September 17 is Constitution Day, a day set aside by the United States government to celebrate the supreme law of the land.
Establishing the Holiday
Constitution Day was first observed in schools in Iowa in 1911. As citizens recognized the value of learning about the Constitution and its history, the celebration spread across the nation, each state observing it individually.
In 1953, the United States Congress set up a new holiday on September 17, the day on which the Constitution was signed (or the nearest available weekday if the 17th happens to fall on a weekend). Known as Citizenship Day, this observance was intended to celebrate all American citizens, whether born on our shores or naturalized. The whole week of Citizenship Day became Constitution Week.
Citizenship Day became “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” in 2004 thanks to a measure proposed by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Writing the Constitution
The Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation, the first document establishing the government of the United States of America. The Articles were ratified in 1781, and it only took a few years to discover their serious shortcomings. The most pressing problem was a lack of money to pay national debts, since none of the states paid their full share of taxes, and a few opted to pay no taxes at all. The other major difficulty was legislative mayhem as the states quarreled over land, imposed trade restrictions on each other, raised their own armies, and flagrantly violated the Treaty of Paris, which offered protection to Americans who had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War.
As Americans increasingly agreed that something had to be done, Congress called for a convention to meet at Philadelphia on May 14, 1787. This convention was to meet for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”
But when a quorum of delegates finally trickled into the Pennsylvania State House (the Independence Hall of Revolutionary War fame), they found that the delegation from Virginia had already come up with a different plan—writing a whole new constitution. Business began on May 25 with a vote on and acceptance of a rule that pledged all delegates to secrecy, for the purpose of “requisite freedom of discussion,” according to James Madison. George Washington was unanimously elected chairman of the convention, and the preliminaries were finished.
On May 29, Edmund Randolph revealed the Virginia Plan. Not only would this plan replace the Articles of Confederation with a new document, the government that it outlined would differ radically from its predecessor:
- No longer would the states have equal representation in Congress.
- A consolidated federal government would be established with representation based strictly on population.
- The legislative branch would have two houses, the first chosen directly by the people and the second by the first.
- Both houses together would have the power to fill the executive and judicial branches.
The Virginia Plan would put states with fewer residents at a distinctive disadvantage in the new government, but many small-state delegates were willing to compromise to make the plan more equitable. One of the suggestions was to modify the second house of Congress to provide equal representation for all of the states.
The Virginia delegation refused to accept this proposal, and the small states retaliated with the New Jersey Plan, which simply amended the Articles of Confederation as the convention had originally been instructed to do. Amendments included giving Congress the power to enforce its requests for tax money and adding a provision for the regulation of interstate commerce.
Gridlock ensued. The most important issue to be resolved was the conflict between large states and small states, but there were other points of dispute. Compromises had to be made between those who demanded a strong federal government and those who feared its dangers, as well as between delegates with differing opinions on how taxes, trade, and slavery should be regulated. The rule of secrecy has left history with little record of the debates, but they must have been heated and painful if Washington could write that he did “repent having had any agency in the business.”
With the Great Compromise matters finally moved forward, large-state delegates accepting the original offer of a Senate providing for equal representation of each state. In addition, the three branches of government had to be carefully balanced to prevent or at least reduce the corruption feared by the opponents of a powerful central government.
On July 24, the Committee of Detail set to work drafting the Virginia Plan with its compromises and revisions into a new constitution. Then came over a month of painstakingly dissecting the document and debating the implications of every detail. Benjamin Franklin as he penned his signature could only say, “I expect no better.”
Ratifying the Constitution
When Congress received a copy of the Constitution, it passed the matter along to the states to be ratified according to the procedure outlined in Article VII of the new document. The Constitution was not treated as merely an amended form of the Articles of Confederation in that amendments had to be ratified by all 13 states before they went into effect. Ratification of the Constitution required only a two-thirds majority—nine states!
Realizing the full import of the decision lying before the Americans, writers hastened to bring logical arguments both for and against the Constitution into print. Federalist authors pointed out that the Articles of Confederation were terribly insufficient for the young nation’s needs and that a strong federal government was necessary to defend the country’s interests, both in defense and economic matters. Anti-federalists observed that the convention had exceeded the bounds set for it by Congress and that few safeguards had been put into place to protect citizens from the encroachments of a centralized power. Many of these written debates were unorganized, simply carried on by interested citizens via newspapers and private correspondence. However, a more concerted effort was carried out in Virginia and New York with the collaboration of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in a series of essays known as The Federalist Papers.
As the state ratifying conventions ground along, one of the Anti-federalist ideas took strong hold among many of the dissenters. This was the idea of a bill of rights, a wall between the citizen and the federal government to protect the former from corruption of the latter. During the debates at the state conventions, leading Federalists quickly saw that this final compromise would be necessary to ensure ratification. Accordingly, they assured the people that a bill of rights would be added as soon as the Constitution was ratified and the new government in place. Some were at first suspicious of the offer to amend the Constitution after it was already in effect, but on the whole the promise placated those who were still on the fence.
By June 21, 1788, South Carolina became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. Virginia and New York added their votes a few days later, leaving only North Carolina and Rhode Island outside of the new national government for the time being. The First Congress under the Constitution began on March 4, 1789, and was promptly inundated with well over a hundred proposals for the new bill of rights. It took time to condense the many ideas into a form that concisely summarized all that a free people held dear and that promised the states a level of autonomy in their own affairs. A set of proposed amendments went to the states for approval on September 25, 1789. Ten were ratified and added to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.
A Unique Document
The Constitution is one of the most unique documents of its kind that the world has ever seen. It is the oldest written constitution still in effect today, and is also the shortest — even with the 27 amendments that have been added to it since September 17, 1787.
Article VI of the Constitution declares:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land….
The Constitution, therefore, has a profound impact on the lives of all Americans:
- Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are obligated to make laws for carrying out the Constitution.
- The President swears an oath to preserve, protect, and defend it.
- The Supreme Court establishes the precedent which interprets it.
It was this impact, as well as the rich heritage of freedom which Americans have enjoyed since the ratification of the Constitution, that inspired the creation of Constitution Day, a day to celebrate the signing and learn more about this unique document.
The U.S. Constitution
Great summary from the History Channel.
Constitution of the United States
Read the transcript or download the image.
Introduction to the Constitutional Convention
Summary of events at TeachingAmericanHistory.org.
The Constitutional Convention as a Four Act Drama
Details on the events mentioned in our summary.
Day-by-Day Summary of the Convention
Excellent timeline at TeachingAmericanHistory.org.
Individual Biographies of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention
Brief facts about those who crafted the Constitution.
Timeline of the United States Constitution
Ratification and amendments at EnchantedLearning.com.
The United States Constitution
Listen to a reading of the Constitution.
Centuries of Citizenship
Interactive timeline from the National Constitution Center.
Interactive for kids from The Dirksen Congressional Center that helps them learn more about the Constitution.
Which Founder Are You?
Interactive from the National Constitution Center where students determine which founder they are most like.
Five different treasure hunt downloads to learn more about the Constitution.
See how many of the questions you can get right!
Great interactive quiz at ConstitutionFacts.com for wrapping up or review.
A More Perfect Union by Betsy Maestro
An accurate historical summary of how our Constitution was framed along with a timeline and summary of the Articles.
We the People: The Story of Our Constitution by Lynne Cheney
Beautifully illustrated retelling from the author of America: A Patriotic Primer, covering the issues that were addressed in the forming of the Constitution.
Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution by Jean Fritz
We have really enjoyed using the Jean Fritz series of books as an introductory starting place to a topic. This one is illustrated by Tomie dePaola.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Constitution Day Lessons
Free interactive lessons by grade from K12.
Lesson Idea: Constitution Day
Great lesson plan from C-Span Classroom that includes a documentary featuring an interview with Chief Justice Roberts.
Twenty-three lesson plans (at the time of this writing) from the Center for Civic Education aimed at grades K–12. Nicely done, colorful downloads that cover the Constitution, electing those in authority, amendments, and more. Favorites include “What Basic Ideas Are in the Preamble to the Constitution?” and “To Amend or Not to Amend, That’s Been the Question…Many Times.”
The Significance of Federalist No. 1 eLesson
Lesson plan where older students read excerpts and answer essay questions.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Download of the full text from the National Constitution Center.
Make Your Own U.S. Constitution Booklet
Free download and foldable at ConstitutionBooklet.com.
10 Fun Facts About the Constitution and Constitution Day
Color infographic to download for notebook from the National Constitution Center.
U.S. Constitution Lapbook
Free download from HomeschoolHelperOnline.com.
Preamble to the Constitution Copywork
Free download from CyncesPlace.com.
Constitution Day Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.