America celebrates independence on the Fourth of July. But while many consider this the nation’s birthday, the true anniversary of the creation of the United States is September 17.
The original government – the Articles of Confederation – had failed, so the delegates of the colonies met again, and again tried to hammer out a new government that would be strong enough to protect the people but that would also never become merely a replacement for the crown they fought so hard to escape.
On this day in 1787, 39 men signed the document that would soon become the Constitution of the United States, thus officially establishing the nation and becoming forever after known as the Founding Fathers.
Today, September 17 is celebrated as Constitution Day. It’s a day that honors the nation’s birthday, the signing of the Constitution, and the citizenship of the people – whether native-born or naturalized immigrants.
A Young Holiday, An Old Celebration
September 17 has only been officially called Constitution Day since 2004, but the celebration itself goes back much farther. A New York City News tycoon named William Randolph Hearst suggested in 1939 that we have a holiday to celebrate American citizenship. Hearst reached a lot of people with his newspapers, but he also had significant political connections. In 1940, Congress designated the third Sunday in May “I am an American Day.” Hearst went on to sponsor a short film titled I am an American, which was featured in theaters across the nation. Within five years, the governors of every state in the Union had issued proclamations in support of the holiday.
Several years later, in 1952, a woman from Ohio, Olga T. Weber, began petitioning to have the date changed to September 17 so that it would fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Her municipality and eventually her state agreed, and so did the United States Congress in 1953. The original resolution that established the holiday was overturned, and a new law took its place. Dwight D. Eisenhower, our 34th president, signed it, making September 17 “Citizenship Day.” Olga’s hometown, Louisville, OH, was the first municipality to celebrate the new holiday.
After many years of Citizenship Day, another came along to influence the holiday. After taking a course in Constitutional History, Louise Leigh was inspired with a newfound love of the Constitution. She founded a nonprofit organization in 1997 called Constitution Day, Inc, and she worked for several years to make recognition of the Constitution official along with the September 17 celebration of citizenship. Her work paid off in 2004 with the support of Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia. Congress passed a spending bill that included the “Constitution Day” amendment, and Constitution Day was officially recognized as a national holiday alongside Citizenship Day.
A Young but Bright Star
Today, September 17 is much better known as Constitution Day than Citizenship Day, but the dual holiday still celebrates the same things: the founding of the United States by signing the Constitution and the honor of being a citizen – whether natural-born or naturalized immigrant – of the land of the free.