It’s not the 4th of July with fireworks, picnics and pie-eating contests, but it is a significant milestone in the journey of the American Experiment — and a day to honor — Sept. 17 is designated as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day to commemorate the signing of the Constitution in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787.
The original states, except Rhode Island, collectively appointed 70 individuals to the Constitutional Convention. You may be surprised to learn that a number of these individuals did not accept or could not attend including well-known patriots: Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
In all, 55 delegates attended the Constitutional Convention sessions, but only 39 actually signed the Constitution. The delegates ranged in age from Jonathan Dayton, aged 26, to Benjamin Franklin, aged 81, who was so infirm that he had to be carried to sessions in a sedan chair.
The Constitution galvanized the original states to stand together, uniting states with different interests, laws, and cultures. Under America’s first national government, the Articles of Confederation, the states acted together only for specific purposes. The Constitution united its citizens as members of a whole, vesting the power of the union in the people. Without it, the American Experiment might have ended as quickly as it had begun, according to the National Archives website.
The Constitution is a Living Document
The Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, was the colonies’ formal declaration of independence from Great Britain. It proclaimed the foundational principles, which we cherish, and for which we fought the American Revolution, including the equality of all men, their empowerment with certain basic rights, and the right of a people to overthrow a repressive government.
These same ideals and principles would later guide the writing of the Constitution. See how much you can remember from your American History classes. The timeline below from a Defense Department dedicated website shows a brief history of how our Constitution came to be and how it has evolved over time.
1781 – Articles of Confederation
Early on, the former colonies realized that they needed to unite in order to beat Britain. So, in 1777 at the Second Continental Congress, they drafted the Articles of Confederation, which defined their relationships. The Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781 and became the first governing framework of the United States of America.
1783 – Treaty of Paris
The Revolutionary War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The states now formed a new nation.
1787 – Constitutional Convention
The Articles of Confederation gave most of the power to the states, so the central government was weak and ineffective. It could not muster troops or raise taxes. In order to enact laws, the government needed the cooperation of the states, which was often lacking. Frustrated by the lack of progress, by the spring of 1787, Congress realized that it had to do something to make the government more effective. So, the members of Congress convened in Philadelphia to update the Articles of Confederation. Ultimately, they created a new Constitution, which they signed on September 17th, 1787.
1788 – Constitution Ratified
After the Constitution was signed, it went to the states for ratification. Although debate raged between those who supported the Constitution and those who did not, nine of the 13 states had approved ratification by June 1788, and the new Constitution went into effect. By the end of 1788, all but two states had voted for ratification.
1795 – 1992 – Amendments Added
A key weakness of the Articles of Confederation was that they were difficult to amend, which hindered the new government from addressing problems and correcting mistakes. Determined not to repeat this error, the Founding Fathers ensured that the new Constitution could be amended. It has been amended 17 times since the Bill of Rights to address a wide range of issues that our nation has faced.
1791 – Bill of Rights Added
The major arguments against the Constitution were that it gave too much power to the central government, and did not go far enough in protecting individual rights. To resolve these shortcomings, the new government added a Bill of Rights via the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.
1787 – Constitution Signed
On September 17, 1787, our Founding Fathers signed the Constitution, which consisted of seven articles that:
-Established the three branches of government and assigned power to them.
-Defined the relationships among the states.
-Provided a means for changing the Constitution via amendments.
-Established the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.
-Described how the Constitution could be ratified.
1791 – Bill of Rights
In 1791, a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in the form of the first 10 amendments; they listed rights guaranteed to the states and individuals. The addition of the Bill of Rights addressed concerns that the federal government might infringe on presumed but not specified rights.
1868 – XIV
The Fourteenth Amendment gave U. S. citizenship to the freed slaves and promised them equal protection under the law.
1870 – XV
The Fifteenth Amendment extended voting rights to black men by barring the federal or state governments from denying the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
1913 – XVII
The Seventeenth Amendment gave citizens the right to directly elect their senators, instead of having state legislature appoint them.
1920 – XIX
The Nineteenth Amendment extended voting rights to women by barring the federal or state governments from denying the right to vote based on sex.
1961 – XXIII
The Twenty-Third Amendment gave residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections.
1964 – XXIV
The Twenty-Fourth Amendment prohibited the poll tax, which had been used to discourage low-income and minority voters from voting.
1971 – XXVI
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
History of Constitution Day
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 by coming of age or by naturalization. The designation for this day was “I Am An American Day,” according to the Library of Congress website.
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 Robert 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 Sept. 17. The second is that each educational institution which receives federal funds should hold a program for students every Sept. 17.
Did you know that all federal employees take an oath to “support and defend” the Constitution?
The Constitution Still Matters Today
Our forefathers knew that the Constitution would have to change over time to address issues that they could not yet imagine. So, they built in a process for amending it. Over the years, 27 amendments to the Constitution have expanded the definition of citizenship and improved the way the American government works, making the Constitution a living document that remains relevant today.
All four pages of the Constitution are on permanent display at the National Archives. For a biographical index of the Framers of the Constitution, visit https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/founding-fathers.
The Preamble of Constitution of the United States
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.