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ASU professor discusses the history, importance of Constitution Day

Sept. 17 a national day to reflect on the impact of the original document, both its governing principles and its compromises

A circle of U.S. flags waving in the wind

Flags fly on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

September 17, 2019

In September 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention took the monumental step of signing the document they had drafted during the convention and which would become the Constitution of the United States. It would be sent to the 13 states for ratification, which was anything but certain. The signatures on that document were the final steps in the creation of a constitutional experiment that has informed and protected the democratic republican principles of the United States of America and set a pattern for emerging democracies around the world. 

Today, more than 200 years into this experiment, it is important to remember that although the U.S. enjoys a stable government, political liberty is fragile and requires attentiveness to continue. As part of a congressional mandate, every college and university that receives federal funding is required to hold an educational program in observance of Constitution Day, and the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University will host its third annual Constitution Day address at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17.

This year, for the 2019 Constitution Day address, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership hosts former federal judge and Stanford University School of Law Professor Michael McConnell as the school's third Constitution Day speaker. The topic of his address is “The President Who Would Not Be King.” McConnell’s lecture will discuss the struggle of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to create a single executive, a presidency that would have sufficient energy and authority to lead the nation effectively, but without creating an elective monarchy, which could potentially threaten the liberty of the people.

Question: What is the history of Constitution Day in the United States? 

Answer: Constitution Day honors the day, Sept. 17, 1787, that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the final time to sign the document they had written and which they were about to send out to the states for ratification. In 1952, Congress passed a joint resolution designating Sept. 17 as Citizenship Day, followed by another joint resolution in 1956 creating Constitution Week (Sept. 17-23). Then, in 2005, Congress consolidated these to create “Constitution Day,” to require states, counties, cities and towns to commemorate Constitution Day. 

In addition, by congressional mandate, colleges and universities receiving federal funding are required each year to hold an educational program in observance of Constitution Day.

Q: Why is it important for citizens to celebrate Constitution Day?

A: The official purpose of Constitution Day is to set aside a day for the instruction of citizens concerning their responsibilities and opportunities as citizens of the United States. Constitution Day provides an opportunity for institutions of higher education to take a day to engage the student body in discussion about the Constitution, or provisions of the Constitution.

The United States is governed by the rule of law, with the Constitution serving as the fundamental law of the land. It provides rules for the structure of our institutions of government, dividing power between the states and the federal government, and then among the three branches of government — Congress, the executive branch and the judiciary — and ensures the protection of our fundamental rights and freedoms — to freedom of speech, of belief, association, to own property, among others. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the compromises and flaws to be found in the original document that have had such an enormous impact on American history.   

Q: What should Americans be thinking about on Constitution Day? What should we do to commemorate the adoption of the U.S. Constitution? Why is this important today? 

A: Constitution Day provides an opportunity for Americans to reflect on the unique nature of the American Constitution. It represents a great experiment, as Alexander Hamilton tells us in the first of "The Federalist Papers," and poses the question whether “societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”  Were human beings capable of designing a government that would protect their rights and freedoms of the people and depend fundamentally on their ability to govern themselves? We are over 200 years into this constitutional experiment, but it is important to remember that while the United States enjoys a stable democratic republican government, political liberty is always fragile and requires study and attentiveness for it to endure.

Q: What should people know about Constitution Day and the U.S. Constitution that may be overlooked? 

A: Perhaps most important to remember is that we should read, teach and study the Constitution as a means to reminding ourselves that government dedicated to the protection of civil rights and liberties, derived from an understanding of human beings as fundamentally equal, is in the long history of the world a relatively new creation, and one that we should not take for granted. We should recall that the Constitution was written as a document with which to govern ourselves as free people. We often fail to live up to our principles, but the continued existence of the Constitution recalls us to those principles.

This article was written by Carol McNamara, associate director for public programs for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and a senior lecturer in the school, teaching ancient Greek political thought and leadership, politics and literature, and women in political thought.

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