What Is Constitution Day?

So what is Constitution Day?

Constitution Day became a national observance in 2004, when Senator Robert Byrd passed a bill designating September 17 as the day for citizens to commemorate the signing of the US Constitution.


But why September 17?

More Constitution Fun Facts

  • "We the People" was a late change to the Constitution. The iconic opening line was not in early drafts of the document.
  • The youngest signer of the Constitution was Jonathan Dayton, 26, of NJ. The oldest signer was Benjamin Franklin, 81.
  • Some big names were missing from the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson was in Paris and Adams was in Great Britain.

On that date in 1787, the Founding Fathers signed the most influential document in American history: the United States Constitution. This document established the framework of our government and the rights and freedoms that “We the People” enjoy today. The signing was the culmination of many months of seclusion and debate for the Founders. The Constitutional Convention began on May 25, 1787, when a small group of delegates gathered in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House (today known as Independence Hall). George Washington was elected president of the convention, but not without personal hesitation. But in the end, his love of country won out, because Washington very much wanted his new nation to succeed. “To see this country happy . . . is so much the wish of my soul,” he wrote.

Over the course of the next four months, the Founding Fathers (55 in total) debated. Delegates hailing from all the original states except Rhode Island gathered in the Pennsylvania State House in 1787 to participate in the Constitutional Convention. Many of the delegates had fought in the American Revolution and about three-fourths had served in Congress. The average age was 42.

Some of the most heated discussions were around the makeup and election of the Senate — how would the new government make sure that each state had a fair say? Should the Southern states include enslaved people in their population counts? Should the new government divide the executive power (the presidency) among three people or keep it with just one person? How would the president be chosen, how long should his or her term be, and should he or she be able to serve more than once? For what reasons could the legislative branch impeach a government official? There was also plenty of discussion about how to deal with enslaved people that had run away, as well as whether to abolish the slave trade (something that they chose not to come to a final conclusion on, leaving the word “slavery” out of the Constitution entirely). 

In the end, 38 men signed the Constitution (interestingly, there are 39 names on the Constitution itself — John Dickinson, representing Delaware, approved the Constitution, but couldn’t attend the signing, so George Read signed in his stead). Signing the Constitution did not make it law. It had to be sent to the states to be ratified. That wouldn’t finally happen until June 21, 1788 — but that’s a story for another post!

Kerry Sautner is Vice President of Visitor Experience and Education at the National Constitution Center. Admission to the center's Constitution Day festivities on Sept. 17 are FREE, courtesy of the PNC Foundation. While there, learn more about the Founding Fathers, participate in the Preamble Challenge, take the Which Founder Are You quiz, see if you could pass a naturalization test and download free lesson plans, activities and the Pocket Constitution iPhone app. You can also view a new episode of the center's Web-based video series, Constitution Hall Pass, and join in a live Web chat through Sept. 23.

Categories: MK Memo