By law, schools that receive federal funding celebrate Constitution Day on September 17. While our Constitution deserves a day, September 17 may be a poor choice. For that date commemorates the signing of the 1787 constitution, a document profoundly stained by compromises to preserve slavery. Because of those 1787 compromises, our nation suffered human bondage and then bled in a terrible war. We need not celebrate the un-amended text of that defective constitution. We propose an alternative.
Frederick Douglas addressed an audience in 1852 about a different national date – July 4. When Douglass asked “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, he decried the gap between the Declaration of Independence’s soaring rhetoric and the reality of chattel slavery. Although the 1787 text distinguished between “free Persons” and those who counted as three fifths, and although it required that escaped slaves be “delivered up on claim” of slaveholders, Douglass urged Americans to aspire to the Declaration’s revolutionary promise of equality and inalienable rights. He urged us to reject any interpretation of the Constitution that was inconsistent with the nation’s overriding commitment to human freedom.
The flawed document of 1887 no longer rules us. We can now proudly celebrate the reconstructed Constitution. In 1987 the great Justice Thurgood Marshall critiqued bicentennial celebrations of the 1787 date, saying: “While the Union survived the civil war, the Constitution did not. In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality.” When we interpret – or celebrate — today’s praiseworthy Constitution, we should look not only to the nobler commitments of the original Founders, but also to Reconstruction’s promise of a nation that is uncompromisingly respectful of human dignity.
Following Douglass and Marshall, we thus propose a different day to honor our Constitution – February 3. On that date in 1870, our nation ratified the last of the Civil War Amendments. That date symbolizes our commitment to reconstruct the Founders’ immoral compromise and place under national protection the inalienable rights of all the nation’s people.
The Critical Narratives Projectby