Civil and Human Rights

The Missing Second Part of “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day”

On this day in 1787, the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to sign the United States Constitution, the most famous, and arguably the greatest government charter in world history. To commemorate its signing, each year the President proclaims September 17th “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” while public schools around the Nation hold events and teach lessons that celebrate the story of the Constitution.

As an organization dedicated to the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text and history, Constitutional Accountability Center is all for celebrating the signing of the Constitution. Yet the history of the Day itself is little known, and something important has been lost over the 60 plus years the Day has been celebrated.

Congress first proposed the Day in 1940, on the of eve the American entry into World War II. In recognition of those who had attained American citizenship, it designated the third Sunday in May “I Am an American Day.” In 1952, Congress moved the Day to September 17th and renamed it “Citizenship Day,” both to commemorate the formation and signing of the Constitution as well as to honor those who had become citizens “by coming of age or by naturalization.” Over the years, Citizenship Day has focused more and more on the Constitution and less and less on the original celebration of citizenship.

This shift was formalized in 2004 when Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) led the passage of legislation renaming Citizenship Day, “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” and requiring all schools receiving federal funds to create educational programming that focused on the history of the Constitution. Last year in his proclamation, President Bush made no mention at all of new citizens, honoring instead “Americans who strive to uphold the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.”

What started as a celebration of citizenship and the contributions of new Americans, has today become mainly a commemoration of the signing of the Constitution. For a celebration set to coincide with the signing of the original Constitution, this shift in focus was perhaps inevitable.The move away from commemorating citizenship on the same day we celebrate the signing of the original Constitution is also arguably for the best—not because citizenship does not deserve to be honored, but because September 17th is not the date we should use to do so.

In fact, the lack of an inclusive definition of U.S. citizenship is one of the great failings of the Constitution signed on September 17th, 1787. This omission permitted the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sanford to conclude that persons of African descent could never be citizens under the Constitution. Our nation fought a war at least in part to repudiate the terrible error of Dred Scott and secure, in the Constitution, citizenship for all persons born on U.S. soil, regardless of race, color or origin.

It wasn’t until 1868, and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, that citizenship was granted in the Constitution to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” and fundamental rights and equal protection of the laws were guaranteed for all persons. The original proponents of Citizenship Day intended to highlight these rights and privileges, and today more than ever these protections warrant their own federally-recognized day of commemoration.

September 17th should and always will be the day we commemorate the signing of our Constitution. But a celebration of citizenship must acknowledge the ways in which the Constitution changed and improved over the 200 years that followed its signing, and specifically the Fourteenth Amendment’s crucial expansion of Constitutional protections to all citizens. In this spirit, we propose separating Constitution Day from Citizenship Day, and marking the day the Fourteenth Amendment was formally proclaimed part of the Constitution, July 28th, as the new Citizenship Day.

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