By John Copeland

Americans celebrate July 4 as our nation’s birthday, but Sept. 17 is a “birthday” that most of us overlook. That date is Constitution Day, and the birthday of our government.

It was on Sept. 17, 1787, that the delegates of the Constitutional Convention signed the document they had created, the United States Constitution.

Constitution Day also celebrates the ideals that make us Americans. These are the ideals our nation was founded on — commitment to the rule of law and the concepts of liberty, equality and justice that are embodied in the Constitution.

Today, there seems to be some confusion between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Though connected in spirit, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are separate, distinct documents. 

The Declaration of Independence declared that the 13 colonies were independent states and that the United States of America was a free and independent nation. The Constitution, on the other hand, is the basis of our government and is the supreme law of our nation.

From the start of the Constitutional Convention, it became clear that the delegates were forming an entirely new form of government.

The Preamble makes this abundantly clear:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Take the words: “more perfect” in the Preamble. They refer to the delegates’ task of perfecting the framework of their government. At the time those words were written, for example, colonists could still legally own slaves and women could not vote.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, a trio of constitutional amendments abolished slavery and gave rights to former slaves. In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.

Amendments are the formal process by which lawmakers and government leaders debate and vote to modify the Constitution, and that remains a part of their mission to continue making our union more perfect. Two hundred and thirty-two years later, constitutional amendments remain a vital reminder that perfection is an ever-evolving goal, one that our nation must continuously strive for as the world changes, societies grow, and those living within them need to adapt.

James Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” because so many of his ideas made their way into the final document. Indeed, he was a driving force at the convention throughout the summer of 1787.

The delegates worked to develop a framework that would provide balance and freedom, taking into account federal and state interests, as well as individual human rights. The main body of the Constitution focuses entirely on how the government runs:

  • Article 1 outlines the duties of the legislature.
  • Article 2 outlines the duties of the executive branch.
  • Article 3 outlines the duties of the judiciary.
  • Article 4 describes the role of the states in relation to the nation as a whole.
  • Article 5 allows the Constitution to be amended.
  • Article 6 establishes supremacy of federal law over state law when those laws conflict.
  • Article 7 explains how many state ratifications are needed for the proposed Constitution to take place in the United States and how a state could go about ratifying the Constitution.

But, after signing the Constitution, many delegates still felt something was missing. The first seven articles focused on the government and not “the people.” To address this, they crafted the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which we commonly call The Bill of Rights. These addressed the concern that a strong national government might not respect citizens’ rights. In the two centuries since, this has been an ongoing process. We have given citizens the freedom of speech, press and religion; we have abolished slavery and granted women the right to vote.

The Constitution is often referred to as “a living document.” However, there are many in both government and the judicial branches that feel the Constitution should be interpreted narrowly in terms of the founding fathers’ intentions. However, in reality, our Constitution haschanged over time, taking on new life in new eras that is the stated goal of thePreamble: “making our union more perfect.”

The Constitution did not go into effect the moment the delegates signed it. It needed to be approved by the people. Article 7 simply states: “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.” 

Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution on Dec. 7, 1787. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. March 4, 1789, was the date a new government began operating under the Constitution and changed world history.

In 1787, no country in the world had ever allowed its citizens to select their own form of government, much less to select a democratic government. What was revolutionary when it was written, and continues to inspire the world today, is that the Constitution put governance in the hands of the people.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are, in many ways, fused together in the minds of Americans, because they represent what is best about America. They are symbols of the liberty that allows us to achieve success and of the equality that ensures that we are all equal in the eyes of the law.

The Declaration of Independence made certain promises about which liberties were fundamental and inherent, but those liberties didn’t become legally enforceable until they were enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Our Constitution is unique. It’s worth celebrating such a momentous transformation of government and the inspirational leaders who dedicated their lives to ensuring our future as the United States.