Constitution Day: Remembering Our Responsibilities and Opportunities as Citizens

September 17 is Constitution Day, commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. Visit the National Archives website for resources related to the Constitution and its special day.

The national celebration of Constitution Day traces back to 1940, when Congress passed a resolution authorizing the President to issue an annual proclamation designating the third Sunday in May for the recognition, observance, and commemoration of American citizenship. The resolution originally specified the day to be called “Citizenship Day,” but the conference committee changed the name to “I Am An American Day.” 

The day was celebrated nationwide with special ceremonies recognizing newly naturalized citizens as well as Americans who recently became old enough to vote.

On April 7, 1942, with the U.S. now embroiled in World War II, President Roosevelt issued his first wartime “I Am an American Day” Proclamation, noting that “it is even more essential in time of war than in time of peace that a people should fully understand the form and genius of their Government and the responsibilities of citizenship.”

In 1952, Congress renamed the holiday to its originally proposed title, “Citizenship Day,” and moved it to September 17, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Congress cited several reasons for the move, including that it put educators in a better position to teach about the duties and privileges of citizenship, and the new date wasn’t close to other patriotic holidays such as Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Armed Services Day.

The law urged proper observance of the day and “for the complete instruction of citizens in their responsibilities and opportunities as citizens of the United States and of the State and locality in which they reside.” A few years later, in 1956, to encourage Americans to learn more about the Constitution, Congress established Constitution Week, to begin each year on Citizenship Day, September 17.

During the Constitution’s bicentennial celebrations in 1987, attempts to make it a legal, paid federal holiday failed. The modern Constitution Day came into being in 2004 when Senator Robert Byrd sponsored legislation designating September 17 as Constitution Day. It went into effect in 2005 and required public schools and government offices to provide educational programs to promote a better understanding of the Constitution.

The National Archives acquired the original Constitution from the Library of Congress in December 1952 but didn’t hold its first major September 17 celebration until 1956, when the agency participated in the first Constitution Week. 

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.

One of the men on guard that week, Randall “Randy” McMillon—gave us a firsthand account of his experience. 

But since the 1970s, the main event for Constitution Day at the National Archives has been a naturalization ceremony in the Rotunda. The first documented naturalization ceremony in the Rotunda occurred on September 17, 1977, when 29 individuals were sworn in as U.S. citizens in front of the Constitution of the United States. 

Since then, hundreds of new citizens have taken the oath of allegiance in front of the original Constitution in the National Archives Rotunda on or near September 17. 

Most recently, after a two-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 25 new citizens from 21 countries participated in a naturalization ceremony in the National Archives Rotunda on September 14, 2022. The Honorable Beryl A. Howell, Chief Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, presided over the event.

Roger Bennett, England-born author, broadcaster, and co-star of podcast turned television show Men in Blazers gave the keynote address. Bennett—or “Rog” as he is often called, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2018, and in his emotional address remarked, “That document behind me, the Constitution—our Constitution—it begins with the iconic phrase, ‘We, the People.’ You are now part of that ‘we’.” 

This year the National Archives will again host a naturalization ceremony for Constitution Day and welcome in a new group of Americans to join “We, the People.” 

Learn more about the National Archives and the Constitution:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *