Sept. 17 is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, a day on which we commemorate the signing of the Constitution in 1787 and also recognize all who have become citizens.
To learn more about this day, we asked Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center, about the origins and significance of the day and what the Constitution tells us about our duties as citizens.
On Sept. 17, 41 of the original 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were present to sign the new Constitution. The session began with William Jackson — the Convention’s secretary — reading the Constitution’s full text before Benjamin Franklin gave a final speech.
Too frail to get up from his chair, Franklin told the delegates that “in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue,” he had often looked at the sun on the back of the president’s chair. For much of the convention, he did not know whether it was rising or setting. He could now announce that “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the Constitution — officially ratifying it under Article VII. The First Congress met under the new Constitution on March 4, 1789.
In 2004, an amendment to an Omnibus Spending Bill designated Sept. 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.
Under the 2004 amendments, the holiday’s purpose is to “commemorate the formation and signing on September 17, 1787, of the Constitution and recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.” The act gives the president power to issue a proclamation each year to call on government officials to display the American flag on all government buildings and to invite the American people to observe Constitution Day and Citizenship Day in schools, churches, and “other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies.” Finally, states and localities are “urged to make plans for the proper observance of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” by instructing citizens of their responsibilities and opportunities as American citizens. The amendments also call on the heads of federal agencies and departments to provide new employees with education and training materials concerning the Constitution. In May 2005, the Department of Education — operating under the amendments — instructed all educational institutions receiving federal funds to hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on Sept. 17.
The National Constitution Center was created by the Constitution Heritage Act — which was approved on Sept. 16, 1988, and signed by President Ronald Reagan; and the center’s groundbreaking ceremony occurred on Sept. 17, 2000.
In May 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt approved a joint resolution of Congress to designate the third Sunday of May as Citizenship Day. The purpose of the act was to “give recognition to all those who, by coming of age or naturalization, have attained the status of citizenship.” In 1952, Congress moved Citizenship Day to Sept. 17.
The original Constitution says little about our rights and responsibilities as citizens. In 1787, state citizenship — not national citizenship — remained the primary source of rights and responsibilities. Certainly, Anti-Federalists were particularly vocal about this construction of republican citizenship. The shift towards the primacy of national citizenship is seen most clearly following the Civil War and Reconstruction — and articulated under the principles of the 14th Amendment, which declares that “all persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
Otherwise, the only other mentions of responsibilities come under the Constitution’s preamble, which says, “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.” This powerful text advances the founders’ vision of a new national government rooted in popular sovereignty. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass often cited the preamble alongside the Declaration of Independence to suggest that citizens as well as the government had a duty to make their ideals a reality.
As for rights, the original Constitution explicitly denies Congress the power to violate certain rights. For example, the suspension clause of Article I says “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” James Madison originally opposed the addition of a Bill of Rights on the grounds that enumerating rights would be unnecessary or dangerous. Unnecessary because the Constitution itself was a bill of rights — by granting Congress only limited powers, he insisted, the convention was at the same time denying Congress the power to infringe the people’s rights, which were enumerated in state constitutions. And Madison added that a federal enumeration of rights might be dangerous because it might wrongly suggest that if a right was not enumerated, it was also unprotected. In the face of objections from Anti-Federalists, and demands for amendments by state ratifying conventions, Madison changed his mind and proposed the Bill of Rights. It includes the Ninth Amendment, which says, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
The original Constitution primarily left the question of naturalized citizenship and immigration to Congress. For example, Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power to create a uniform rule of naturalization. John Bingham, the primary author of the 14th Amendment, looked to the English common law of “birthright citizenship” in reversing the infamous Dred Scott decision and declaring that all persons born in the United States were citizens of the United States.
The Civil War and Reconstruction amendments made explicit in the Constitution what founder James Wilson had insisted at the Constitutional Convention — that “We the People of the United States,” not we the people of the several states, are sovereign. This transformed the antebellum expectation of a small government and state citizenship towards the primacy of federal power and national citizenship. With this shift came the expectation that the national government was the primary guarantor of rights, and congressional acts in 1866 and 1875 made the federal courts, not the state courts, the primary vehicle for protecting rights under the U.S. Constitution.
To learn more about the Constitution, visit the National Constitution’s Center’s resource the Interactive Constitution.
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