Constitution Day through the years

September 17 is designated as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787! Today’s post comes from Rebecca Watford from the National Archives History Office.

Constitution Day, September 17, 1956. (National Archives Identifier 12169242)

As the keeper of the U.S. Constitution, the National Archives has a long tradition of celebrating Constitution Day.  

After acquiring the original Constitution in 1952, the National Archives’ first major Constitution Day was in 1956—the 169th anniversary of the document’s signing. That was also the first year that Constitution Week was celebrated—a seven-day observance promoting education about the Constitution.

That year, the National Archives brought in an Honor Guard to watch over the Constitution during the week-long celebration. The Honor Guard was the 3rd U.S.  Infantry Regiment (“The Old Guard”), the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, which has served the country since 1784, even before there was a Constitution.

In 1970, for the first time, all four pages of the original document were displayed for the public to view during Constitution Week.

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First exhibit of the entire U.S. Constitution, September 17, 1970. (National Archives Identifier 3493276)

Normally only the first and signature page was on exhibit; however, that year Assistant Archivist for Educational Programs Frank Burke had an idea. While watching visitors in the Rotunda, he noticed an elderly woman who was holding up the line at the Constitution so she could read the entire document.

When she realized that only the first and last pages were displayed, she said it was her right to read it in its entirety. After they spoke, Burke decided to get all four pages on display, and on September 17, 1970, he arranged to have the entire document displayed for the special event.

In 1974, Constitution Week was celebrated with performances by the Jefferson High School Marching Colonials and band from Alexandria, Virginia. The Honor Guard was back to guard the Constitution during this historical week.

Marching Colonials of Jefferson High School (Alexandria, Virginia) performing on the steps of the National Archives for Constitution Day, September 17, 1974. (National Archives Identifier 35810542)

The following year Vice President Nelson Rockefeller attended the “Reading is Fundamental” ceremony with children in the Rotunda. The program encouraged young students to read.

Vice President Rockefeller with Archivist of the United States Bert Rhoads, Senator John Warner and guests at the “Reading Is Fundamental” ceremony held on Constitution Day, September 17, 1975. (National Archives Identifier 3493301)

Rockefeller gave the first speech, and afterwards the children read parts of the Constitution out loud. After making a mistake, one of the children began crying but was comforted by the Vice President.

In 1987, for the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution, the National Archives went all out. There were street theater productions with the Constitution as a theme.

The Archives hosted a film series called “The Constitution on Film,” which included both fictional movies and documentaries. Over 3,000 people came to the screenings. The films were about controversial and famous Supreme Court decisions, ways the Constitution has been used in the past, and told the story of how the Constitution was created.

And more than 37,500 people attended an 87-hour vigil in the Rotunda.

On the actual day, September 17, former Chief Justice Warren Burger, retired Justice Lewis Powell, president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate John Stennis, Senator Strom Thurmond (South Carolina), Senator Charles Mathias (Maryland), Mayors Wilson Goode (Philadelphia) and Marion Berry (District of Columbia) all attended ceremonies and festivities at the National Archives.

NARA celebrated Constitution Day by inviting local high school students to sit in on "Justice Talking" and tour A1.
Local high school students watch the taping of Justice Talking at the National Archives, September 16, 2005. (National Archives Identifier 66796140)

In 2005 the National Archives held a program in the McGowen Theater attended by local high school students. NPR’s Justice Talking, hosted by Margot Adler, explored the topic of “Free Speech in the Digital Age” and examined the First Amendment and reasons for both protecting and limiting speech.

Most recently, in 2016, the National Archives continued its tradition of holding a naturalization ceremony on Constitution Day. That year 30 petitioners for United States citizenship took the oath of citizenship in front of the original Constitution in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Video of the ceremony was made available on the National Archives YouTube channel.

For over 60 years the National Archives has celebrated Constitution Day. Visit our website to learn about this year’s public programs, and family activities, and to explore our online resources related to the U.S. Constitution.

Come to the National Archives in Washington, DC, to see all four pages of the Constitution on permanent display in our museum.

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