Officially known as Constitution and Citizenship Day according to Title 36 of the U.S. Code § 106, this federal observance in the United States commemorates the formation and signing on September 17, 1787, of the Constitution and recognizes “all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens”. The law establishing the present holiday was created with the passage of an amendment to the Omnibus spending bill of 2004. Before this law was enacted, the holiday was known as “Citizenship Day”. In addition to renaming the holiday “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” the act mandates that all publicly funded educational institutions, and all federal agencies, provide educational programming on the history of the American Constitution on that day.
The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. The Constitution’s first three words — We the People — affirm that the government of the United States exists to serve its citizens. For over two centuries the Constitution has remained in force because its framers wisely separated and balanced governmental powers to safeguard the interests of majority rule and minority rights, of liberty and equality, and of the federal and state governments. The first constitution of its kind, adopted by the people’s representatives for an expansive nation, it is interpreted, supplemented, and implemented by a large body of constitutional law, and has influenced the constitutions of other nations.
The Constitution, originally comprising seven articles, delineates the national frame of government. Its first three articles entrench the doctrine of the separation of powers, whereby the federal government is divided into three branches: the legislative, consisting of the bicameral Congress; the executive, consisting of the President; and the judicial, consisting of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Articles Four, Five and Six entrench concepts of federalism, describing the rights and responsibilities of state governments and of the states in relationship to the federal government. Article Seven establishes the procedure subsequently used by the thirteen States to ratify it.
Since the Constitution came into force in 1789, it has been amended twenty-seven times to meet the changing needs of a nation now profoundly different from the eighteenth-century world in which its creators lived. In general, the first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, offer specific protections of individual liberty and justice and place restrictions on the powers of government. The majority of the seventeen later amendments expand individual civil rights protections. Others address issues related to federal authority or modify government processes and procedures. Amendments to the United States Constitution, unlike ones made to many constitutions world-wide, are appended to the end of the document. All five pages of the original U.S. Constitution are written on parchment.
From September 5, 1774 to March 1, 1781, the Continental Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States. Delegates to the First (1774) and then the Second (1775–1781) Continental Congress were chosen largely through the action of committees of correspondence in various colonies rather than through the colonial or later state legislatures. In no formal sense was it a gathering representative of existing colonial governments; it represented the dissatisfied elements of the people, such persons as were sufficiently interested to act, despite the strenuous opposition of the loyalists and the obstruction or disfavor of colonial governors. The process of selecting the delegates for the First and Second Continental Congresses underscores the revolutionary role of the people of the colonies in establishing a central governing body. Endowed by the people collectively, the Continental Congress alone possessed those attributes of external sovereignty which entitled it to be called a state in the international sense, while the separate states, exercising a limited or internal sovereignty, may rightly be considered a creation of the Continental Congress, which preceded them and brought them into being.
Before the Constitution was drafted, the nearly 4 million inhabitants of the 13 newly independent states were governed under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, drafted by the Second Continental Congress from mid-1776 through late-1777. Ratification by all 13 states was completed by early 1781. It soon became evident to nearly all that the chronically underfunded Confederation government, as originally organized, was inadequate for managing the various conflicts that arose among the states. As the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of the states, any state had effective veto power over any proposed change. In addition, the Articles gave the weak federal government no taxing power: it was wholly dependent on the states for its money, and had no power to force delinquent states to pay.
Once the immediate task of winning the American Revolutionary War had passed, the states began to look to their own interests, and disputes arose. These included a dispute between Maryland and Virginia over the Potomac River and opposition to Rhode Island’s imposing taxes on all traffic passing through it on the post road that linked all the states. James Madison suggested that state governments should appoint commissioners “to take into consideration the trade of the United States; to examine the relative situation and trade of said states; to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interests and permanent harmony”.
In September 1786, at the Annapolis Convention, delegates from five states called for a Constitutional Convention in order to discuss possible improvements to the Articles of Confederation. The Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787. Rhode Island, fearing that the Convention would work to its disadvantage, boycotted the Convention and, when the Constitution was put to the states, initially refused to ratify it.
Due to the difficulty of travel in the late eigtheenth century, very few of the selected delegates were present on the designated day of May 14, 1787, and it was not until May 25 that a quorum of seven states was secured. New Hampshire delegates would not join the Convention until more than halfway through the proceedings, on July 23. James Madison arrived first, and soon most of the Virginia delegation arrived. While waiting for the other delegates, James Madison sketched out his initial draft, which became known as the Virginia Plan and reflected his views as a strong nationalist. By the time the rest of the Virginia delegation arrived, most of the Pennsylvania delegation had arrived as well. They agreed on Madison’s plan, and formed what came to be the predominant coalition. By the time the Convention started, the only blueprints that had been assembled were Madison’s Virginia Plan, and Charles Pinckney’s plan. As Pinckney didn’t have a coalition behind his plan, Madison’s plan was the starting point for deliberations. On May 25, the delegations convened in the Pennsylvania State House.
George Washington was unanimously elected president of the Convention, and it was agreed that the discussions and votes would be kept secret until the conclusion of the meeting. Throughout the debate, delegates constantly referred to precedents from history in support of their position. Most commonly, they referred to the history of England, in particular the Glorious Revolution (often simply called “The Revolution”), classical history (mainly the Roman Republic and the leagues of Greek city-states), and recent precedents from Holland and Germany.
On Thursday, June 7, it was proposed that senators should be chosen directly by the state legislatures, instead of by popular vote, as this method was more likely to preserve the power of the upper classes. Convention delegate Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts observed that “the great mercantile interest and of stockholders, is not provided for in any mode of election-they will however be better represented if the State legislatures choose the second branch.” The proposal was carried unanimously.
The delegates also agreed with Madison that the executive function had to be independent of the legislature. In their aversion to kingly power, American legislatures had created state governments where the executive was beholden to the legislature, and by the late 1780s this was widely seen as being a source of paralysis. In the English tradition, judges were seen as being agents of the King and his court, who represented him throughout his realm. Madison believed that in the American states, this direct link between state executives and judges was a source of corruption through patronage, and thought the link had to be severed between the two, thus creating the “third branch” of the judiciary which had been without any direct precedent before this point. Madison, however, did not believe that the judiciary should be truly independent, but rather beholden to the legislature rather than the executive. At the Convention, some sided with Madison that the legislature should choose judges, while others believed the president should choose judges. A compromise was eventually reached that the president should choose judges and the Senate confirm them.
The Convention adjourned from July 26 to August 6 to await the report of the Committee of Detail, which was to produce a first draft of the Constitution. It was chaired by John Rutledge, with the other members including Edmund Randolph, Oliver Ellsworth, James Wilson, and Nathaniel Gorham. Rutledge, himself a former state governor, was determined that while the new national government should be stronger than the Confederation government had been, the national government’s power over the states should not be limitless; and at Rutledge’s urging, the committee went beyond what the Convention had proposed. Much of what was included in the committee’s report consisted of numerous details that the Convention had never discussed but which the committee correctly viewed as uncontroversial and unlikely to be challenged; and as such, much of the committee’s proposal would ultimately be incorporated into the final version of the Constitution without debate. Examples of these details included the Speech and Debate Clause, which grants members of Congress immunity for comments made in their jobs, and the rules for organizing the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The final report of the committee, which became the first draft of the Constitution, was the first workable constitutional plan, as Madison’s Virginia Plan had simply been an outline of goals and a broad structure. Even after it issued this report, the committee continued to meet off and on until early September. Once the Convention had finished amending the first draft from the Committee of Detail, a new set of unresolved questions were sent to several different committees for resolution. The Committee of Detail was considering several questions related to habeas corpus, freedom of the press, and an executive council to advise the president. Two committees addressed questions related to the slave trade and the assumption of war debts.
A new committee was created, the Committee on Postponed Parts, to address other questions that had been postponed. Its members, such as Madison, were delegates who had shown a greater desire for compromise and were chosen for this reason as most in the Convention wanted to finish their work and go home. The committee dealt with questions related to the taxes, war making, patents and copyrights, relations with Indian tribes, and Franklin’s compromise to require money bills to originate in the House. The biggest issue they addressed was the presidency, and the final compromise was written by Madison with the committee’s input. They adopted Wilson’s earlier plan for choosing the president by an electoral college, and settled on the method of choosing the president if no candidate had an electoral college majority, which many such as Madison thought would be “nineteen times out of twenty”.
The committee also shortened the president’s term from seven years to four years, freed the president to seek re-election after an initial term, and moved impeachment trials from the courts to the Senate. They also created the office of the vice president, whose only roles were to succeed a president unable to complete a term of office and to preside over the Senate. The committee transferred important powers from the Senate to the president, for example the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors. One controversial issue throughout much of the Convention had been the length of the president’s term, and whether the president was to be term limited. The problem had resulted from the understanding that the president would be chosen by Congress; the decision to have the president be chosen instead by an electoral college reduced the chance of the president becoming beholden to Congress, so a shorter term with eligibility for re-election became a viable option.
Once the final modifications had been made, the Committee of Style and Arrangement was appointed “to revise the style of and arrange the articles which had been agreed to by the house.” Unlike other committees, whose members were named so the committees included members from different regions, this final committee included no champions of the small states. Its members were mostly in favor of a strong national government and unsympathetic to calls for states’ rights. On Wednesday, September 12, the report of the “committee of style” was ordered printed for the convenience of the delegates. For three days, the Convention compared this final version with the proceedings of the Convention. The Constitution was then ordered engrossed on Saturday, September 15 by Jacob Shallus, and was submitted for signing on September 17. It made at least one important change to what the Convention had agreed to; King wanted to prevent states from interfering in contracts. Although the Convention never took up the matter his language was now inserted, creating the contract clause.
Gouverneur Morris is credited, both now and then, as the chief draftsman of the final document, including the stirring preamble. Not all the delegates were pleased with the results; thirteen left before the ceremony, and three of those remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph of Virginia, George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. George Mason demanded a Bill of Rights if he was to support the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was not included in the Constitution submitted to the states for ratification, but many states ratified the Constitution with the understanding that a bill of rights would soon follow. Shortly before the document was to be signed, Gorham proposed to lower the size of congressional districts from 40,000 to 30,000 citizens. A similar measure had been proposed earlier, and failed by one vote. George Washington spoke up here, making his only substantive contribution to the text of the Constitution in supporting this move. The Convention adopted it without further debate. Gorham would sign the document, although he had openly doubted whether the United States would remain a single, unified nation for more than 150 years. Ultimately, 39 of the original 55 delegates ended up signing, but it is likely that none were completely satisfied.
Rhode Island never sent delegates, and two of New York’s three delegates did not stay at the Convention for long. Therefore, as George Washington stated, the document was executed by “eleven states, and Colonel Hamilton.” Washington signed the document first, and then moving by state delegation from north to south, as had been the custom throughout the Convention, the delegates filed to the front of the room to sign their names. The Constitution was then submitted to the states for ratification, pursuant to its own Article VII.
A Joint Resolution passed on August 23, 1935, initiated plans for an observation of the upcoming 150th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. By March 1936, recalling the profits garnered by the set of 12 stamps issued in 1932 to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, a proposal was submitted to mark the Constitution Sesquicentennial in an even grander manner. A suggested list of stamp designs included 25 stamps and six stamped envelopes, portraying such locations as Independence Hall, the Statue of Liberty, the Supreme Court Building, and the U.S. Capitol; important people such as George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Gouverneur Morris; plus the state seals “or other designs suitable for celebration by each State of its ratification of the Constitution or its admission into the Union.”
By April 23, 1937, this plan had been significantly reduced with the Washington Star reporting that not more than three stamps would be released. In May, it was reported that the Post Office Department had not yet committed itself to any action in regard to a postal commemoration of the Constitution, despite the fact that several South American nations had decided to release their own stamps marking this anniversary.
On July 9, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing submitted two designs to the Post Office Department. On July 20, Farley accepted one prepared by A. R. Meissner from a photograph of Junius Brutus Stearns’ painting of the Signing of the Constitution.. The photograph was supplied by Congressman Bloom of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission. It was reported in the philatelic press at the time that this painting was selected on the assumption that the original was hanging in one of the public art galleries. It was later discovered that the painting was privately owned and its use could not be appropriated without the consent of the owner, Clarence Dillon, a New York banker. Dillon gave his consent without hesitation, provided that he be given no publicity in connection to the stamp. The painting, however, was too well known and it wasn’t long before Dillon’s ownership of it became known. An engraving of the photograph was made by J. Eissler. W.B. Wells engraved the lettering and Carl T. Arlt did the frame.
On July 20, Postmaster General James A. Farley finally announced that a single three-cent stamp (Scott #798) would be issued on September 17. The Post Office Department on July 22 instructed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to print 82,600,000 of the Constitution Sesquicentennial stamp. An official notice on August 23, 1937, announced that the stamp would be first offered for sale in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. and that it would be printed in purple by the rotary process, issued in sheets of 50.
“Included in the central design is a reproduction of the painting by Stearns depicting the signing of the Constitution. In a narrow panel with dark ground at the top of the stamp is the wording: ‘Constitution Sesquicentennial’ in white roman letters, below which is a white ribbon panel with folded ends containing the inscription: ‘Signing of the Constitution — In the Philadelphia Convention, September 17, 1787 — Independence Hall,” arranged in three lines in dark gothic. Opposite this panel are the dates ‘1787’ at the left, and ‘1937’ at the right, in dark figures. In an upright panel at the left edge of the stamp is a representation of the roman fasces, symbol of power, and in a corresponding panel at the right is a reproduction of the flaming torch, emblem of enlightenment. In shield-shaped panels in each lower corner of the stamp is the denomination designation ‘3c’ in white on a dark ground. In a narrow panel along the bottom of the stamp is the wording: ‘United States Postage’ in white roman, on either side of which are straight line ornaments. Resting on the bottom panel at the center is a decorative scroll.”
Printing was started on September 8, with places 21705 and 21706 being put to press. The stamps were printed on the rotary press from 200 subject plates, divided into panes of 50 by horizontal and vertical gutters 5/16 of an inch wide. For delivery to post offices, the perforated sheets were cut through the center of these gutters into panes of 50. An official ceremony was held for the formal initial printing with plates 21707 and 21708 going to press for the first time. The following day, the Bureau made the first delivery to the Post Office Department, and on September 17 stamps were placed on sale in Philadelphia. The first day sale was under the direction of Roy M. North, Acting Third Assistant Postmaster General, and Robert E. Fellers, Superintendent of the Division of Stamps. Sales on the first day amounted to 880,100 stamps; cancelled covers were reported as numbering 281,478.
The Post Office Department and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing spent considerable effort in obtaining examples of brightly-colored purple stamps, both from the U.S. and overseas. A variety of shades were submitted to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who selected a rich red violet. This shade was entirely different from any used on previous United States issues and the stamp, because of its brilliant color and marvelous engraved detail, was acclaimed by philatelic writers at the time as one of the most attractive stamps ever issued. Because of the effort made to obtain the special ink, great care was taken to prevent much variation in the shade. The initial order was found insufficient and the Bureau was ordered to print an additional 25,000,000.
Junius Brutus Stearns was born Lucius Sawyer Stearns, in Arlington, (The New York Times says it was Burlington) Vermont. in 1810. Stearns died in Brooklyn, New York, in 1885 at the age of 75. The New York Times, September 19, 1885, reported that he died as result of a head-on carriage accident. “Mr. Stearns was thrown violently upon the pavement, and his skull was fractured.” He was a pupil at, and a member of the Council of the National Academy of Design in New York and a member of the Academy for several decades, including being the recording secretary from 1851 to 1865.
Stearns is best known for his five part “Washington Series,” 1847-1856, in which he chronicles George Washington‘s life as farmer at his plantation; citizen at his wedding; soldier at Monongahela; Christian on his deathbed, and statesman at the Founding. “The Statesmanship of Washington,” is a three feet by four and a half feet oil on canvas, the fifth and final painting in the series that includes “Washington and the Indians” (1847), “The Marriage of Washington” (1849) and “Farmer at Mount Vernon” (1851).