Closer Readings Commentary

Constitution Day and the Second Founding

Just as students and teachers are adapting to the demands and delights of the new school year, they are asked to learn about a document written 229 years ago that still impacts their lives. September 17, the day the framers signed their draft of the U.S. Constitution, has long been celebrated, but it is only since 2004 that there has been a mandate that every U.S. educational institution that receives federal funds should offer “an educational program” on it.

EDSITEment was one of the first federal agencies to establish a Constitution Day feature, and over the years this feature has evolved into a robust mini-site of over 30 primary source-based lessons, vetted websites, interactive games, and videos.

This year we add an introductory video by the Chairman of the National Endowment, Dr. William Adams, focusing on the importance of the Reconstruction Amendments (13th-15th) passed at the end of the Civil War, which taken together, constitute a “Second Founding,” one that sought to rectify the original stain of slavery through emancipation, citizenship, and legal protections for African Americans.

The original Constitution

The original Constitution, the one signed by the members of the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, is the oldest working constitution in the world. While the 19th-century British statesman William Gladstone called it the “most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man,” many 20th-century historians have dismissed it as nothing more than a "bundle of compromises," including the intolerable compromise over slavery. These disagreements remind us that we must never take the goodness of the Constitution for granted, but rather try our best to understand its history and its structure as well as its aspirations and limitations. 

The Constitutional Convention and the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates

To this end, EDSITEment offers a suite of lessons on the Convention:

  • Beginning with the reasons why state leaders wanted to revise the Articles of Confederation; followed by
  • A serious look at the debates during the Convention over the various plans for representation; and finally,
  • The hope and fears that went into the establishment of the office of the presidency.

The last two lessons ask students to work with selected excerpts from James Madison’s notes taken during the Convention.

Next to these records, the classic debates between the Federalists, who supported the Constitution, and their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, are essential. The issues raised in these debates over the size, powers, and scope of the proposed new government and how it was expected to secure the goals of the Preamble are important if one is to understand the debates over government power and responsibility that recur throughout our history.

The Bill of Rights

For many teachers, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the original Constitution, is the preferred focus for a Constitution Day lesson. We offer a historical overview, The Creation of the Bill of Rights and an interactive map of the state ratification debates. This lesson raises the question of whether or not these amendments were necessary to safeguard the principles of limited government called for by the Declaration of Independence. If your focus is the First Amendment, especially the freedoms of speech and assembly, try these lessons.

Slavery and Abolition

As much as we honor the framers and their work, we must not ignore the dissenters who have also made the Constitution what it is today. Such were the abolitionists who denounced the protection for the institution of slavery in the Constitution. In Slavery and the Founding, the founders’ views on slavery are examined. This lesson can be paired with Slavery Opponents and Defenders, which includes a student activity centering on one of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s representative speeches, in which he denounced the Constitution as “a covenant with death…and an agreement with hell.”

Garrison’s position was also held by Frederick Douglass during his early years as Garrison’s protégé. However Douglass was not long satisfied with a position that would concede all political power to the slave states. Better to argue that the Constitution had an aspirational aspect, which should govern the way its provisions are read.

In the most significant speech of his career, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, Douglass insisted, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither.”

Holding this view, voters should work to elect representatives who would break the power of the slave states within the Union. The advocacy of abolitionists Garrison and Frederick Douglass along with the more moderate anti-slavery position of Abraham Lincoln all contributed to the ending of slavery during the Civil War. The story is told in the NEH-supported film series The Abolitionists, available to stream in your classroom via NEH’s Created Equal. This film ends with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

For more on the 13th Amendment, see the National Constitution Center's illuminating discussion of Lincoln's Legacy: The 13th Amendment 150 Years Later, with a number of distinguished scholars including Allen Guelzo and Lucas Morel.

The Reconstruction Amendment: a "Second Founding"

While the Reconstruction—the 13th, 14th, and 15th —Amendments were not much protection for black people until the mid-20th century, as the film Slavery By Another Name makes clear,  they laid the groundwork for a constitutional revolution. Through the courts, these amendments establishing new notions of citizenship, equal protection, due process, and personal liberty that altered the relationship between the federal government and the states. As the NEH-supported documentary Constitution USA underlines, it took a century for the ideal of equality embedded in the 14th amendment to the Constitution to be taken seriously.