Constitution Day Launches Push for More American History Lessons

For President Bush, Tuesday's 215th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution offered an occasion to celebrate American history and to lament what he called "large and disturbing gaps" in students' knowledge of it.

"Graduating seniors at some of our leading colleges and universities cannot correctly identify words from the Gettysburg Address, or do not know that James Madison is the father of the Constitution."

Bush also cited recent studies showing nearly one in five high school seniors think America fought alongside, not against, Germany in World War II, and nearly one-third of eighth-graders can't say why the Civil War was fought.

That is probably not what the founding fathers hoped for, but something Congress perhaps hoped to prevent when it passed a joint resolution in 1952 designating Sept. 17 as Citizenship Day in commemoration of the signing of the U.S. Constitution and in recognition of all who by birth or naturalization have attained citizenship, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Later, by joint resolution in August 1956, Congress designated the week beginning Sept. 17 as Constitution week. The Constitution was adopted on Sept. 17, 1787.

Under that backdrop, the president showcased one other statistic -- that one-third of fourth-graders do not know what it means to "pledge allegiance to the flag."

Hours later, Bush led a nationwide recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from Tennessee.

The annual event was held for the first time since a California appeals court ruled that including the words "under God" in the pledge violates the Constitution.

The president proudly pronounced the words, again aligning himself with venerated symbols like the flag and the pledge itself.

"This pledge takes on special meaning in a time of war. Our enemies hate these words. They want to erase them," he said in a speech to students.

While in Tennessee, Bush snuck in an appearance at a million-dollar fundraiser for Senate candidate Lamar Alexander, reinforcing another reality of modern-day civics, the high cost of campaigning for office.

But back at the vice president's residence, Revolutionary and Civil War heroes rubbed elbows with the vice president's wife, Lynne Cheney. There she told students: "The most important words in the Constitution are the first words and they say 'We, the people.'"

All part of a White House drive to foster a deeper appreciation of American history, the administration is taking extra steps, including launching an initiative by the National Endowment for the Humanities called "We, the People" to encourage the teaching, studying and understanding of American history and culture.

The goal is something first lady Laura Bush, speaking at an earlier event and quoting one of her favorite authors, suggested can be accomplished.

"In the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, 'If enough people think of a thing and work hard enough at it, I guess it's pretty nearly bound to happen, wind and weather permitting.'"

In campaigning for education reform last year, the president focused on reading and math scores as ways to measure whether schools and students are succeeding or failing. This new initiative suggests the president now considers knowledge of American history as a third frontier at which the nation must make sure to leave no child behind.

Fox News' James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.