Tag Archives: United States Constitution

The U.S. Constitution – Something worth thinking about

It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.

Molly Ivins

Thus it is fitting that the evolution of Constitution Day has been a struggle to commemorate the formation and signing of the Constitution of the United States itself. Though the “official” signing of the Constitution (still a matter of historic discussion) was September 17, 1787, it was not until 217 years later, in 2004, that the U.S. Congress actually established September 17 as Constitution Day. In fact, Congress framed the date, not as a day to honor the signers, but as an occasion to “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become US citizens.”

And herein lies the tale of the evolution of Constitution Day – and Week. In the late 1930’s William Randolph Hearst, who bought ink by the barrel, advocated a day to celebrate US citizenship. In 1940 the Congress created “I Am an American Day” to be celebrated on the third Sunday in May. On February 29, 1952, President Harry Truman signed into law “Citizenship Day” which was a replacement for “I am an American Day.” A few years later, on August 2, 1956, Congress requested that the President proclaim the week beginning September 17 and ending September 23 as “Constitution Week.” And thus, in 2004 the day morphed into “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day”, passed by the U.S. Congress as what has become the incontrovertible legacy of Senator Robert C Byrd (D-WV).

The context in which Senator Byrd led the fight in Congress sets the stage. The nation was still reeling from 9/11 and the ensuing military action in the Middle East when Senator Byrd took to the Senate floor to propose a policy amendment to a hefty spending bill – a practice deemed highly inappropriate by his Senate colleagues. Byrd’s push for establishment of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day rose from deep conviction, as seen and heard in this clip: (http://blogs.rollcall.com/wgdb/constitution-day-a-byrd-legacy-video)

To ensure that his policy would be implemented Byrd included the provision that educational institutions that receive federal funding be required to teach about the Constitution or to conduct Constitution-related programs each year on September 17.

Over the past decade federal agencies, including the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Constitution Center among others have created some excellent online resources based on their unique collections and expertise

Focus of the Minnesota institutions’ Constitution Week programming is on students and teachers and on access to free online resources about the Constitution and the “long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.” Updated information can be found on the Constitution Week Twitter feed, #MNCONSTWEEK.

Constitution Week is also a good chance to check out “Today in Civil Liberties History,” (http://todayinclh.com ). Launched just last year by scholar, writer and civil libertarian Sam Walker (http://samuelwalker.net/bio/, this web-based calendar features civil liberties events for each day of the year. Entries range from free speech to reproductive rights to national security, racial justice, gender equity and more. The site also offers links to related resources, including relevant readings, videos, descriptions of historic sites and events

Today in Civil Liberties History affirms and confirms Molly Ivins’ comment. This post is intended to reach readers in time enough to put Constitution Day 2015 on the calendar for the classroom, the book club, the place of worship or other gathering place of those “who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become US citizens” – and of those who struggle mightily to achieve that goal.

 

 

 

 

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James Madison, Father of the First Amendment

We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley.  On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the national take part.

 

The reason why is expressed in the following quote:  Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a face or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever government ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

 

We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.”  We cherish a free press.  We condemn book burning and censorship.  We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.

 

Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.

 

We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  Madison, an inveterate learning, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,”  an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.

 

One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.

 

With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so.  On Madison’s birthday, Friday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information.  Though the devil may be in the detail of how that is works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.