Observing Constitution Day

Article excerpt

The U.S. Constitution has a rich history. Just as Americans have struggled through the years to interpret and apply its meaning, scholars have engaged in great debates over the Constitution's legacy. When President George W. Bush signed H.R. 4818, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (Omnibus Spending Bill), on December 8, 2004, nearly all educators were forced into a debate on the Constitution. For buried in the 650-page law was a rider that amended Title 36 of the United States Code (Patriotic National Observances, Ceremonies, and Organizations) that substituted "Constitution Day" for "Citizenship Day." The amendment read: "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." In other words, any school receiving federal funds-from head start to private universities whose students receive federal financial aid-must teach about the Constitution on or around the 17th. This short, nationalistic, and seemingly innocuous amendment had tremendous ramifications. As many educators found out, the law raised more questions than it answered: What constitutes an "educational program?" Who should put on the program? What should be taught?

Before answering these questions, it is helpful to understand the context in which Americans remember and celebrate the Constitution. Of course the first promoters of the document were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. They wrote a series of polemics, which were designed to convince state legislatures to adopt the newer constitution and were published from October 1787 to May 1788 as the Federalist. Because of their participation in the Constitutional Convention as well as their eloquent arguments, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay have been inducted into the celebrated club known as the Founding Fathers. What about the three delegates at the Convention who refused to sign the document: Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia? Should we celebrate Patrick Henry, George Clinton and Samuel Adams, all prominent revolutionary heroes who balked at ratifying the new document? Didn't they provide an important role in shaping the Constitution and its debate? Shouldn't their efforts be remembered? After all, the Federalist was written in response to and anticipation of Anti-Federalist arguments.

Like most good debates, a compromise over ratification was eventually reached. The first Congress under the Constitution appeased Anti-Federalist concerns about federal encroachment by passing twelve amendments to the Constitution, of which the states approved ten. But the states adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights well after September 17, 1787. This begs an important question about Constitution Day: are the political discussion about ratification and the amendments to be included in the "educational program?" While the law does not stipulate, the practical answer is a qualified, yes. It depends on the maturity of the students. To recognize only the document signed but not yet adopted or amended by the states would mean to celebrate the three-fifths rule, slavery and the disenfranchisement of women. This might engender good debate for college or high school students but would open Pandora's box at elementary schools. In other words, the teaching of the Constitution is left up to the interpretation of the educators who will put on the program. In a very real way, then, Congress's allowing educators to interpret the content for Constitution Day reflects the "Elastic Clause" that the delegates wrote into the Constitution. It allowed future generations to interpret and apply the Constitution to their needs.

At the same time, however, it is clear that explaining the side of the Anti-Federalists puts teachers at risk in today's political climate. As historian David Wootton has argued, "it is by reading the Federalist as a reply to anti-Federalist arguments that one can best begin the study of the Constitution and the ideas it embodies. …