While we were back east, we spent a day in Philadelphia touring the many historical sites. We had arrived just days after Constitution Day – September 17th. We were informed that living history interpreters stand on the step of Independence Hall and read aloud the Constitution just as they had done in 1787. We were bummed to have missed this but a las, travel plans are not always perfect.
The Constitution of the United States is one of the most important documents ever written. Congress authorized delegates to gather in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to address grievances that had emerged since declaring independence from England and recommend changes to the existing charter of government for the 13 states, the Articles of Confederation.
John Adams described the Constitutional Convention as “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen”. It is to this day, a seminal event in the history of human liberty.
To learn more about our nation’s history, I strongly recommend All American History by Celeste Rakes. It is available from Bright Ideas Press in two volumes and includes a student reader, student activity book, and teacher guide. We’ve been working through each chapter as we have prepared for our travels. My kids beg me to read another chapter every few days.
Primary Sources: James Madison
The best way to see into the past and learn about any historical event is with primary sources. These include diaries, letters, newspaper articles, documents, speeches, personal papers, photographs, paintings, and other items created near the time begin studied. They are made by people who have direct, firsthand knowledge of the event.
Because many of James Madison’s ideas made their way into the Constitution, he is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” Indeed, he was a driving force of the convention throughout the summer of 1787, and his notes of the deliberations have provided valuable insights into the proceedings.
None of the Constitutional Convention delegates talked to newspaper reporters or other outsiders. Some delegates took notes, but not every day. Even secretary William Jackson’s records were incomplete.
James Madison gave us our only complete primary source. Every day, he sat at the front of the East Room and recorded the day’s events. After the Convention convened, he wrote:
I noted in terms legible and in abbreviations and marks intelligible to myself what was read or spoken by the members; and … I was enabled to write out my daily notes during the session or within a few finishing days after its close … I was not absent a single day, nor more than a … fraction of an hour in any day, so that I could not have lost a single speech, unless a very short one.
US Constitution: Take it Further
The Bill of Rights document states the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. Read through and discuss each amendment with your students. These amendments guarantee the basic freedoms that Americans enjoy today.
Older students should be encouraged to read the US Constitution in an Old World Style design as pictured here. Reading the ornate handscript is not easy though – even for one familiar with cursive lettering. Younger students can use a printed text.
I’ve put together a challenging and fun scavenger hunt with which to encourage your students to read the Constitution. You can download it for free .. I simply request you leave a comment answering, “What historical figure from this era do you most admire?”
Some of America’s best minds created the United States Constitution. Among them were James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and George Washington. Encourage your students to select one of these men and research his contributions to our country and give a presentation.
42 delegates signed the Constitution on the 17th of September 1787. Three refused. Learn more about who these men were and why they abstained.
Choose one of the amendments. Write a short speech giving your opinion of the amendment. Tell why you think it is or is not an important right for citizens to have and what life might be like without it.
Visit the Explore the Constitution website where Constitutional experts interact with each other to explore the Constitution’s history and what it means today.
To commemorate the September 17, 1787 signing of the Constitution of the United States, Congress has designated September 17th of each year as Constitution Day. In 2004, Public Law 108-447, Section 111 was passed requiring the following:
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 education institution.
Sadly, I don’t recall learning about the Constitution on an annual basis when I was in school. We covered it in US History – but not more than a few times I am sure. How about you?