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June 28, 2002

Half of Americans are willing to give up personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to protect country, study finds

Half of Americans–49 percent–are willing to relinquish personal freedoms and privacies to protect the country, according to a new survey commissioned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, an authority on the founding of America.

The survey, released today to coincide with the first July Fourth since last September’s terror attacks, also revealed that Americans rank the right to affordable health care and the right to an education as more important to their welfare than freedom of speech, freedom of religion and other basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

One Constitutional freedom in particular–freedom of the press–barely registered in the survey. Only 10 percent of respondents rated freedom of the press as important to society, and even fewer, 6 percent, deemed it important to themselves and their families.

“The results are provocative,” said Colin Campbell, president and chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “We’re divided on whether we should preserve our freedoms inviolate or be prepared to make compromises. Half of Americans would accept a curtailment of our basic Constitutional guarantees.

“Americans’ views about freedoms have evolved significantly since they were debated in Williamsburg more than 200 years ago,” Campbell added. “When asked which freedoms are valued most, those actually in the Constitution rank far behind concerns about health care, education and getting ahead economically. We assume the existence of fundamental rights and focus instead on modern needs and entitlements.”

“The survey results remind us that rights taken for granted are rights that can easily be eroded or lost,” said Gordon Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Brown University professor and trustee of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “Colonial Williamsburg is a place where the struggles and precariousness associated with freedom are represented and explored every day.”

Our Freedoms Post-September 11

One outcome of the September 11 tragedies may be the end–at least temporarily–of the self-centered American. Twice as many Americans–60 percent–said “fundamental responsibility to society and the role you play as a citizen of this country” is more important than “fundamental freedom as an individual and the ability to do whatever you want,” which was endorsed by only 30 percent of respondents.

The survey also examined a number of principles on which the United States has been built. Of six principles surveyed, participants chose freedom of speech as the most important for society as a whole, and second most important to themselves and their families.

Beyond freedom of speech, however, respondents were divided in defining how basic Constitutional freedoms can and should be pursued in a post-September 11 climate.
For example, 49 percent agreed with the statement “We are living in dangerous times. If we need to relinquish some of our personal freedoms and privacies to protect our country, we should all be prepared to do that.” A total 41 percent supported the statement “Even though we are living in dangerous times, Americans should not be forced to give up personal freedoms.”

Similarly, 53 percent agreed that the FBI should be allowed greater monitoring powers, while 43 percent did not.

“Our Founding Fathers couldn’t have anticipated the FBI or massive terror assaults with airplanes,” Wood said. “Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how the issues of 225 years ago continue to shape our public dialogue. The debate over the rights of the individual, radical for its time in the 18th century, preoccupies us to this day.”

Referendum on Current Issues

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation survey canvassed 1,000 Americans across all ethnic, gender, regional and economic backgrounds. Other results include:

  • 59 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “The U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as the Founding Fathers intended in order to preserve the core principles they stood for,” and 36 percent supported “The U.S. Constitution should be re-interpreted every generation or so in light of new social challenges and political realities.”

  • 60 percent of respondents considered it appropriate to teach the Koran in American schools to broaden students’ understanding of worldviews, compared with 27 percent who considered such teachings inappropriate.

  • In an open-ended question, 56 percent of respondents cited “freedom” as the reason for “love of country,” followed by 15 percent who responded “because I’m American,” 10 percent who answered “it’s the best place to live” and 8 percent who replied “opportunities.” One percent of respondents cited “democracy” as the reason for “love of country.”

  • In an open-ended question, 21 percent of respondents said “being a good citizen” and an additional 21 percent cited “upholding the law” as their most “fundamental responsibility as an American citizen,” followed by 8 percent for “serve and support country,” 7 percent for “vote,” 6 percent for “morality” and 5 percent each for “helping the next generation” and “freedom.”

  • In terms of gender, men were more likely than women to believe that opportunity for economic advancement is important to them and their families, while women were more likely to cite freedom of religion and health care as most important to them and their families.

  • In terms of ethnicity, African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to identify opportunity for economic advancement and right to pursue an education as important for them and their families, while whites said affordable health care and freedom of speech are most important.

    Survey Background

    The survey, conducted by StrategyOne, polled the 1,000-person sample base by telephone June 7-14.

    View the results of the 2002 History Survey

    Known worldwide as the nation’s largest living history museum, Colonial Williamsburg is celebrating its 75th Anniversary through 2002. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that operates the restored 18th-century capital of Virginia. It is located just 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information, call toll-free (800) HISTORY or visit the Colonial Williamsburg web site.

    Media Contact:
    Tim Andrews
    (757) 220-7265

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