A Tale of Two Holidays – Constitution and Citizenship Day
How September 17 became two national holidays celebrating America.
By: James Fite | September 17, 2022 | 535 Words
America celebrates its independence on the Fourth of July. While many think of this as the nation’s birthday, the true anniversary of the United States’ creation is September 17. On this day in 1787, 39 men signed the document that would become the US Constitution, officially establishing the nation and becoming forever known as the Founding Fathers.
Today, September 17 is celebrated as Constitution Day. It 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 been officially called Constitution Day since 2004, but the celebration itself goes back much farther. New York City news tycoon 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 political connections. In 1940, Congress named 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 proclaimed their support of the holiday.
Several years later, in 1952, a woman from Ohio named Olga T. Weber began petitioning to have the date changed to September 17 so that it would fall on the date when the Constitution was first signed. Her state agreed, and so did the United States Congress in 1953. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the law, making September 17 “Citizenship Day.” Weber’s hometown, Louisville, was the first place to celebrate the new holiday.
The event celebrated all American citizens born in the country, as well as those who are born overseas but move to the US and take the steps to become an official citizen. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency says that on this day, it “encourages Americans to reflect on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be a U.S. citizen.”
After many years of Citizenship Day, another idea came along to influence the holiday. After taking a course in constitutional history, Louise Leigh was inspired by what she had learned. She founded a nonprofit organization in 1997 called Constitution Day, Inc.
The organization worked for several years to make September 17 an official day recognizing the Constitution, as well as citizenship. Her work paid off in 2004 with the support of Senator Robert Byrd. Congress passed a bill that included the creation of “Constitution Day,” and the event was officially recognized as a national holiday alongside Citizenship Day.
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 of the land of the free.