Constitution Day: A Short Refresher Course

If you’ve been in school anytime since 2004, chances are you’ve seen a Constitution Day or two. However, not many schools, while celebrating the date the Constitution was signed in 1787, explain how this observance, which recognizes not only the adoption of the Constitution, but also those who have become U.S. citizens, came to be. Pay attention, there may be a quiz.

So, let’s go back and start at the beginning. From May to September 1787, the Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia, with George Washington unanimously elected to preside. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, was considered the father of the Constitution, because he was a key factor in drafting the document and pushing for a Bill of Rights to be added (which it was — three years after the ratification of the Constitution). Thirty-eight men signed the Constitution out of the forty-one present; Thomas Jefferson was absent, as he was in France serving as a U. S. minister.

Madison was the only member of the Constitutional Convention to attend every meeting and he kept a detailed journal. The journal, which was a secret until his death, was purchased in 1837 by the U.S. government for $30,000 (about $766,000 in 2015 dollars) and then published in 1840.

The Constitution was signed in 1787, but wasn’t ratified until all of the required nine states (out of a total of 13 states) approved. Rhode Island boycotted the ratification, liking its independence, and was the last state to ratify. In 1791, James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments — and it was ratified on December 15 of that year.

In 1917, the Sons of the American Revolution formed a committee to promote what would later be called Constitution Day. On February 29, 1952, Congress moved what was called I am an American Day to September 17 as well, and called it Citizenship Day.

In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd attached a rider to the Omnibus spending bill that he brought in front of Congress, which renamed the September 17 American federal observance Constitution and Citizenship Day and mandated that publicly-funded schools and colleges provide lessons on the history of the American Constitution on that day.

In 1952, when Congress was busy moving and renaming I am an American Day, a woman named Olga T. Weber from Lousiville, Ohio wrote a petition to have municipal officials in the town establish Constitution Day in honor of the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. The mayor, Gerald A. Romary, proclaimed September 17, 1952 as Constitution Day. Weber, in April 1953, requested a statewide Constitution Day by petitioning the Ohio General Assembly. Governor Frank J. Lausche signed her request into law. Olga Weber didn’t stop there; in August of that year, she approached the Senate with a petition to go nationwide. The Senate passed a resolution, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, when approached with this petition, signed it into law.

On April 5, 1957, Louisville, Ohio declared itself “Constitution Town,” and the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society later donated a historical marker for each of the four main entrances into the city. The markers told visitors about Louisville’s role in the history of Constitution Day.

Did you get everything? Head over and take the Washington Post’s Constitution Day Quiz and see how well you paid attention. Here’s a hint: some answers can be found here!