Constitution Day

221 years ago, a time when many people in the United States were in debt and states were printing worthless money, the new nation was in crisis. A loose confederacy of States rather than a Federal State, it was a time to unite as one nation in order to survive. Beginning in May of 1787, 55 delegates from 12 of the original 13 states (Rhode Island sent no delegates not wanting the national government to interfere with its affairs) began to gather in Philadelphia to attend the Constitutional Convention. Debate focused on issues that remain part of our current national debate: the meaning of a “national” government as states wanted to retain their sovereignty; the representation of small states and large states in the national government; individual rights versus state rights; and the powers of the head of government. Different plans were proposed. The Virginia Plan, the Large State Plan, called for a bicameral Congress, both houses to be elected with proportional representation. The New Jersey Plan, the Small State Plan, called for one vote per state for equal representation in a Unicameral Legislature. The Connecticut Plan or the “Great Compromise” was the agreement between large and small states that resolved the debate. The Great Compromise also dealt with commerce, taxation and slavery, issues that divided the states in the North and the South. It also addressed nationality requirements and provisions for amending and ratifying the Constitution. Despite lengthy debate, the new Constitution had no Bill of Rights. After four months of debate, on September 17, 1787, the Constitution was finally finished and made public. Only 42 delegates were still present at the convention when it was finished and 39 of them signed the Constitution.

In 2005, Congress passed and the President signed Public Law 108-447 to establish Constitution Day. Section 111(a) of that law reads:

The head of each Federal agency or department shall—
(1) provide each new employee of the agency or department with educational and training materials concerning the United States Constitution as part of the orientation materials provided to the new employee; and

(2) provide educational and training materials concerning the United States Constitution to each employee of the agency or department on September 17 of each year.
(b) Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution.

Following the law’s passage, the Education Department issued a “Notice of Implementation of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day on September 17 of Each Year,” 70 Fed. Reg. 29727 (May 24, 2005). The notice applies to educational institutions receiving federal funding from the Department of Education. Today’s Proclamation by the President about Constitution Day reminds us “celebrate our Constitution and reaffirm our rights and responsibilities as citizens of this great Nation”.

The debates from the 1787 Constitutional Convention may appear to be historic abstractions. Yet those same issues live on today when once again the nation is in debt, the money being printed continues to lose value, large population centers are at odds with small towns, and unchecked powers are concentrated in a unitary executive. Constitution Day needs to be more than a symbolic gesture to history. It is an opportunity to debate a broad range of contemporary issues that call for great compromise. The CQ Researcher offers some suggestions:

Is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act constitutional? (2002, 1st Amendment/Freedom of Speech)
Is the government misusing the USA Patriot Act? (2003, 4th Amendment/Search and Seizure)
Should there be a national moratorium on executions? (2001, 8th Amendment/Cruel and Unusual Punishment)
Should Congress ban so-called partial-birth abortions? (2003, 14th and 9th Amendments)
Should public libraries use filters to block obscenity and pornography on the Internet? (2001, 1st Amendment/Freedom of Speech)
Should the federal government fund faith-based groups as proposed by President Bush? (2001, 1st Amendment/Religion: Establishment Clause)
Should colleges be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions? (2003, 14th Amendment)
Should gay marriage by legally recognized? (2003, Article IV/Privileges and Immunities Clause)
Did the president act responsibly in seeking authority to pre-emptively strike Iraq? (2002, Article I/War Power)