Constitution Day: Happy Birthday, America!

Constitution Day: Happy Birthday, America!
Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States on Sept. 17, 1787, depicted in a 1940 painting by Howard Chandler Christy. (Public domain)
Jeff Minick

No fireworks will light up the night sky. Few stores will offer special holiday discounts. Schools, government agencies, and businesses will remain open. Neighbors are unlikely to mark the occasion with backyard barbeques, and there will be no three-day weekends or quick vacations out of town.

In fact, many Americans may not even know that September 17 is Constitution Day.

On this day in 1787, the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution of the United States, establishing the national government and law that still exists today. Not until 2004, however, did Congress fully recognized September 17 as an official holiday, Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.

On the Fourth of July we celebrate the birth of American independence. On September 17 we celebrate the birth of our nation.

As for those who may have overlooked this holiday, here’s some good news: Constitution Day is followed by Constitution Week, which ends on September 23 and so leaves everyone plenty of time to jump into the festivities.
And here are some ways to do just that.

Read the Constitution

In elementary and secondary school, I took classes in American history three times. As a history major in college, I spent three semesters learning about our country’s past. In none of these courses did we actually read the U.S. Constitution. Only 20 years later, when I was teaching history to my children and to seminars of homeschooling students, did I study the most important document in our country’s history and ask my students to do the same.

If you’re intimidated about the time and effort this reading may take, consider that our Constitution is not only the oldest written constitution of any of the world’s major governments, at 4,400 words it is also the shortest. By comparison, the shortest U.S. state constitution belongs to Vermont, with 8,295 words.

Even reading the Constitution aloud takes less than an hour. If you want a narrator while you follow along in print, here’s an excellent online recording by former law professor David Currie.

A Deeper Dive

An abundance of resources explicating the Constitution are at our fingertips. Hillsdale College, for example, offers courses devoted to this key document of liberty along with a free pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. The National Constitution Center features helpful videos and curricula, and a treasure trove of other riches focused on this lynchpin of American liberty. With just a few quick online searches, you’ll find lots of other sites waiting to welcome you.
Those who prefer books to screens also have an abundant crop from which to choose. Search online for “books about the U.S. Constitution,” and scores of titles appear, some mere introductions to the Constitution, some long analyses, some written for historians and law students, some for a general audience. And if you’re looking for books suitable for the kids, just type in “children’s books about Constitution,” and once again a bushel basket of titles pops to the screen.
Of course, the granddaddy of all these resources is “The Federalist Papers.” In these essays, first published in newspapers under the collective pseudonym “Publius,” Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay sought to convince Americans of the value of the Constitution. Now considered an American classic, “The Federalist Papers” is available free online or in a hard copy from bookstores or your library.

Teaching Helps for School and Home

Every year on September 17, schools receiving federal funding are supposed to offer a program of their own design about the Constitution. Should September 17 fall on a weekend, as it does this year, they are advised to offer this program on another school day either the week before or the week after Constitution Day. Homeschools and private academies might follow their lead and devise a program of their own.
To help with this planning, teachers, parents, and students can find lots of tools. “Get Ready for Constitution Day” at, for example, provides abundant helps for teachers looking for ideas. Its “interactive Constitution” is suitable for young and old alike, and its list of resources and activities for grades K-12 is extensive, ranging from biographies and stories to music and videos. Moreover, links are provided to other valuable sites, from the Library of Congress to the State Bar of Michigan to Scholastic Lesson Plans.
Here, a heads up is in order: Given that the politics of our age have crept into so many facets of life and thought, users of these linked sites need to approach them with caution. You’ll find lots of assets at sites like, but you’ll also find some materials and links promoting a political or cultural agenda. No matter what your political persuasion, check out the sites and links before sharing them with the kids.

Having Some Fun

On some of these Constitution Day sites are ideas and suggestions that will engage hands-on learners while adding some fun to this holiday. You might, for instance, consider preparing a meal following recipes once enjoyed by the Founding Fathers. Invite relatives or friends to this feast, read together the Preamble to the Constitution, and perhaps some part of the Bill of Rights, and discuss the ideas they present.
If you’re in the mood for a movie, watch some films based on constitutional issues. Civic Nebraska’s “Movies for Constitution Day” provides an evenhanded mix, politically speaking, of movies ranging from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “The Candidate” to “The Patriot” and “Enemy of the State.”
Taking a virtual tour is also an excellent way to learn more about the Founders and the Constitution. Teachers, for example, can arrange for classes to take Old Philadelphia’s Constitutional Walking Tour, where they visit the places frequented by the men who put together the new country. The National Constitution Center includes a virtual tour of an exhibit of life-sized statues of the several of the signers, including James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, who presided over this assembly of delegates.
Constitution Day is also Citizenship Day. Now is a great time to take one of the practice tests given to immigrants seeking to become American citizens. If you miss some of the questions, no worries. You’re just learning more about our government and laws.

The Bedrock of Our Nation

The one-sentence Preamble to the Constitution lays out the reasons why a constitution was deemed necessary in the first place. Last in this list of reasons is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

This year’s Constitution Day marks the 236th anniversary of this document. Throughout all of those years with their wars, their domestic upheavals, their struggles to secure those blessings of liberties for all Americans regardless of race or creed, the Constitution has served as the foundation on which our country has grown and thrived. If we want to see the blessings of liberty envisioned by the Founders, we need only look around us.

So long as we know, honor, and cherish our Constitution, we will enjoy those “Blessings of Liberty” and pass them on to our own posterity. And in fact, if we pause and think about it, every day for those of us who are citizens of the United States is Constitution Day.

Happy Birthday, America!

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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