Constitution Day

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Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution.
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Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution.

September 17th is Constitution Day, commemorating the day in 1787 when, at the end of a long hot summer of discussion, debate and deliberation, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed America’s most important document. George Washington, on behalf of the Convention, transmitted the proposed Constitution to the Congress assembled under the Articles of Confederation. Eleven days later, the Congress by unaminous resolution passed the proposal on to conventions of delegates to be chosen in each state. It was in these state conventions that the Constitution was thoroughly discussed, debated and eventually ratified.

The United States Constitution is the oldest written national constitution still in operation, and many of the nations that have established themselves in the decades since have turned to this document as a model for their own constitutions. As a document that defines the structure of our federal government and delineates the rights of the states within the union, and of individual citizens within the nation, the Constitution has become a symbol to Americans and to the world of our political principles and the democratic way of life that flows from them.

The Preamble

The Constitution opens with these magnificent words:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The Preamble sets forth, first, the source of the authority on which the Constitution rests ('WE the people of the United States") and, second, the six goals for which the government is to be established and upon which it is to operate. You can learn more about the significance of these goals in The Preamble to the Constitution: A Close Reading Lesson.

Nobody understood the aspirational character of the Preamble better than the abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass. In the 1850s, when the question of the extension of slavery into the territories was dividing the nation, Douglass developed his anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution as "a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT." In one of his most famous speeches, he urged his audience to "Read its preamble, [and] consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither." For more insight into Douglass's greatest speech and his interpretation of the Constitution, see the launchpad Frederick Douglass What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?