Constitution Day Q&A
Learn more about the Constitution from the Department of History's Katherine Unterman.
In honor of Constitution Day, the College of Liberal Arts sat down with associate professor of history and Constitution expert Katherine Unterman to get some answers about one of the most prevalent documents in our lives.
- What is Constitution Day and why do we celebrate it?
Constitution Day is celebrated on September 17 to commemorate the signing of the United States Constitution by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787. But the holiday, Constitution Day, is a much more recent creation. It actually began in 1939 as a celebration of American citizenship. For many years, it was simply called “Citizenship Day.” In 2004, Congress changed the name to “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” and now it’s simply shortened to “Constitution Day.”
Most people don’t realize that all schools receiving federal funds are required to educate students about the Constitution on September 17. That may be the cynical reason for celebrating Constitution Day. But the truth is, it’s important for everyone living in this country to understand their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution. If a holiday inspires people to learn more about the Constitution, that’s a great reason to celebrate it.
- Is it an important holiday?
It’s important for Americans to understand what’s in the Constitution, so hopefully Constitution Day will inspire people to sit down and read the Constitution. It’s actually not that long!
- What, if anything, do people tend to misunderstand about the Constitution?
Many people assume that all of the Founding Fathers considered the Constitution a perfect document. That’s not true at all. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had to make many compromises with each other. After the Constitution was drafted, some state conventions bitterly fought over whether or not to ratify it. Some of the objections were answered with the addition of a Bill of Rights, but the Constitution was certainly not universally viewed as infallible or sacred at that time.
Also, the Constitution does not contain the words “all men are created equal,” “God,” or “democracy.” First, “all men are created equal” comes from the Declaration of Independence. Second, the Constitution places the source of all government power and legitimacy in the people, not in divine authority. Finally, the Constitution created a republic, not a democracy. The difference is that the American people do not vote directly on all matters, as they would in a true democracy. Instead, we vote for representatives to decide these matters for us.
- Why are amendments important?
The framers knew that times would change, the people’s needs would change, and flaws in the original Constitution would be revealed, so they set forth a process for amending the Constitution. However, it’s quite hard to do: it requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-fourths of the states. Imagine how hard it would be to get that many Americans to agree on anything! So passing a constitutional amendment isn’t something that can be done on a whim; it needs to be an issue that has broad-based support.
Many of our most cherished rights were not part of the original Constitution, but were added later as amendments—such as the right of free speech, the right to trial by jury, and the right of women and people of all races to vote.
- Does this document really help form a more perfect union?
Note that language: a more perfect union, not an already perfect one. The framers saw the United States as a work in progress, and the Constitution would be a guide as each generation strove to improve the nation and better fulfill its ideals. The best way to think of the Constitution is that it’s the rules for making the rules. The federal, state, and local governments pass the laws that govern our lives, but they have to operate within the rules that the Constitution sets forth. That means there are individual rights that cannot be violated and limits to government power that cannot be overstepped. Now, there have been times in our history when the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution has been broken. But for the most part, the Constitution’s rules for making the rules have worked well.
- In the spirit of our Hamilton story from last year, what role did The Federalist Papers play in getting the Constitution ratified? And was Hamilton’s role in writing them portrayed accurately in the famous Hamilton musical?
Opposition to the Constitution was particularly strong in New York, so Hamilton launched the series of articles that would become the Federalist Papers in the hopes of convincing his home state to ratify the Constitution. New York ended up voting in favor of the Constitution by a slim margin, but historians have argued that the Federalist Papers didn’t actually play such big role in getting the Constitution ratified. Nevertheless, they are quite valuable for the insights they provide about the reasoning and intentions of some of the key individuals who helped craft the Constitution.
Hamilton really was the force behind the Federalist Papers. He was a prolific and tireless writer who penned at least 60 percent of the essays. And he was absolutely determined to get the Constitution ratified. The musical gets all of that correct.
- Is the Constitution under any kind of threat right now, given the current political climate?
It depends on who you ask. Some people would say that we’re going through a constitutional crisis; others believe that the Constitution is strong enough to withstand any current partisan fighting. Some political and legal scholars argue that there are flaws or outdated sections in the Constitution that need revision, such as the Electoral College—in other words, that the Constitution should be challenged. It’s worth pointing out that the Constitution has been under some pretty serious strain in the past, including a Civil War, and it has always endured.
- Here’s a fun one: Is there a secret map on the back of the Constitution?
I’ve never personally handled the original Constitution, so I can’t say for sure.