Hello, I’m William Adams, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to welcome teachers, parents, students, and the general public to NEH’s special Constitution Day portal on our EDSITEment website.
Americans have officially celebrated Constitution Day since 2004 on September 17, the day in 1787 on which the framers signed the most influential document in American history. Senator Robert Byrd, who was responsible for bringing our national observance of Constitution Day into being once noted that “Our ideals of freedom, set forth and realized in our Constitution, are our greatest export to the world.” He was right, and this year Constitution Day will be celebrated on Friday, September 16, to allow all students and their teachers to take an active part in the celebration and to recognize the fundamental importance of the Constitution in establishing the rights and freedoms that “We the People” enjoy.
Did you know, for example, that it was only a little more than one hundred and fifty years ago that the rights and freedoms enshrined in our Constitution were altered to truly acknowledge “We the People”?
It took the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to confirm the legal equality of all persons born or naturalized as United States citizens, and further extended this franchise to all male citizens, including former slaves. These amendments composed a constitutional renewal now known as the Second Founding that changed the United States permanently and was prompted by our bitter and tragic Civil War.
Celebrating the Second Founding brings back into public view, and into public discussion, the ways in which slavery and its aftermath have shaped America’s collective identity. After the Revolution, a torturous constitutional accommodation was required for the continuation of slavery. Then came this redemptive moment in the wake of civil war—when the constitutional frame was corrected and a different future for the country became possible—but it was not without a hard struggle to move from mere legal emancipation to real freedom and equality.
That struggle has lasted a century and a half and it isn’t over. It lives on today in the legal debates about what the Constitution and its Second Founding amendments really mean. Those debates take place in courts around the country, including the Supreme Court, and resonate in college and university admissions programs, in places of employment, and in police departments. Beyond these domains, the U.S. is also struggling to understand the meaning of equality in schools, neighborhoods, and people’s daily lives.
But there’s also been progress. The Nineteenth Amendment extended the right of suffrage to women in 1919, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s led to the important legislative accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.
So let’s take good long look at the Second Founding this September 16. Not for the last time, certainly, but with the urgent self-reflection called for this time. I wish you the best on this Constitution Day and on the many more to come.
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