Last month the nation observed for the first time Constitution Day. Some school administrators confessed that they were not aware of recent legislation that requires all public schools and colleges to sponsor an annual program on the Constitution on or around Sept. 17, the date in 1787 when the Constitutional Congress signed the text that was submitted to the people in the 13 states for ratification. Today, when so much attention is focused on the attempt to develop a constitution for a divided Iraq, the citizens of the United States might ask themselves how well they understand their own constitution, the oldest written constitution in the world. How many Americans, old as well as young, are aware of the number of amendments to the Constitution? How many know that the 27th (and last) amendment to the Constitution stipulates that no law changing the compensation of Congress (presumably to give the members a raise) shall take effect until an election of Representatives shall have intervened?
The observance of Constitution Day in the nation’s schools could take the form of classroom discussion on two points: how the historic text with its preamble, seven articles and the first 10 amendments (the Bill of Rights) was formed, and what the Constitution means for the people of the United States today.
Students could be invited to notice that the ratification of the Constitution took some time and the Constitution did not take effect until March 4, 1789. That original document was by no means ideal, which is why it would be amended 27 times in later history. The original document, for example, allowed states to limit voting rights to white male property owners. Only in 1870, with the passage of the 15th Amendment, was racial discrimination in voting rights eliminated, and it was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment affirmed the right of women to vote.
Systematic study of the nation’s founding document, as part of the observance of Constitution Day, would also dismantle some widely held but historically unfounded myths about the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of a state religion, is sometimes called the most important amendment because it holds first place. As a matter of fact, however, the original Bill of Rights sent to the states contained 12 amendments, but the states failed to ratify the first two. Today’s First Amendment was actually listed third in the original Bill of Rights.
Observance of Constitution Day could also serve as a salutary reminder that the parchments on which the text of the Constitution was written, while they have been preserved, are not the authentic Constitution. According to the Preamble to the Constitution, We the people do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. In other words, today nearly 300 million Americans make the Constitution a reality by affirming and living within its parameters.
The most distinctive feature of this Constitution is its separation of sovereignty into three parts: one held by the states, one by the federal government and one reserved to the people. As a result, the national government cannot claim absolute authority. As we have seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Constitution provides for a sharing of authority between the states and the national government. The central government could not, for example, ban the reconstruction of the city of New Orleans.
Even without an act of Congress, changes can be brought about once enough people have changed their minds. Until 1954 public schools could be racially segregated, as long as the facilities provided for black students were judged equal to those provided for white students. By the 1940’s, however, segregation was losing support even in the 17 states that maintained biracial school systems. As a result, segregated schools were challenged in the courts; and in May 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court concluded, in a unanimous decision, that separated educational facilities are inherently unequal.
Last month The Washington Post described the observance of Constitution Day in the public schools of Falls Church, Va. In one classroom, when a teacher asked who were included in we the people, a fifth-grader replied: Us kids and pets. The answer was enthusiastic if inexact. Strictly speaking, We the people can include only those eligible to vote. But the union these citizens form includes every person, however young. The work of making that union more perfect, to use the words of the Preamble to the Constitution, is far from finished. The American proposition will always remain a promise still to be fulfilled, which is why the observance of Constitution Day is a sound idea.