Celebration of Constitution Day is September 17th

Sep 12th, 2013 | By admin | Category: Education

Most people think the U.S. Constitution was written immediately following the Revolutionary War.  There was a brief period between the end of the Revolutionary War and the writing of the Constitution call the “Experimental Period.”  The following list of events and times may be helpful:

April 19, 1775 First Battles at Lexington and Concord

July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence

October 1781 Final Battle at Yorktown

September 3, 1783 Treaty signed ending the war

May 1787 Constitutional Convention begins

The colonies were governed between 1781 and 1789 by a document call the Articles of Confederation.  This document provided a very weak and ineffectual national government.  There was no provision for a navy, no power to tax, representatives served one-year terms and voting was by states (one state-one vote).

In the early spring of 1787, a call went out for representatives to meet in Philadelphia for the purpose of strengthening the Articles of Confederation.  This group met in May.  After two weeks of discussion the group decided to scrap the Articles of Confederation and produce a new document.

From that decision to the meeting’s conclusion in September, there was a great deal of secrecy about what was happening.  The Founding Fathers were afraid the ordinary citizen would get excited if word spread that the government was being changed.  Most of the meetings were semi-secret and there was no press coverage.  Another example of this secrecy was the group hired a secretary but no official minutes were kept.

Considering there were no official minutes kept, we would not know much about the writing of the U.S. Constitution except for James Madison’s efforts.  George Washington is surely the “Father of our Country” and Benjamin Franklin is its “Grandfather”.  James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution”. Every afternoon when the Convention adjourned for the day, James Madison would go to his rental room and write down every detail he could remember about what had happened that day.  Madison’s notes survive today and are the only record of the day-to-day activities and discussions at the Constitutional Convention.

The greatest problem was rivalry among the states.  There were large and small states, slave and free states, and landed and landless states (referring to the amount of western land each state controlled).  The first compromise was to have two houses in Congress representing state and population.  This is called the “Great Compromise”. It was achieved through Madison’s efforts and set the tone for other compromises to follow.  Gradually other compromises were arranged and the document came together.

One point of great contention was the “Bill of Rights”.  Many proponents said it was needed because the common man wanted it included.  Madison argued against the “Bill of rights” saying it was not needed in a democracy and if a specific listing of rights was produced, some rights might be inadvertently left out. When Madison realized his arguments were not convincing anyone, he relented and wrote the “Bill of Rights” himself.  The final draft of the U.S. Constitution was approved on September 17, 1787 with Amendments one through ten comprising the “Bill of rights” which were ratified and added to the Constitution in 1791.

The only part of the process remaining was ratification by the states.  Three-fourths of the states had to ratify the document but everyone knew if the Constitution failed to pass in even one of the big four states (Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) the entire effort would fail.

The U.S. Constitution is the oldest constitution in the world and the shortest.  The framers of the constitution knew it was a framework or a skeleton of the government.  Many details would be added later.  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote a series of pamphlets called the “Federalist Papers” to explain how the new government would work.  This set of pamphlets was extraordinary and described perfectly the operation of the new government.  All states eventually ratified the U.S. Constitution although the vote was close in some areas.

Phil Petray

Assistant Professor

of History

ASU-Beebe

Footnote:

In 1952 President Harry S. Truman signed a bill that moved “I am an American Day” from the third Sunday in May to September 17 so that this holiday would coincide with the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.  Congress renamed the holiday “Citizenship Day”.  A joint resolution passed in 1956 requested the President to proclaim the week beginning September 17 and ending September 23 each year as “Constitution Week.”

Senator Robert C. Byrd (DWV) entered an amendment to the consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 that changed the name of the September 17 holiday to “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.”  The purpose of “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is to honor and celebrate the privileges and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship for both native-born and naturalized citizens, while commemorating the creation and signing of the law of our land.

The addition of the amendment, known as Public Law 108-477, requires all schools that receive federal funds hold an educational program for their students on or near September 17.