POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Constitution Day and Citizenship Day

by David Trumbull -- September 16, 2011

“September 17 is designated as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day [to] commemorate the formation and signing on September 17, 1787, of the Constitution and recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.” —(36 U.S.C.106)
We are accustomed to think of the United States as a relative young nation. It was just a bit over 500 years ago that Christopher Columbus from the Republic of Genoa on the Italian peninsula discovered the New World and even less time since the planting of the thirteen colonies that would become the United States. And yet we operate under the second oldest written constitution in the world. (Quiz, what nation has the oldest written constitution still in force?)

Our Constitution is claimed to be the world’s shortest. I can believe it! Certainly it is much, much shorter than the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But then, unlike the Massachusetts Constitution, our nation’s fundamental law has not been frequently amended. In 224 years there have been but 27 amendments adopted.

The stability of our Constitution over time is even more evident when we remember that the first ten amendments—the Bill of Rights—were ratified shortly after entry into force of the Constitution. In fact, the promise of prompt passage of such a Bill of Rights was one of the arguments the Federalists made for adopting the Constitution, so much so that those first ten amendments may be thought of as being practically part of the original text. That leaves but 17 changes made in the period 1795 to 1992—nearly 200 years, or, on average, between one and two per decade.

Addressing his fellow Americans on September 17, 1796 George Washington spoke of our national unity and pride as free Americans living under a Constitution at the time not yet a decade old, saying: “Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism...” and he expressed his desire “that the free Constitution... may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”

On September 17th, all citizens, by birth or choice (to borrow Washington’s beautiful phrasing) are called on to commemorate the signing of our federal Constitution and the blessings of liberty under our Democratic Republic.

Quiz answer: The Republic of San Marino, an independent state on the Italian peninsula surrounded entirely by the Republic of Italy has the oldest written constitution still in force, dating to 1600.