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Opinion: Is the Constitution still worth celebrating?

With issues of slavery and modern relevance — why should we be commemorating this 235-year-old document?

SHARE Opinion: Is the Constitution still worth celebrating?
The Constitution written out in calligraphy on old paper and partly obscured by an American flag.

The United States Constitution was made the law of the land on June 21, 1788. September 17 is Constitution Day, marking the date when the document was signed and sent out for ratification.

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If you have school-aged children, they may come home this week and report they were taught about the United States Constitution. Possibly they heard a commemorative announcement about the 235th anniversary of that venerable document, the oldest written constitution in the world. After all, Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, commemorating the date in 1787 when the Framers of the U.S.Constitution signed the newly written constitution and sent it out to the 13 states to be ratified. 

With debates raging on the merits of the Constitution — from its connection to slavery, to its relevancy today — some may ask, why commemorate the Constitution at all? What exactly are we celebrating on Constitution Day?

While this article offers neither the time, nor the space, to address the Constitution’s merits (and they are many), we can offer at least two fundamentally important reasons: the Constitution is living proof that we can overcome sharp political divisions and that we can move towards that “more perfect union” the Constitution aspires to create. 

Many Americans are familiar with the compromises that were made to get the Constitution written in the summer of 1787. The most famous is the Connecticut, or Great Compromise, stipulating two senators for each state and members of the House of Representatives to be based on each state’s population.

Following the writing and signing of the Constitution, copies of the document were then sent to the 13 states, and each held a ratifying convention. Federalists who supported the new Constitution discussed, debated and compromised with Anti-federalists who were very skeptical of this new document. It was not an easy process and the efforts of the framers and the representatives at the state conventions is something we can all learn from.

As a Utah Valley University student recently said, “I never realized how hard ratification was for the founders.” Learning about the skills and diplomacy necessary to work together to accomplish worthy goals, is an important part of studying the U.S. Constitution and civic education generally.

It took one year for the required ratification of nine states and almost three years to get all 13 states on board. Another UVU student added, “It shows that people who don’t entirely agree on everything can come together and get something done for the betterment of society and country.”

The ratification process led to another important compromise, using the amendment process outlined in Article V, to create a more perfect union.

During the struggle for ratification, many of the Anti-Federalists were deeply concerned that the original Constitution did not contain a bill of rights. Thomas Jefferson argued: “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse ...” Many agreed with Jefferson, and the Anti-Federalists extracted promises from the Federalists that the first Congress, working under the new Constitution, would correct this oversight. And they did. 

The Constitution’s first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, were proposed and in 1791 became the law of the land. Since that time multiple amendments have helped the U.S. evolve.

The 13th ended slavery.

The 14th defined citizenship and guaranteed every person born in the U.S. or naturalized as a citizen equal rights and due process of law.

The 15th, 19th, and 26th all expanded suffrage, increasing democracy as more Americans were allowed the privilege of voting.

Of course we know that some of these provisions are not yet fully realized in all corners of our nation, but each has helped us get closer to the promises of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution’s Preamble, helping to establish justice, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for all of we the people.

Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day, has an interesting history of presidential and congressional proclamations going back to at least 1952. The day is listed in United States Code as a patriotic or national observance, and in May 2005 the United States Department of Education announced that all publicly funded educational institutions must provide educational programming on the history of the American Constitution on or near Sept. 17. This mandate includes almost all schools, kindergarten through university.

Utah’s colleges and universities are celebrating Constitution Day in a variety of ways.

Because Sept. 17 falls on a Saturday this year, dates of commemoration varied, but on Tuesday, Sept. 13, Brigham Young University held their 2022 Constitution Day Lecture with Noah Feldman, professor of law at Harvard Law School, who spoke on “The Constitution Under Pressure: Lessons from Abraham Lincoln.” On Sept. 14, University of Utah students attended a forum discussion on practicing academic freedom and free speech. And, on Sept. 15, Utah Valley University students attended the annual Constitution Day Conference with eminent scholars discussing “The Reconstruction Amendments: Roots of American Civil Rights.”

Regardless of how you mark the day, learning the words, actions, and ideals of our Founders has always been crucial. Learning the skills and dispositions, the civic virtues, that allow us to build upon our foundations and strengthen our nation today and for the future, is also needed, perhaps now more than ever before. 

Glori H. Smith and Lisa R. Halverson are civic education research fellows at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies. Robert Burton is director of the Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies.