Teacher's Guide

Commemorating Constitution Day

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

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 unanimous 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 centuries 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.

Guiding Questions

Who is included in the phrase "We the People"?

How do we form "a more perfect union"?

What makes the U.S. Constitution a living document?

To what extent does the Constitution influence people's lives on a daily basis?

NEH Chair's Remarks on Constitution Day

It has become a tradition for the NEH Chair to make remarks in honor of this day. Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo) is the second woman to lead the agency and the first Indigenous American. Her remarks below begin with greetings in Navajo and outline the ways in which the goals of Constitution Day align with NEH’s larger mission of understanding ourselves and our world through the humanities. As Chair Lowe reminds us, “We know that this work can build bridges, rather than divide us, and that the humanities are critical to building the ‘more perfect union’ the founders envisioned."

Video Transcript:

​​​​​​[Navajo introduction] 

Hello, my name is Shelly Lowe, and I am Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. NEH is proud to join all Americans in recognizing September 17 as Constitution Day. Today we acknowledge not only the visionary work and courage of the founders who signed this important document in 1787, but also the courage required of us all to continue making the United States “a more perfect union.” 

Engaging in the work of the humanities is itself an exercise in courage. Through the humanities, we can approach a topic, however painful, in the spirit of fearless inquiry. The humanities help us to ask tough questions and give us the strength to grapple with the answers. When we bring this lens to the study of the U.S. Constitution, we can investigate why certain choices were made by the founders – in terms of Indigenous sovereignty, enslavement, or the rights of women. Why are some people’s rights limited by the words of this document? And why are others not even mentioned? 

We must ask these questions about the experiences and choices of those in the past to inform how we live today, how we interact with others and the natural world, and the decisions we make both now and for the future. The humanities illuminate our understanding of our place in the world and the ideals that guide us. These ideals and values are the building blocks of our Constitution, and it is our unique responsibility as American citizens to keep our democratic values alive. 

At NEH, we do this by supporting projects that explore, reflect on, and tell the stories of our ongoing quest for a more just, inclusive, and sustainable society. Through grants to scholars and cultural and educational organizations across the country, we support research, exhibitions, and public events on the Constitution, civics, and U.S. history. NEH provides lesson plans and resources on EDSITEment, our K-12 humanities education website, to help students learn about the framework of our constitutional democracy. And we work closely with state and jurisdictional humanities councils to ensure that local histories and diverse perspectives are included in our national story. 

We know that this work can build bridges, rather than divide us, and that the humanities are critical to building the “more perfect union” the founders envisioned. 

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?

Reading the Constitution

What better way to celebrate this important document, its place within our society and throughout our history, than to closely investigate the words and ideas contained in it. Unlike more recent constitutions, the document is written in the language of ordinary people and is only a few pages.

EDSITEment’s worksheet “Understanding the U.S. Constitution” will help students read and interpret the original document by working their way through the text and answering questions about each section. After they examine the Constitution section by section, students can further engage with the text with an essay outline worksheet in which they define and defend their own understanding of the significance of the document. We suggest four engaging and thoughtful essay topics as well as another essay outline worksheet to help your students organize their ideas, evidence, and analysis.

Teachers, parents, caregivers, and students, jump on board for a tour of the United States Constitution!

Follow the links below to obtain a transcription of the Constitution or an image of the original document, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Visualizing the Framers

In 1939, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the United States Congress commissioned Howard Chandler Christy to produce the 20 by 30 foot painting of the signing. This famous painting was unveiled in 1940 in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Christy had established his reputation with the "Christy Girl" posters that presented images of smart, sophisticated young women, often in conjunction with patriotic themes. His "Signing of the Constitution" reflects a deep commitment to historical accuracy, including the obscuring of the faces of delegates for whom no contemporary portraits were available as models.

Professor Gordon Lloyd, working with the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, has produced an interactive version of this painting. Roll the cursor over the figures of the delegates to learn more about their lives and contributions to America. Read more about Christy and his painting at TeachingAmericanHistory.org.

The Framers

You may wonder who were these individual sometimes called "framers" were. How did they gain a place at the table in Philadelphia? And by what right did they claim to represent “We the People of the United States” when they signed the Constitution? Begin your investigation with the man who is most closely associated with the drafting of the Constitution, James Madison. You can learn more about Madison and his role at the Constitutional Convention in James Madison: Madison Was There. Most Americans of all ages have heard of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, all present at the Convention but have they heard of Oliver Ellsworth? You and your students can learn about a few of the drafters of the Constitution with whom they may not yet be familiar in the lesson plan The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met.

Indigenous Sovereignty and the Constitution

Indigenous Americans are mentioned in the Constitution of the United States three times: twice regarding population counts and once pertaining to Congress's right to regulate commerce between the nation and recognized tribes. Despite this fleeting presence in the Constitution, an enormous body of law concerning Indigenous sovereignty has been developed over the past 250 years.  

Throughout the coexistence era of Federal Indian Policy (1780's-1820's) treaties between the U.S. and tribes were used to negotiate relations, but as land concerns increasingly influenced national politics in the early nineteenth century, new legislation like the Indian Removal Act was passed, asserting federal dominance over Indigenous rights to self-determination. Although these actions were found to be unconstitutional through U.S. Supreme Court cases like Worcester vs. Georgia, Indigenous nations were forcibly removed from ancestral lands.  

Today, the United States pursues a policy of cooperation with and self-determination by Indigenous tribes. Landmark cases like United States vs Mitchell (1983) confirmed that the United States has an obligation to uphold the terms of the treaties it has signed with Indigenous tribes, known as the Trust Responsibility. As a result of the articulation of the Trust Responsibility, the federal government is required to support the continued existence of all federally recognized tribes through economic and social partnerships with the tribes.  

Additionally, new scholarship into the founders’ influences as they drafted the Constitution has revealed that many of the ideas that form the cornerstones of the American government may have their origins in Indigenous principles of government. Benjamin Franklin, who was responsible for negotiating treaties with the Iroquois Confederacy, remarked in 1751 that the Six Nations should serve as a model for the “ten or a Dozen English Colonies […]” working together. During the Constitutional Convention, John Adams suggested that the framers should study “the ancient Germans and modern Indians” because of their well devised separation of powers within their governments. These influences came full circle as, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Indigenous nations created their own constitutions, many of which were modeled after the Constitution of the United States. 

The Framing of the Constitution

The Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia and lasting nearly four months, was fraught with debate, discussion, and compromise. From May 25, 1787 until the signing of the final draft on September 17, 1787, every issue was on the table, every word was scrutinized. One can follow the debate by going to The Constitutional Convention at Teaching American History.org or follow the link to George Washington's annotated draft of the Constitution, digitized as part of the NEH-funded Papers of George Washington Project, to gain a sense of the meticulous care the delegates gave to the drafting process.

In a series of lesson plans on the Constitutional Convention, students can examine the roles key delegates played in drafting the Constitution and the challenges they faced. They will learn why many Americans in the 1780's believed that reforms to the Articles of Confederation were necessary, and about the steps taken to authorize the convention in Philadelphia. They will become familiar with the main issues that divided delegates and how the spirit of compromise was necessary for the convention to fulfill its task of improving the American political system.

Born from the experience of an overly powerful central government in the form of the British monarchy, or an ineffectively weak central government under the Articles of Confederation, the framers of the Constitution designed a national government that clearly assigned power to three branches, while at the same time guaranteeing that the power of any branch could be checked by another. Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances examines this inventive use of power to check and balance power. The balance of power between the federal government and the states was another hotly debated issue throughout the convention and are surveyed in The Federalist Debates: Balancing Power Between State and Federal Governments.

K-12 Lesson Plans

EDSITEment, NEH's website that helps teachers bring online resources into the classroom, provides a number of lesson plans and reviewed websites that help you commemorate Constitution Day with your students. Listed here is a lesson plan for each grade band that can help you bring the Constitution into your classroom.

Constitution Day

A Day for the Constitution—This one day lesson is specially designed for Constitution Day and offers an introduction, warm up activity, short videos for each of the three activities that can be used independent of one another or combined, and reflection questions for closure. 

Grades K–2

The President's Roles and Responsibilities: Understanding the President's Job—As a nation, we place no greater responsibility on any one individual than we do on the president. Through these lessons, students learn about the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. president and their own roles as citizens of a democracy.

The President's Roles and Responsibilities: Communicating with the President—Through these lesson, students learn about the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. president and their own duties as citizens of a democracy.

Grades 3–5

The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union?—Archival materials and other resources available through EDSITEment-reviewed websites can help your students begin to understand why the Founders felt a need to establish a more perfect Union and how they proposed to accomplish such a weighty task.

The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country?—This series of activities introduces students to one of the most hotly debated issues during the formation of the American government -how much power the federal government should have — or alternatively, how much liberty states and citizens should have.

Grades 6–8

Before and Beyond the Constitution: What Should a President do?—In this curriculum unit, students look at the role of President as defined in the Constitution and consider the precedent-setting accomplishments of George Washington.

The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said—By examining records of the Constitutional Convention, such as James Madison's extensive notes, students witness the unfolding drama of the Constitutional Convention and the contributions of those who have come to be known as the Founding Fathers: Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and others who played major roles in founding a new nation. In this lesson, students will learn how the Founding Fathers debated, and then resolved, their differences as they drafted the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met—Introduce your students to four key, but relatively unknown, contributors to the U.S. Constitution — Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, William Paterson, and Edmund Randolph. Learn through their words and the words of others how the Founding Fathers created "a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise."

The Federalist Debates: Balancing Power Between State and Federal Governments—This series of activities introduces students to one of the most hotly debated issues during the formation of the American government — how much power the federal government should have — or alternatively, how much liberty states and citizens should have.

The Supreme Court: The Judicial Power of the United States—This lesson provides an introduction to the Supreme Court. Students will learn basic facts about the Supreme Court by examining the United States Constitution and one of the landmark cases decided by that court. The lesson is designed to help students understand how the Supreme Court operates.

Grades 9–12

Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution—Magna Carta served to lay the foundation for subsequent declarations of rights in Great Britain and the United States. In attempting to establish checks on the king's powers, this document asserted the right of "due process" of law. It also provided the basis for the idea of a "higher law," one that could not be altered either by executive mandate or legislative acts. This concept, embraced by the leaders of the American Revolution, is embedded in the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution and enforced by the Supreme Court.

“An Expression of the American Mind”: Understanding the Declaration of Independence—The major ideas in the Declaration of Independence, their origins, the Americans’ key grievances against the King and Parliament, their assertion of sovereignty, and the Declaration’s process of revision. This lesson will focus on the views of the founders as expressed in primary documents from their own time and in their own words.

Slavery and the American Founding: The "Inconsistency Not to Be Excused"—John Jay wrote in 1786, “To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused." This lesson will focus on the views of the founders on slavery as expressed in primary documents from their own time and in their own words.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787—The delegates at the 1787 Convention faced a challenge as arduous as those who worked throughout the 1780s to initiate reforms to the American political system.

James Madison: From Father of the Constitution to President—Even in its first 30 years of existence, the U.S. Constitution had to prove its durability and flexibility in a variety of disputes. More often than not, James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," took part in the discussion. Madison had been present at the document's birth as the mastermind behind the so-called Virginia Plan. He had worked tirelessly for its ratification including authoring 29 Federalist Papers, and he continued to be a concerned guardian of the Constitution as it matured.

The Federalist and Anti-federalist Debates on Diversity and the Extended Republic—The proposed Constitution, and the change it wrought in the nature of the American Union, spawned one of the greatest political debates of all time. In addition to the state ratifying conventions, the debates also took the form of a public conversation.

Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances—Attempting to form a more perfect union, the framers of the Constitution designed a government that clearly assigned power to three branches, while at the same time guaranteeing that the power of any branch could be checked by another.

John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and Judicial Review: How the Court Became Supreme—It is safe to say that as James Madison was the "father" of the Constitution and George Washington the "father of the powers of the Presidency," John Marshall was the "father of the Supreme Court," almost single-handedly clarifying its power of judicial review.

Frederick Douglass's, “What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?—Students are guided through a careful reading of Douglass' greatest speech in which he both praises the founders and their principles, and condemns the continued existence of slavery. The Constitution is presented as a "glorious liberty document" which, if properly interpreted, is completely anti-slavery

Abraham Lincoln's Fragment of the Constitution & the Union (1861): The Purpose of the Union—This lesson will examine Abraham Lincoln's brief but insightful reflection on the importance of the ideal of individual liberty to the constitutional structure and operation of the American union.

We the People Teachers- This program created by the Arkansas Humanities Council contains a number of resources and lesson plans  for 9th-12th grade classrooms. 

Educational Games and Interactive Modules

Challenge your students with some fun games about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: