“A free government is a complicated piece of machinery, the nice and exact adjustment of whose springs, wheels, and weights, is not yet well comprehended by the artists of the age, and still less by the people.”
— John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, May 19, 1821
You know Independence Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and, perhaps, Flag Day. But are you familiar with Constitution Day? Not quite a holiday (no one gets the day off work or school), it is a federally recognized observance of the day when the United States Constitution was adopted on Sept. 17, 1787. Technically “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” Congress formally established the official “holiday” in 2004. That act also mandated that all public schools that receive federal funds include educational programming on the history of the Constitution on that day.
So how much do you know about the Constitution?
The most important document in the United States, the Constitution established the American government and lays out our freedoms as Americans. Since its adoption in 1787, it has been the basis of many other democracies around the world. The Constitution is also called a “living document” because it has the ability to grow and change as the American people grow and change.
The Constitution is the supreme law of the country, and it sets out the separation of powers and the authority of each branch of our government. It ensures the rights of citizens, defines the relationship between the states and the federal government, and provides a method for amendments to its content when necessary.
It’s important that every American understands the Constitution. No matter what perspective a person takes on government and American law, the Constitution is the framework for any deliberation on today’s issues.
The roots of Constitution Day go back more than 100 years, when schools in Iowa first celebrated Constitution Day. The obvious connection with citizenship traces its roots back to the 1930s when newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst began promoting the idea of an “I am an American Day” at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.
Besides recognizing the Constitution, Sept. 17 is set aside to celebrate American citizenship. Around the country, thousands of people from other lands annually participate in naturalization ceremonies marking their oath of allegiance to the U.S. and their first day as new citizens.
There’s lots of material available that allows parents to explore the Constitution with their kids. From Scholastic to the National Archives, websites are filled with puzzles, games, activities and lesson plans that help anyone understand their rights and responsibilities under the Constitution.
One thing we suggest you do this year is to read the opening paragraph of the Constitution together with your children. Called the preamble, the opening words clearly state the authority and purpose of this most important document.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The full text of the constitution is available here as well as many other places on the Internet.
The National Archives offers a lesson plan that asks questions related to six big ideas in the Constitution. Maybe after asking your children what they did in school today, you can follow up with one of these questions: What should be the role of citizens in creating public policy? Or, how should power be divided between the federal government and the states?
Learn more about the United States Constitution:
- Visit the National Archives: Teaching with Documents Six big ideas in the Constitution
- Constitution Workshop
- Constitution Facts
- From Shmoop: we speak student www.shmoop.com/constitutional-convention
- PBS NewsHour Extra has useful material geared toward middle and high school students
- The New York State Bar Association has several related resources.
- From Scholastic: Celebrate Constitution Day
- From Congress For Kids: What does it take to become a U.S. citizen?