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Editorial: John Marshall Center: Confronting the civics crisis in America
John Marshall Center

Editorial: John Marshall Center: Confronting the civics crisis in America

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Recent studies show that many Americans lack a basic understanding of how our government works. We find this alarming — and disturbing. So RTD Opinions asked Joni Albrecht, acting director of the John Marshall Center for Constitutional History & Civics, which is located at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond, about its work on this important issue.

Why was the center founded, and what is its mission?

The John Marshall Foundation, renamed the John Marshall Center for Constitutional History & Civics (JMC) in November 2020, was founded in 1987 by former Virginia Attorney General Andy Miller and other community leaders to support the efforts of Preservation Virginia in its ongoing restoration of the John Marshall House, a Federal-style gem built in 1790, where Marshall lived for 45 years.

Miller says that he, Hunton Andrews Kurth attorney Allen Goolsby and others noticed the fence around the house needed painting, and that’s where it all started. JMC continues to partner on preservation efforts but also provides open-access civics education resources, professional development opportunities to history and social studies teachers, continuing legal education to attorneys and forums for the general public.

We’re in the process of rewriting our mission statement, but it will say something like this: The John Marshall Center for Constitutional History & Civics (JMC), located at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC), honors the judicial legacy of John Marshall by engaging and educating the public about the rule of law under the Constitution, bringing civics, scholarship, and conversation to our classrooms and communities.

We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

One of the center’s focuses is to engage the public about John Marshall’s legacy. Can you discuss those efforts, and his importance to the American judiciary?

I think of John Marshall as America’s “expounding father.” He is the longest-serving U.S. chief justice, leading the court for 34 years and shaping it into what it is today, coequal to the executive and legislative branches of government. The first of his great cases was Marbury v. Madison in 1803 that established the U.S. Supreme Court’s right to expound constitutional law and exercise judicial review, empowering the Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional. After 218 years, Marbury still is working for the American people. We’re working on a lesson plan today built around Marbury’s role in the landmark Brown v. Board decision. Marshall’s body of work includes more than 1,000 decisions, more than 500 of which he authored, that consistently uphold the court’s authority to interpret the Constitution and the importance of a strong federal government to our nation’s health.

What’s the status of the project to restore John Marshall’s remaining judicial robe? And what will be done with it?

It was Marshall who standardized American judges wearing black robes. He eschewed the scarlet and fur-trimmed, rather aristocratic numbers favored by his predecessors, and instead chose basic black, for many reasons, not the least of which was for its symbolism of neutrality.

Save the Robe is the campaign to conserve John Marshall’s 1806 judicial robe, a partnership of Preservation Virginia and JMC. With generous funding from the VMHC and individual donors, we completed Phase I, restoring the robe and creating an archival case for storage and display. This American treasure now is on display at the John Marshall House in a new exhibition entitled, “Intended to Endure.”

At the robe’s virtual unveiling in April, Chief Judge Roger Gregory of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and former JMC board member, commented that the black robe today symbolizes the presence of all colors in addition to “the neutrality of justice.”

The robe will move to the VMHC when it opens its newly renovated space this time next year. Phase II includes creating duplicate robes, a traveling exhibit, and educational resources that interpret the robe’s significance and symbolism. If only the robe could talk. It’s seen seven presidential oaths, all those famous and foundational cases, and the Aaron Burr treason trial, held in Richmond at the state Capitol.

The recently released report, “Educating for American Democracy,” (EAD) calls for a recommitment to civics education in grades K-12 amid “deep challenges” facing the U.S. How is the center promoting civics education?

At the root of the EAD’s thinking is the idea that civics, if delivered in a nonpolitical manner, can be a unifier of people. That’s been our commitment since our founding. We’re excited to see the EAD amplify this ideal through 300-plus organizations and are champions of their civics road map, helping to equitably create and distribute enrichment and classroom resources and programs.

We long have provided civics resources free of charge and have focused teacher professional development programs to schools with lower-than-average history [Standards of Learning (SOL)] scores and higher-than-average free and reduced lunch program eligibility.

PopCiv is our newest resource, and connects current events and popular culture to the Constitution. The menu of resources is timed to current headlines and is designed to spark conversations both in the classroom and around kitchen tables. Our most recent installment on juries in American trials posted as teachers were handling questions about the highly publicized Derek Chauvin murder trial.

We also are excited to develop lessons around the VMHC’s “Determined” exhibit about the 400-year struggle for Black equality and have made a renewed commitment to examine when the courts have triumphed — we’ve done a fairly good job of that — and when the courts have failed the American people.

Justice in the Classroom is a 6-12 history and civics curriculum available online at justiceintheclassroom.net, and includes classroom visits by judges and attorneys. In response to educator requests, we are expanding online resources and making them more nimble, functional and adaptable. We’re happy to talk with any school or community center about the civics and law-related programs we offer.

Recent polls show that many Americans lack a basic understanding of civics. Why is that, and what does that mean for our national well-being?

There long has been a civics education equity gap in our country and, in turn, Virginia. Some schools can afford to offer civics, some cannot. In some districts, civics is mandated and, in many, it is not. The American experiment in self-government relies on civic-ready citizens to function well, but we are graduating students who haven’t been taught how the system works or how to engage in it. Rhode Island recently faced a lawsuit for not offering civics. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol unfortunately is Exhibit A of our current civics crisis in America.

This year, the commonwealth is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the state’s modern-day constitution. And in five years, the United States will observe the 250th anniversary of Declaration of Independence. How will the center mark these milestones?

We are excited to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “new” Virginia Constitution by offering a $1,000 prize to the winning entry in the Virginia History Day Junior or Senior Division that demonstrates superior understanding of Virginia’s constitutional tradition, and how the rights and duties of citizens or of government have changed over time.

This award is given in honor of A.E. Dick Howard, professor of law at the University of Virginia, former member of the John Marshall Center’s board, executive director of Virginia’s Commission on Constitutional Revision (1968 to 1971) and the Virginia Constitution’s principal writer.

And for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, we and everyone we know in the history arena and otherwise is going to party like it’s 2026, celebrating the more perfect union we continue to work toward with liberty and justice for all. What’s more worthy of celebration than 250 years of struggle, failure and triumph? We’ll serve the Madeira.

— Pamela Stallsmith

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