterday (see  IMHO: “Common” Sensitivities ), we are perhaps too frequently inclined to overlook the history which has brought our nation to this Independence Day.

This week I asked readers which of several key historical documents they had actually read – and if they had suggestions that didn’t make my list.  

This week’s respondents had actually made a pretty good dent in that list – though if you haven’t gotten around to the Mayflower Compact, you have plenty of company.  

Top Readings

But as for that top-read document – it was the Gettysburg Address, a document that 85.3% of this week’s respondents had perused (as one reader noted, “Before that war Americans said “the United States are”. After that war, they said “the United States is”. Lincoln, in fewer than 300 words at Gettysburg, defined the singular term and what we still strive to become.” ).   However, that turned out to be just slightly ahead of the 84.3% who had read the Declaration of Independence.

The Bill of Rights wasn’t far behind ( 81.4% ), followed by the Constitution ( 70.6% ) – but then things fell off pretty sharply.

Only about one-in-five ( 21.6% ) had read Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, and – believe it or not – 16.7% had gotten to/through the Mayflower Compact.   Bringing up the end of the list; the Federalist Papers, cited by just 14.7% .   Oh, except for the 5.9% who hadn’t read ANY of the above.

Of course, my list was hardly all-inclusive - so I gave readers a chance to add to our reading list.   Here's a sampling:

  • Poor Richard's Almanac
  • America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction by Jon Stewart
  • Not necessarily American but Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes explains a lot of the philosophy of early republicans (not GOP) setting up the country and still believed by more conservative Republicans of today. If you can get through the first several chapters of setup and ignore the preachy last 1/3 of the book, you might glean what I mean.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton's address to the first women's rights convention in 1848
  • Martin Luther King address "I have a dream", and just about anything else he wrote or spoke
  • The Stamp Act
  • Washington's Farewell Address (which really was a letter to the editor, not an address)
  • Abraham Lincoln's letter to Ms. Bixby (from Saving Private Ryan)
  • Ronald Reagan's Boys of Point Du Hoc speech at Normandy
  • Theodore Roosevelt's 1910 speech at The Sorbonne (Paris), titled "Citizenship in the Republic". It contains a famous paragraph referred to as "the man in the arena". (Some mistakenly think this is the title of the speech.) While thes paragraph is well-known, the entire speech is a magnificent essay. Should be required reading for every American, especially since it's centennial is next year.
  • All 27 Amendments to the Constitution (not just the Bill of Rights, which is the first 10)
  • The articles of confederation. It gives the constitution context and an frame of reference. In reading the articles of confederation it became apparent why the constitution was needed.
  • Famous, yes. American, maybe not. But, definitely 'Americanized'. Robert's Rule of Order and Rules According to Hoyle may be considerations. They're not legal/political commentary but simply state the long forgotten and ignored premise that the "I" doesn't cut it.
  • Text of JFK's "Ask not" speech, Text of MLK's "I have a dream" speech, The document establishing the National Parks, maybe Reagan's "Take down that wall." Although the craft of speechwriters, some of these speeches reenforce basic American values and goals.
  • Martin Luther King's I have a Dream Speech. A Caucasian, I grew up in a predominantly white town and had an old white guy for a Social Studies teacher. But he wanted us to grow up open minded to others. He made us listen and read the speech. I was one of the most powerful memories of my life. I was in Junior High and it brought Goosebumps to my arms.
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776
  • The Articles of Confederation wherein the nation is referred to as the United States of America for the first time, created in York, PA. Called the first constitution of the US, it was proposed for ratification in 1777 with the ratification process completed by 1781. They were replaced by the Constitution on June 21, 1788.
  • Obviously, I am a bit of a history buff. I would add: "An American Crisis" - Thomas Paine, The Paris Peace Treaty of 1783

There were, of course, a number of interesting verbatims:

"Just a comment: the likelihood of most people reading every document completely isn't that great - especially if you include the Amendments to the Constitution. I'm sure you have a few history buffs who read everything, but the majority are probably lucky to have heard of all these documents, much less know what each of these documents is!"

But, there was at least one reader who said, "What do you expect when you have a political science degree and end up in the benefits field?"

For a number of readers, the question brought back memories of school days:

"I'm sure I read some if not all of these documents at some time. Problem is this question is probing memories too far back (grade school) or too hazy (college)."

"Had to read most of them for law school, but to be quite honest, I couldn't quote more than a few lines of any of them except the Gettysburg Address, which was short enough to hold people's attention."

"Might be interesting to know how many people have read any of these documents outside of required reading at school!"

"I had read part of the federalist papers and part of the "Common Sense" but felt guilty since I had not read all of either, so I didn't mark them. I also serve on the school board here and now I wonder if our US history classes actually require the reading of some/most of these documents. Thanks."

And for some - well, let's just say that my notion of "historical" documents was a little bit different:

  "Does ERISA count?"

  "You forgot to list ERISA and the PPA !!!!" exclaimed one reader, who noted that, while they had read parts of the others, "They will be on my once-I-retire reading list."

But this week's Editor's Choice goes to the reader who said, "I hope I am not the only one who can't remember reading these documents - and for that reason, this week I will truly be "anonymous"."

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey!