The Declaration of Independence is our birth certificate and is commemorated on July 4. The Constitution, celebrated on Sept. 17, is our roadmap to maturity.
Our calendars are punctuated with holidays beginning with New Year’s Day and ending with Christmas. Between these bookends are holidays that remember Dr. King, Washington, Lincoln, Mother and Father, St. Patrick, veterans and so many more on the national level.
There is one day buried in the history books, and one suspects Hallmark does not print cards to commemorate it. It is not a holiday per se but one of commemoration: Constitution Day, which falls on Sept. 17. It was on this day in 1787 that the signing of the Constitution of the United States took place in the Pennsylvania State House, known to all as Independence Hall, in Philadelphia.
The Declaration of Independence is our birth certificate and is commemorated on July 4. The Constitution is our roadmap to maturity, detailing our inherent freedoms and the mechanics of a new government that has made us unique.
The preamble has been etched in stone and in the minds and hearts of all Americans: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union ... .” It is a union that has survived the tests of a Civil War and complex challenges that have destroyed many nations. It has endured, as every visitor to the Mall in Washington knows. At its heart and following the preamble are six articles with numerous sub-sections, each outlining the mechanics of this new government by putting into place its key parts — the Congress, the Executive and the Judiciary branches — each carefully balanced. The last, Article VII, instructs how the Constitution was to be ratified. However, the document was still incomplete and it took another four-and-a-half years of hard work and compromise.
The Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments, were added, ratified and made effective Dec. 15, 1791. In the coming two centuries, 17 additional amendments were added, the most recent in May 1992. While many Americans do not know the proper order of the Bill of Rights, the inherent freedoms itemized are in our DNA, our core beliefs. A day cannot pass without a reminder of how fundamental these are to our lives. It was America that universalized these ideals and continues to do so, what was once called “The March of Freedom” in civics classes.
It is in The Bill of Rights that we find the essence of what separated us from the British and the autocracies of late-18th century Europe and Russia. It is the magnet that attracted and continues to attract so many people to our shores. Each of the amendments is unique in its own right, but the First Amendment was placed first because it is the heart of a diverse democracy: the freedom of religion, speech, the press and the right of assembly, and to petition the government without fear.
The Constitution was the roadmap that has led us to the place where we are, a very diverse nation filled with so many voices, each knowing they have the right to be heard. It is for this reason the United States remains a beacon to the world with its doors open to newcomers. All look to the Constitution as a “living document.” What is enshrined in this document has held true in part due to the brevity of words. “We the People …” have enjoyed “the Blessings of Liberty” is the essence of the Constitution. Every day we have this affirmed when we talk on our cells, blog or walk down the street without fear. On Sept. 17, we take a moment to commemorate Constitution Day as we must and should, not with fireworks or cards, but by taking our hats off and saluting the founders and the Constitution.
Sander A. Diamond is a professor of history at Keuka College in Keuka Park, N.Y.