September 17th marks Constitution Day and commemorates the day in 1787 when the Founding Fathers penned their names to the U.S. Constitution. When the Founders placed their names at the bottom of the document, there was little reason to believe that this document would yield a government that would survive over two centuries and serve as a model for other nations. After all, the first form of government attempted by the founders of the fledgling democracy known as the United States, created by the Articles of Confederation, had been a failure and resulted in rebellion in various parts of the country.
The men who arrived at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to write the U.S. Constitution were an impressive group. They were among the country's brightest scholars and politicians. As a group, the delegates were well educated, well traveled, and politically astute. Despite these similarities, they were also a diverse group ranging in age from 26 (Jonathan Dayton) to 81 (Benjamin Franklin), and included lawyers, a farmer (Jacob Broom), a county surveyor (Roger Sherman), a doctor (James McHenry), and a former minister (Abraham Baldwin).
George Washington presided over the meetings (after being somewhat coerced by James Madison), while James Madison wrote most of the drafts of the document and kept the most detailed notes of proceedings.
While not invited to participate in the actual writing of the Constitution, it should be noted that women also played an important role in the early days of the United States. Many women were active in boycotting British products and protesting against taxation from the King prior to the Revolutionary War. Mercy Otis Warren, a playwright, is thought to be among the first to encourage Massachusetts to separate from England. During the War, some women distributed pamphlets to encourage independence, while others served in the Army as cooks, nurses, and at times even as soldiers. One woman, Margaret "Molly" Corbin, wounded in action in 1776, is the only Revolutionary War figure to be buried at the West Point Military Academy.
To learn more about the Founders visit the National Archives.
Today, the importance of the U.S. Constitution in the everyday lives of U.S. citizens cannot be underestimated. Constitutional scholar Floyd G. Cullop, when asked why we should study the Constitution, noted:
"The answer is simple enough … because this Constitution is the most important thing in the lives of every person living in the United States. Your way of life is built around it, your government is based upon it, and your rights and privileges as United States citizens are protected by it. To be ignorant of the Constitution, is to be ignorant of all the things your country is … and of the truths its people have believed to be above all others in the relationships between human beings and government." (The Constitution of the United States: An Introduction, 1969, p. v)
Despite the importance of the Constitution, a great many Americans know surprisingly little about the document that touches so many aspects of their lives. A 1998 survey of teenagers released by the National Constitution Center showed that more teenagers (75.2%) knew the Zip Code for Beverly Hills than knew how many U.S. Senators there are (21.2%).
All education institutions which receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education are required to provide an educational program pertaining to the U.S. Constitution on September 17th of each year (Constitution Day).
This requirement was inserted into the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) and is designed to commemorate the signing of the Constitution which took place on September 17th, 1787. Learn more about this from the U.S. Department of Education.