What is Constitution Day in the United States?

Exterior photo of Independence Hall in Philadelphia PA
Independence Hall, Philadelphia PA. Paul Marotta / Getty Images

Constitution Day – also called Citizenship Day is a U.S. federal government observance that honors the creation and adoption of the United States Constitution and all persons who have become U.S. citizens, through birth or naturalization. It is usually observed on September 17, the day in 1787 that the Constitution was signed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Independence Hall.

On September 17, 1787, forty-two of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention held their final meeting. After four long, hot months of debates and compromises, like The Great Compromise of 1787, only one item of business occupied the agenda that day, to sign the Constitution of the United States of America.

Since May 25, 1787, the 55 delegates had gathered almost daily in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation as ratified in 1781.

By the middle of June, it became apparent to the delegates that to merely amend the Articles of Confederation would not be sufficient. Instead, they would write an entirely new document designed to clearly define and separate the powers of the central government, the powers of the states, the rights of the people and how the representatives of the people should be elected.

After being signed in September of 1787, Congress sent printed copies of the Constitution to the state legislatures for ratification.

In the months that followed, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay would write the Federalist Papers in support, while Patrick Henry, Elbridge Gerry, and George Mason would organize the opposition to the new Constitution. By June 21, 1788, nine states had approved the Constitution, finally forming "a more perfect Union."

No matter how much we argue about the details of its meaning today, in the opinion of many, the Constitution signed in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, represents the greatest expression of statesmanship and compromise ever written. In just four hand-written pages, the Constitution gives us no less than the owners' manual to the greatest form of government the world has ever known.

History of Constitution Day

Public schools in Iowa are credited with first observing a Constitution Day in 1911. The Sons of the American Revolution organization liked the idea and promoted it through a committee that included such notable members as Calvin Coolidge, John D. Rockefeller, and World War I hero General John J. Pershing.

Congress recognized the day as “"Citizenship Day” until 2004, when an amendment by West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd to the Omnibus spending bill of 2004, renamed the holiday “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.” Sen. Byrd’s amendment also required all government funded schools and federal agencies, provide educational programming on the United States Constitution on the day.

In May 2005, the United States Department of Education announced the enactment of this law and made it clear that it would apply to any school, public or private, receiving federal funds of any kind.

Where Did ‘Citizenship Day’ Come From?

The alternate name for Constitution Day – “Citizenship Day” – comes from the old “I am an American Day.”

“I am an American Day” was inspired by Arthur Pine, the head of a publicity-public relations firm in New York City bearing his name. Reportedly, Pine got the idea for the day from a song titled “I am an American” featured in the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Pine arranged for the song to be performed on the NBC, Mutual, and ABC national TV and radio networks. The promotion so impressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, declared “I am an American Day” an official day of observance.

In 1940, Congress designated each third Sunday in May as “I am an American Day.” Observance of the day was widely promoted in 1944 – the last full year of World War II -- through a 16-minute Warner Brothers’ film short titled “I Am an American,” shown in theaters across America.

However, by 1949, all of the then 48 states had issued Constitution Day proclamations, and on February 29, 1952, Congress moved the “I am an American Day” observation to September 17 and renamed it “Citizenship Day.” 

Constitution Day Presidential Proclamation

Traditionally, the President of the United States issues an official proclamation in observance of Constitution Day, Citizenship Day, and Constitution Week. The most recent Constitution Day proclamation was issued by President Barack Obama on September 16, 2016.

In his 2016 Constitution Day Proclamation, President Obama stated, “As a Nation of immigrants, our legacy is rooted in their success. Their contributions help us live up to our founding principles. With pride in our diverse heritage and in our common creed, we affirm our dedication to the values enshrined in our Constitution. We, the people, must forever breathe life into the words of this precious document, and together ensure that its principles endure for generations to come.”