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Constitution Day in the United States

Richard Albert, Boston College Law School

Every year on this day, the United States commemorates the signing of the Constitution in 1787. The Library of Congress traces the origins of what is today known as “Constitution Day”:

Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is observed each year on September 17 to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”

This commemoration had its origin in 1940, when Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing and requesting the President to issue annually a proclamation setting aside the third Sunday in May for the public recognition of all who had attained the status of American citizenship.  The designation for this day was “I Am An American Day.”

In 1952 Congress repealed this joint resolution and passed a new law moving the date to September 17 to commemorate “the formation and signing, on September 17, 1787, of the Constitution of the United States.” The day was still designated as “Citizenship Day” and retained its original purpose of recognizing all those who had attained American citizenship. This law urged civil and educational authorities of states, counties, cities and towns to make plans for the proper observance of the day and “for the complete instruction of citizens in their responsibilities and opportunities as citizens of the United States and of the State and locality in which they reside.”

In 2004 under Senator Byrd’s urging, Congress changed the designation of this day to “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” and added two new requirements in the commemoration of this Day. The first is that the head of every federal agency provide each employee with educational and training materials concerning the Constitution on September 17th. The second is that each educational institution which receives Federal funds should hold a program for students every September 17th.

The National Archives has published a list of resources for teachers and students to observe Constitution Day. The list is available here.

The National Constitutional Center will live-stream a number of Constitution Day events on its website today. Two of the events feature United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. The live streams are available here.

It is also worth noting that the United States has a long history of state constitutions, a history that predates the United States Constitution, and even the Articles of Confederation. In recognition of this rich history and in observance of Constitution Day, Oxford University Press has published an interactive quiz on state constitutions. The quiz, which is short but informative, is available here.

Finally, on this Constitution Day, let me also recommend the remarks of Thurgood Marshall on the occasion of the bicentennial of the United States Constitution in 1987. Justice Marshall sat on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1967 to 1991. Below, I excerpt part of Justice Marshall’s remarks:

The focus of this celebration invites a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the “more perfect Union” it is said we now enjoy.

I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.

There is a lot to contemplate on this day. Whatever we might say about the founding text and period, however, it is difficult to deny what Akhil Amar has described as “the democratizing trendline” in the United States since 1787.

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Published on September 17, 2015
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