Constitution Day

Chairman's Letter

Dr. William Adams, NEH ChairmanTen years ago this month Senator Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of the Senate and a celebrated orator, rose on the Senate floor to praise the Constitution. Within seconds, he had reached into his metaphorical backpack and brought out comparisons to the strongest currents in geology, in sports, and in the weather.

Clutching his ever-present copy of the Constitution, Byrd said that its passage had moved the world onto a new path with the “force of plate tectonics.” Operating under a governmental structure sketched in seven short articles, he said, the U.S. has become the “heavyweight champion of world politics and the global economy,” able to influence world events with a “speed and force of a Category 5 hurricane.”

Celebrating the Constitution, he continued, is more important than Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July. It is the soul of the nation, our bedrock. “This Constitution touches every day, every hour, every minute of our lives. Practically everything you do is made possible by or is guaranteed or is protected by this Constitution,” he said.

Byrd’s plea for increased prominence for the Constitution, after wending its way past the checks and balances of the federal government, wound up as a mandate that schools and federal agencies offer educational programs on the history of the Constitution on September 17 every year.

Over time, this mission has been embraced by increasing numbers of national figures. This year, the Civics Renewal Network, an alliance of twenty-six nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations, is working to raise the visibility of civics through education. Sharing the belief that understanding the Constitution plays a vital role in creating knowledgeable and engaged citizens, the Network has enlisted public figures from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson to promote high quality, engaging, and age-appropriate educational resources about the Constitution.

NEH is an enthusiastic participant in this Network, making available lessons and original documents to help teachers make civics and the Constitution freely accessible to all Americans through its award-winning site EDSITEment.

The aim is to meet the challenge issued by Benjamin Franklin on September 18, 1787, the day after the Constitution was passed. A bystander said, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?"

"A republic,” he answered, “if you can keep it."

Today, the Civics Renewal Network says: “A republic, if we can teach it.”


—William D. Adams
National Endowment for the Humanities


Photo Credit: Fred Fields, courtesy of Colby College