Written by Rachel Walman
On September 17, 1789, the final draft of the United States Constitution was signed. Before and since that day, this “law of the land” has been debated, revered, criticized, and even altered. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution effectively established a new nation. In doing so, it minted some—but not all— residents of this country as new citizens. This September 17 we celebrate Constitution Day in honor of this history. But it may surprise you to know that Constitution Day was once called “I Am an American Day” and “Citizenship Day.” This special anniversary was, and is, not just a celebration of our founding document, but also of the citizens of this country who live under its authority.
According to the Library of Congress, 1940 saw the first version of Constitution Day. In that year, Congress passed a resolution saying the president could declare the third Sunday in May as “I Am an American Day,” a day to celebrate all those who had become U.S. citizens. In 1952, this day was moved to September 17 and renamed “Citizenship Day.” And in 2004, it was renamed “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.”
There’s no better place to celebrate this day than at the New-York Historical Society! If you are looking to learn more about the U.S. Constitution, visit our exhibition New York Rising. There you can see many artifacts related to the founding era—and New York’s role in it.
One special item you can see right now is a page of a draft of the Bill of Rights, shown in the picture above. Now that we’ve had the Constitution in place for so long, it may seem hard to grasp that before it was ratified, many people had serious doubts about whether or not it was sufficient. Pro-Constitution Federalists claimed that it was best to state only the powers that the federal government had, not what its limitations were and what specific rights the people had. They argued if limitations on federal power were listed, that would limit the rights of the people. It was best, they said, to imply the rights of the people as anything not specifically named as a governmental power over peoples’ lives. On the other side, Anti-Federalists were against the Constitution as drafted, believing it gave too much power to the federal government, threatened individual liberties, and paved the way to tyranny. They wanted the rights of the people clearly listed. Thomas Jefferson stated, “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, or rest on inference.”
It is worth noting when talking about the original Constitution that its protections and constraints did not apply equally to everyone, namely enslaved people and women. Even in the draft of the Bill of Rights you can see on display at our Museum, note that these rights are said to apply to “freemen.” In any case, in 1791, a final draft of the first ten amendments to the Constitution was adopted as the Bill of Rights.
If you are looking to celebrate U.S. citizenship on Sunday, our Museum is also the right place to do so. In conjunction with our Citizenship Project, all visitors can pick up a Quest for Citizenship Museum Guide, which takes you on a tour of objects connected to questions on the U.S. naturalization exam. This guide will give you a great sense of what our government thinks every American should know. You might be surprised by the gaps in your civic education!
Regardless of why you visit this Sunday, or any day, we are proud to be a place where people from all different backgrounds and countries can come to learn about the history of the diverse views and people who have made this country what it is today! Happy Constitution Day and Citizenship Day to all!